Beyond the Heavens
A Chronicle of Phis in Flight

By Jay-Raymond N. Abad, UC Irvine, 2002
August 2008

There are many stories regarding members of Phi Delta Theta leaving their indelible footprints in various fields. Politics and Sports often come to mind because of the several hundred Famous Phis involved in those fields. The Entertainment field is also popular because of the glitz and glamour, but there is a particular area among Phi Delta Theta Famous Alumni which is often overlooked: Air and Space. In regards to the fraternity and its prominent alumni, Neil Armstrong always comes to mind. However, the overall history of air and space is actually inextricably linked to Phis. They have become pioneers in this field.

The link between members of Phi Delta Theta and flight begins at the very beginning of human flight itself. When the Wright Brothers invented the first airplane they surrounded themselves with a group of individuals who could test the airplane modifications and perform exhibitions throughout the country demonstrating flight. They created the Wright Exhibition Team. This team, composed of 10 individuals, were the first aviators in history. One of them was J. Clifford Turpin. The team had to endure many challenges both on the team and afterwards when it was disbanded. Despite facing obstacles, Turpin was fortunate. 3 members of the team died in exhibitions while 3 others also died in airplane crashes when they became test pilots.

When it became apparent that a government agency was needed for the study of air and space, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA) was formed in 1915 which later became NASA. William F. Durand succeeded George P. Scriven of the US Army and became the agency's first civilian chair. Durand, a pioneer mechanical engineer served from 1916-18 as the chairman but remained with NACA until 1933. He became a key figure in aeronautics research and was a trustee of the Daniel Guggenheim Fund for the Promotion of Aeronautics. New aeronautics departments were established throughout the country because of this fund.

Phis have also been linked with pushing the envelope when it comes to exploration and record setting feats. Neil Armstrong, of course comes to mind by being a pioneer for all of mankind. However, he was not the only Phi astronaut. F. Story Musgrave, the scientist-astronaut flew on 6 shuttle missions and worked on the design and development of the Skylab Program. Musgrave is the only astronaut to have flown missions on all five Space Shuttles and the last of the Apollo era astronauts on active flight status to retire. Jon McBride, a US Navy Fighter Pilot, was the pilot of STS-41-G Challenger Shuttle flight. Perhaps one of the most forgotten test pilots was Charles F. Blair. He was a pilot of the US Air Force and by the time he retired achieved the rank of Brigadier General. Throughout his storied career he tested dozens of new aircraft. In 1944 he was pilot in command of the five fastest seaplane crossings of the Atlantic on five consecutive trips. In 1951 he became the first pilot to fly solo across the North Pole. In a White House ceremony, Blair received the prestigious Harmon International Aviation Award as "the world's outstanding aviator" from President Harry S. Truman. He received the Thurlow International Award of the Institute of Navigation in 1959. Coincidentally, this award is named after Thomas L. Thurlow, a Phi who was a pioneer in navigation and the co-pilot of famed entrepreneur and aviator Howard Hughes.

Phis involved in the military through flight should not be overlooked. In fact, they are deserving of special mention because of the many remarkable acchievements. In WWI, Robert Rockwell flew with the famed Lafayette Escadrille. It was a group composed solely of Americans who fought for France before the United States' entry into the war. Rockwell was one of the original 38 pilots. In World War II, there were several high ranking Phis involved in flight. Among these was General Ross E. Rowell who was the Commanding General of the Marine Aircraft Wings in the Pacific and Admiral John Sidney McCain was the commander of all land based aircraft in the Pacific. It's also worthy to note that the only Medal of Honor and Victoria Cross awarded to Phis in the war were through actions based on aerial combat. Leon Vance was a pilot in the US Army Air Forces and Robert Hampton Gray was a pilot in the Royal Canadian Navy.

Indeed, there have been hundreds if not thousands of Phi Delt military aviators through the years. They flew their missions with great distinction with many of them never to return. There were some however, who gained noteriety because of their harrowing ordeal of survival after they were shot down. Probably two of the most noteworthy stories are that of John R. McKone and Scott O'Grady.

McKone was in command of an RB-47 Stratojet reconnaissance bomber when it was shot down over the Baltic Sea by a Soviet Union MiG flown by Capt. Vasily A. Polgakov on July 1, 1960. 4 of the 6 bomber crew were killed while McKone and his co-pilot, safely ejected only to be picked up by Soviet authorities and imprisoned in Moscow's Lubyanka Prison. McKone was accused of espionage and often threatened with execution. After 7 months, both he and his co-pilot were released.

In 1995 O'Grady made international headlines when he was shot down by Bosnian Serb forces while patrolling the no-fly zone. He survived for six days, eating little, all the while avoiding Serb patrols. He was eventually rescued by US Marines. The 2001 film, Behind Enemy Lines is loosely based on his story.

Both McKone and O'Grady come from a long line of distinguished Phi flyers. The co-founder and one of the first two instructors of the The Navy Weapons Fighter School, better known as "Top Gun" was a Phi: James Ruliffson. Ruliffson would later become the commanding officer of the school. In a very interesting side note, the movie Top Gun happened to be produced by Phi Delt Hollywood producer, Don Simpson.

In the last half of the 20th century, probably the most well known Phi General happened to be Air Force General Charles Horner, who was in charge of all American aerial forces during the Persian Gulf War. It was under his leadership, the world first saw the bombing accuracy done by coalition forces.

Phi Delts have been pioneers, leaders, explorers and fighters in the field of air and space. They have participated in every chapter of flight history and have left their mark because of the commitment they have shown and their willingness to go beyond what is necessary to succeed.