Aviation Pioneer Harry Combs Dies

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Harry Combs, who was honored earlier this month in North Carolina as one of aviation's top 100 pioneers, died Tuesday in Phoenix, Ariz. Combs, 90, was a former president of Gates Learjet and founder of AMR Combs, a national chain of corporate aircraft service centers. "He was a very dynamic individual -- a perfectionist, really, in everything he did," Jim Greenwood, a former Wichita, Kan., aviation public relations executive and a friend of Combs, told the Associated Press. When the president of Gates Learjet was killed in a car accident in 1971, Combs stepped in to rebuild the failing company, leading one of the most dramatic corporate turnarounds in U.S. history. When Combs assumed command, the company was $13 million in the hole. Within a year, he had pulled Gates LearJet from the brink of bankruptcy and its net worth had risen to $3.7 million. When he stepped down as president in 1982, the company was worth $200 million. Combs was also the author of a history of the Wright brothers and several books about the American West. In 1929, at the age of 16, he built and flight-tested a sport biplane named "Vamp Bat." At age 25, after graduating from Yale and flying two years for Pan Am, he and a partner formed Mountain States Aviation in Colorado, an FBO and flight school that later became Combs Aircraft. In 1939, he designed, built and tested the Combscraft, a low-wing, retractable-gear monoplane. During World War II, Combs joined the Army Air Forces and flew C-54 transports across the North Atlantic, Africa and India, while at home, Mountain States Aviation trained 9,000 military pilots. In 1996, Combs was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame. He had recently sponsored a reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer, built by The Wright Experience, which he donated to the National Park Service in honor of this year's Centennial of Flight. Combs wrote this poem in admiration of a flock of Arctic terns: "Like free spirits / From the polar snows / They soar on shining wings / And climb to dizzy heights above / And lose the little sordid earthly things / Up where there is wind, and space, / And stars, and time to love."