Up in the air, secure in the cockpit and beyond gravity’s pull, Fred Gibbs has always felt transported, untethered from whatever terrestrial worries that may arise down below. Flying is freedom, the firmament his refuge.
“I have no worries flying,” Gibbs says in an affable but stern rasp. “All the crap that’s going on in the world just goes away. It’s just me and the man upstairs.”
At 77, now in semi-retirement from two careers, first in management with the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., and then as a consultant, Gibbs is hardly grounded. He can be found, most days, instructing budding pilots behind the controls of single-engine aircraft for Wiseman Aviation out of Flagstaff’s Pulliam Airport, or flying his own beloved classic beauty, a fully restored 1973 Ballanca Super Viking.
That’s when he’s not traveling the state teaching FAA Pilot Safety seminars or, in the words of fellow flight instructor Greg Brown, serving as the “preeminent expert on Arizona aviation accident analyses for purposes of teaching safe piloting operations.”
Last week, Gibbs received the highest honor, Master Flight Instructor designation, from the National Association of Flight Instructors. Next year, he will be awarded the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award, given for “practicing safe flight operations” for 50 years. He already has a recognition plaque hanging in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum in D.C.
Much as an aging actor finds himself racking up lifetime achievement awards, Gibbs, whose awards and memorabilia fill every available space of his well-appointed den, feels gratified by the recognition from peers. Make no mistake, though: The guy is not about to hang up his wings. He’s still up there at least five days a week, teaching others or just going on his own flights of fancy.
There’s nothing on solid ground that holds as much allure for Gibbs. His wife, Kelly, puts it best: “It’s where he’s happiest. We’ll get up some mornings and he’ll be grumbling and seem like he’d rather stay in bed, and he grumbles out the door. But when he gets to the airport, that all changes. He’s a happy guy.”
Over the years, even when he was working full time in the FAA’s air traffic control flight-service section, even when he ascended to management and oversaw operations for air-traffic operations in six states, Gibbs found time to fly. He’s logged 17,500 hours in the air — which equates to more than 729 continuous days aloft — all but about 4,000 hours of which involved instructing others.
Such is Gibbs’ laid-back, self-deprecating style that he just shrugs when others marvel at his accomplishments. But his nonchalance should not be taken as a lack of pride. Not just anyone can be a pilot, Gibbs says. It takes a specific type of person, both ultra-prepared and vigilant and self-possessed enough to deal with the unexpected.
“Aviation is not for everybody,” he said. “When you see that runway rushing up at you at 100 mph, you know, people react differently. Let’s just say it takes a very special breed of person.”
And Gibbs is one such specimen. Since early childhood, in the Lehigh Valley of Pennsylvania, he’s been fascinated by all things airplane-related. He was one of those kids constantly building model airplanes and, when he couldn’t find plans for a design he wanted, he drew them himself. His great-grandfather owned a farm with an airstrip outside of Easton used by many pilots, and young Gibbs in the 1950s hung out there, cleaning hangars in exchange for getting rides in single-engine beauties.
Patches of turbulence
But Gibbs’ own flight path toward becoming a pilot took several unexpected dips and turns. Yet, he would not be deterred. He joined the U.S. Air Force right after high school graduation in 1961, but rather than going to flight school, he was assigned to guard an underground nuclear silo in Roswell, New Mexico.
“I ended up 200 feet underground,” he recalled, laughing, “about as far away from flying as you could get.”
After his discharge, Gibbs pooled his money and rode his motorcycle to Southern California to go to flight training school. But he had to drop out in his second year, after a motorcycle accident. After paying medical bills, he had no money left to pay tuition. He slunk back home to Easton, but a chance meeting with a high school friend, who happened to be an air-traffic controller, changed his trajectory.
Gibbs followed in his friend’s footsteps, passed the FAA test with a perfect score and went to air-traffic control school in Oklahoma City. Eventually, he was assigned to the flight service station in Williamsport, near the manufacturing giant Piper Aircraft. That’s where Gibbs learned to fly, in his off hours, from the instructors there.
After that, his FAA career took off. Even when he rose in management, which meant fighting the D.C. Beltway traffic into work each day, Gibbs still found time to fly. Upon FAA retirement, he started instructing in earnest, while also serving as an aviation consultant. And upon consultancy retirement, he and Kelly chose to relocate in Flagstaff in a house just north of the airport.
Eye on the sky
Naturally, Gibbs became a fixture at Pulliam and Wiseman Aviation. And his expertise was seized upon by the Arizona Pilots Association, which made him a board member and tapped him as its safety and education director. In that latter role, Gibbs investigates all airplane accidents in the state to determine cause. Then he gives seminars to pilots to teach them to how void, if possible, such a fate.
“We’re not always sure what went wrong, because the pilot died and you can’t ask him, but we do an analysis, hold a safety program and talk about it and try to educate the pilots,” Gibbs said. “We get radar plots from air traffic control, why was he doing these crazy turns?”
At most, Arizona has 15 fatal aircraft accidents a year. Mostly, it’s three or four, he said. Sometimes, it’s pilot error, but not always.
“We had an accident in southern Arizona where the plane just came out of the sky for no apparent reason,” he said. “We had the radar plot, watched him do a bunch of crazy turns. What was this guy doing, aerobatics? Why was his flight path so erratic? It turned out, he’d taken a bird strike through the windshield. At 120 mph, that air blast coming in and you getting hit, your chances of survival are pretty nil. They found the bird feathers and blood and all that stuff. It originally looked like a dumb pilot.”
In all his years of flying, Gibbs himself has had only one or two close calls. Once, cleared for landing, a plane rushed up right above Gibbs’ single-engine, and he had to veer off at the last second.
“It’s been almost totally uneventful — and I don’t attribute that to good luck,” he said. “It’s preparation."
At 77, how many more years can Gibbs stay aloft?
“As long as I can look in the mirror and say, ‘Yeah, I’d still fly with that guy,’” he said. “Because there comes a time when you have to hang it up and you have to recognize it.”
Kelly likes to joke that she doesn’t fly much with Fred anymore.
“As I’ve gotten older,” she said, “I’ve gotten a little more hesitant about being in the air with a 77-year-old man who could drop dead at any moment.”
“Doesn’t she just exude confidence?” Fred asked, sarcastically.
“He is a healthy guy, but we don’t know when we’re going, and I don’t want to be next to him in the cockpit when he does," she said.
“I figure,” Fred interjected, “that when I go, she should go with me.”
“I actually think someone could talk me down, I know enough about the controls and procedures. But it wouldn’t be pretty, and it’s probably not true.”
Fred shrugged. “What would I care at that point?”