30 years since the loss of the Challenger


On January 28 1986, I, like several hundred thousand other people in Florida,watched the Challenger lift off in perfect cold blue skies. A little more than a minute later it was over, a stunning loss to our nation.


It is hard to explain to people outside the state just how many people saw this. If you were never fortunate enough to see a Shuttle launch, it is hard to conceive of an aviation event that can easily be seen with the naked eye at a radius of 120 miles. That morning the Challenger made it to more than 60,000′ and was already above the speed of sound. Florida’s has flat terrain, clear skies, and many businesses and schools had people stand outside to watch. I doubt that any other aviation disaster has ever had as many eyewitnesses. People who were watching were silent, as it was very obvious that something had gone terribly wrong. The only other time I have stood among hundreds of people in such silence was standing at Washington Rock, watching NYC burn on 9/12/o1.


In our national anthem, it calls us the “Land of the Free and the Home of the brave.” A nice ideal that as a country, we fall well short of. If you want to find out how few people understand risk, courage and achievement, just tell 100 average people you are building a plane in your garage which you intend to fly yourself. It will be a sobering reminder that most people are conditioned to live their entire life in fear, usually of things that have no chance of actually happening.


  But if I were to make a case that we still had Americans among us who lived up to the anthem, “Home of the Brave.” I would point out to the people of America’s Space program. Below is a photo I took with Grace of the 2006 return to flight after the Columbia loss:


From 2006: “Grace and I took time out Saturday night to watch the Space Shuttle’s first night launch in four years. This can easily be seen from a hundred miles in every direction. In America today, sadly, most people are convinced to be afraid of many things. My personal definition of courage is volunteering to get in the type of vehicle that has killed all of its occupants before, twice. The courage of our astronauts and the trust they have in their co-workers in the space program personally moves me. The view above is from the Titusville U.S. 1 bridge 15 miles from the pad.”




As a homebuilder, you have made the decision that your place will not be “With the cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat”. By choosing the demanding challenge of building and flying your own aircraft, you have made a decision to set your life apart from others who have succumbed to the message to live in fear. Because you have made this choice, your life will have some real understanding of the adventurers who have pushed the boundaries of flight….. and at times paid a terrible price for it.




I have very strong objections to our National air and Space Museum being called the “Udvar-Hazy Center”. Steven Udvar-Hazy’s only contribution to aviation is manipulating the leasing of commercial aircraft to make himself a billionaire. His $66 million contribution to the museum sounds big until you realize that it was only 1.5% of his estimated net worth.


No National landmark in this country should be named for people who donated money.  It is as demeaning as naming the Lincoln Memorial the ‘Walmart memorial’. It is un-American to measure the value of a man by the thickness of his wallet. It is for precisely this reason that Americans triumphed in flight. Our system recognized and advanced the best, brightest and courageous. It placed no value on class, connection or wealth.


If the Air and Space museum is to be named for the highest bidder, I can think of 100 names off the top of my head like, Sijan, Grissom, Loring, Scobee, Luke, Husband….American Aviators who gave 100% of everything they had or would ever have for this country, paying a price that makes any financial contribution meaningless.


“If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life.” – Gus Grissom.



“They gave their lives in service to their country in the ongoing exploration of humankind’s final frontier. Remember them not for how they died but for those ideals for which they lived.”

-statement left on the remains of Launch Pad 34.


Francis Richard Dick Scobee Gravesite

Dick Scobee’s head stone at Arlington.




About William Wynne
I have been continuously building, testing and flying Corvair engines since 1989. Information, parts and components that we developed and tested are now flying on several hundred Corvair powered aircraft. I earned a Bachelor of Science in Professional Aeronautics and an A&P license from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and have a proven 20 year track record of effectively teaching homebuilders how to create and fly their own Corvair powered planes. Much of this is chronicled at www.FlyCorvair.com and in more than 50 magazine articles.

7 Responses to 30 years since the loss of the Challenger

  1. Harold Bickford says:

    There is a favorite line in the movie, “The Right Stuff’ where Gordo Cooper coins a label for his friend, “Hot Dog” aka Gus Grissom. “Gus Grissom, star voyager”. That line evokes the whole idea of pushing boundaries and developing understanding in a more than challenging environment. Our endeavor may not be quite as daunting yet the idea of “your name here, air voyager ” ought to be just as inspiring.

    I remember well the Challenger on that morning and the 1967 mishap when astronauts Grissom, White and Chaffee perished in an Apollo capsule on the pad during a test. Rediscovering and practicing pioneering efforts is something people could use more of. OK, off my soapbox and back to the shop in the morning.

    • Harold, It is a great part from a great film. We should have a late night screening at one of the Colleges or on the air tour. “Harold Bickford, Corv-air Voyager.” -ww.

      • Harold Bickford says:

        The ‘Spirit of St. Louis” with Jimmy Stewart as Lindbergh also works. “I, I’m gonna fly to Paris.”

  2. David Josephson says:

    On the day of the Challenger tragedy, I was in my office (at the time) in Beijing. For a very long distance around that office, I think no one was more affected by the disaster than my assistant, a Chinese engineer who had been battered by his country’s “cultural revolution” but survived to work for our company, an American conglomerate that at the time had the base engineering contract for Kennedy Space Center. He was particularly shaken by the explosion because a few months before, he and I had been guests at Kennedy for the immediately preceding launch of the Challenger, STS-51F. We were on a tour of company operations around the country, including KSC.

    I thought it was important to show him things about America, too. One of our first stops was the EAA convention in Oshkosh — the shuttle launch was just a couple of days later. Our company was very appreciative for the phenomenal efforts he had put forth to get through the bureaucracy so we could set up and operate in China. He was particularly impressed, being well aware of the millennia his country had taken to get where it was, by what a young, brash and diverse country could do in 200 years. The spirit he saw at Oshkosh and the ability to make something like a space shuttle, to test (among other things) serving soda pop in space, was almost beyond comprehension. But the human relationship with the Challenger crew that was lost, being but one crew removed from the crew he saw lift off, transcended anything that separated countries or cultures.

    • David, Thank you for sharing your personal experience on this. Although I have worked with and gotten to know aviators from around the world, and come to understand how the most fundamental elements of flight are the same in many languages, your first hand experience with the most distant of cultures from our own is eye opening and challenges assumptions too easily made. -ww.

  3. Tom Porter says:

    Hi William and Grace, I remember that day like it was yesterday and think of those souls with proud reverence. Today I was able to fly N601ZC for 2.6 hours, bringing to to 31.5. It was a beautiful 41 degree day. CHT about 250 oil temp about 200. 100 mph at 2800 rpm. My Corvair is running great. Thanks and regards. Your friend, Tom Porter

  4. Gary Ray says:

    This is from memory, I think the flight crew of the Challenger was let down that day when management decided to try to fly the Challenger on a 34 degree F day. Likely a time when an engineer placed a schedule and possibly political correctness above safety. The next day, I was able to ask a nuclear submarine crewman, that 6 months prior finished service in the Navy, what went wrong? His responsibility was to insure that the ICBM’s carried by his boat were always ready to fly. He told me that the Morton Thiokol solid propellant rockets used by the Challenger had seals that were most reliable at 70 degrees F. He said it was known what would happen. It took the investigators over 6 months to draw the same conclusions.
    The point being, manage your own risk, particularly when your life is on the line. There will be times when you might wonder if everything is good enough. Don’t write this off in your mind. Take this as a subconscious warning that you need to reconsider your plan. Remember, you are not going anywhere, UNLESS everything is to YOUR liking. There is no room for “group think”. In flying, marginal weather is the most common place where this will occur. Also, William has spent a lot of time pointing out best practices when building your project in order to keep you from experiencing other known pitfalls.

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