Cliff Robertson: Actor/Pilot

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Some sad news over the weekend: Actor Cliff Roberston died. He was a day past his 88th birthday—not a bad run. That's of interest to pilots because Robertson was one of us, having owned a stable of airplanes, not the least of which were a couple of Tiger Moths and a Spitfire. Less known was that Robertson was quite involved with EAA, going back to the Hales Corners days, and he was a regular attendee at AirVenture. I met him a couple of times and gave him a ride to the museum once in our AVweb golf cart. He was an AVweb reader and was exceptionally well-informed about everything in the industry. I always remembered he greeted us the same way: "Hey, buddy, how ya' doin." That he should pass away this weekend carried a couple of co-incidences. The History Channel happened to be showing PT 109 the iconic film of John F. Kennedy's experiences in the South Pacific during World War II in which Robertson played the lead role. I've seen the film a half dozen times but always watch it again when it comes up because of the way Robertson underplayed the role with that you-can't-rattle-me grin of his. What I didn't know is that Kennedy hand-picked Robertson to play the role. The film was released the year of Kennedy's death, in 1963. Another co-incidence I just learned from reading Robertson's web site is that he was flying his Baron 58 over New York when the first airplane flew into the North Tower during the 9/11 attacks. He had a rare view of tragic history in the making and died almost 10 years to the day after it happened. Like many actors of his day, Robertson got himself involved in films about things he was interested in: Ford: The Man and the Machine, he narrated Saint-Exupery's Little Prince and appeared in Midway, Too Late the Hero and 633 Squadron. Seventy-two films in all. I'll be making a point to find and watch some of these as a tip of the hat to Robertson's memory.

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Comments (15)

Cliff Robertson was superb in his portrayal of Henry Ford.

Posted by: Michael Mccoy | September 11, 2011 3:53 PM    Report this comment

I was one of the few that was invited to the unvailing of "SPACE SHIP ONE" and Cliff was a great narrator for the event in the small Burt Rutan hangar.

Posted by: SKIP KOSS | September 12, 2011 7:04 AM    Report this comment

Check out one of his lesser known films, The Pilot from 1980. I'm proud to fly the Pitts S-2A that was used in the movie.

Posted by: Larry Rutt | September 12, 2011 8:11 AM    Report this comment

We should also remember that another of Cliff's truly great contributions to aviation was being the first chairman of EAA's Young Eagles program. His work in that capacity built a foundation for an all volunteer effort that has given wings to over 1,600,000 children. Even if he hadn't been an Academy Award winner, the Young Eagles would have been a fine accomplishment for a life's work.
We lost Mort Brown this weekend, too. Mort was the chief production test pilot for Cessna from 1937 until he retired in 1972. He passed in his sleep Saturday night. He was 103. When he turned 100 I offered him a ride in my trike, but we were never able to do it, but it was only schedule that kept it from happening. Even on the day he passed he still did 25 push ups and sit ups to start his day.
I hope he and Cliff are out there having new flying adventures together with all the fellows that went before them. Our world is a little less for their loss, but it is better for them having been here.

Posted by: RICHARD GIRARD | September 12, 2011 8:20 AM    Report this comment

He narrated the NOVA program "Daredevils of the Sky" on aerobatics. You could just hear his love for flight in his voice.

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 12, 2011 8:42 AM    Report this comment

I had the pleasure of having dinner with him a few years back. What a kind and wonderful man. God speed Cliff.

Posted by: Sally Crossfield Farley | September 12, 2011 11:35 AM    Report this comment

I remember a film where he was flying a Navion and ended up having to ditch it next to a Carrier -- 'so sad to see any plane die - he and his character lived (why they didn't try to land on the carrier was not discussed.

Posted by: Charlie White | September 12, 2011 6:40 PM    Report this comment

Charley, that was Rod Taylor...

Posted by: Mark Fraser | September 12, 2011 9:00 PM    Report this comment

I had the opportunity to meet him in the summer of 1973 when I was working as a lineman at Beechcraft East, the FBO at Republic Airport on Long Island. He just had some work done on his Beech Baron (N527R?) and after I fueled it, he and Dina Merrell came out to the plane. As a young college kid I couldn't believe who I was seeing - PT-109, 633 Squadron. He's the real deal! While preflighting, he asked ME if I though the nose wheel need some air. ME, a 17 year old kid, with only two months on the job! I'm sure it was his polite way of telling me, "Go get the air tank, kid". After I got the tank, I helped him put some air in the tire and in a short while he was on his way. A real gentleman who was down to earth and could make anyone feel at ease. A week or two later he and Dina Merrill were in the news as one of her sons was missing from a boating accident off the Hamptons. Cliff Robertson rented a C-150 from Westhampton Airport to help in the search efforts. Such a tragedy for any parent to go through. I believe he may have also owned a two seat, Messerschmitt 108. The aviation world will miss him.

Posted by: JOHN STOLL | September 12, 2011 9:45 PM    Report this comment

Possibly the most exciting aviation related experience I have ever had was being at CYQG in the mid 80s when Ciffs Spitfire did a low level 300 kt low, as in very low pass over the strip and rolling away, incredible. My friend Jim Partin from OKC was there and it was huge thrill for him also!! We then had the opportunity to meet the WW2 Vet pilot and have a good look at the Spit inside and out. Cliff no doubt actually got to fly that beautiful beast! It will stick in my mind until the day I go too. God Speed Cliff and thanks for preserving and having that Spit flying

Dave Hatherton

Posted by: David Lee Hatherton | September 12, 2011 10:09 PM    Report this comment

Recommended by Aviation Consumer
Just remembered the pilots name, Jerry Billings, he has a greet web site with reference to Clff R.

Posted by: David Lee Hatherton | September 12, 2011 10:29 PM    Report this comment

I had the honor and extreme pleasure of meeting Mr. Robertson a few times, through a mutual friend, at AirVenture. My impression of him was that when he was at AirVenture...he was just a fellow pilot; a real gentleman who enjoyed telling as well as listening to a good story, and having a good laugh. Back in the early 1970's, he and my dad attended the same instrument training school. They studied their ground school stuff together at times and my Dad really enjoyed his company. He had a reputation around Long Island (and everywhere else) as a kind and generous soul. To the general public, he is an icon; an acting legend, also known for his courage and generosity, who will be sorely missed. As fellow aviators, we were priveledged to see, close up, another side of him; one who was passionate and generous about sharing his love of flight with others.

Posted by: Steve Tobias | September 14, 2011 3:15 PM    Report this comment

John, I remember the ME108, it was a side by side 2 seater painted in camoflage. I also remember that it was spending time in Maine for some reason, perhaps renting out to a film shoot?, and the paint was badly vandelised. I had assumed that someone resented the Luftwaffe theme with its Swastikas, etc.

Posted by: Steve Tobias | September 14, 2011 3:36 PM    Report this comment

Godspeed clear skies and tailwinds on your journey Cliff.

Posted by: Jerry Brooks | September 19, 2011 9:42 AM    Report this comment

I'm sorry to hear of Mr. Robertson's passing. Being based at Hartford-Brainard many years, I saw Mr. Robertson a couple of times when he came up from Long Island for some maintenance on his Baron. He came into the flight school once just a few feet from where I and a couple of others were standing with an inquiry or question, giving his full name. I'll always remember how friendly and down-to-earth he was.

Posted by: Warren Webb Jr | October 4, 2011 12:08 PM    Report this comment

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