Several hundred people from our area put on nice clothes yesterday morning, and drove over to Russell road. We were there to try to say goodbye to Bob Woolley. I say try, because he was so full of life, it seems completely impossible he is gone.
He was killed in a midair collision 14 days ago. None of the circumstances matter, it was just two very good friends, supremely skilled aviators, out having fun, in a matched set of RV-4s. They were the two most respected men at our airpark, both Vietnam combat aviators, and we came damn close to losing them both.
Do you think of yourself as emotionally tough? Do you have a personal picture of how an aviator comports himself? Try this: Dave, the other pilot, got out of the hospital in a wheelchair so that he could have his son push him to the table bearing Bobs flag, where he carefully spoke to everyone present about what an outstanding human being Bob had been. You could spend a lifetime in aviation, and never see 10 minutes like that, and quite frankly, I hope you never have to.
If you are from far away, but Bob’s name sounds familiar, here is the connection; Bob was Panther customer builder #1, He was the first person Dan let fly the prototype, he did the first flights in many of them, and he did the test flying In Paul Salters, 3.0L Panther. Several years ago, Rachel Weseman shared this short biography of Bob on the Panther website: https://flywithspa.com/meet-panther-beta-builder-robert-bob-woolley/. Read it carefully, the thoughts Rachel shares tell a story of just how attached to Bob Rachel and Dan have always been.
Above, Bob Woolley and one of the many Glasairs he built.
When people get killed, there is always an emotional expression from people they were special to. It is hard to explain this with sensitivity, so maybe I just say it; Bob really was a titanic character, he was a really special human being to a huge number of very diverse people. At his service I began to see the magnitude of his life, by watching five neighbors standing in a row, people who don’t have much in common, all stunned because they each just realized they lost the best friend they likely will ever have.
Bobs hangar is about 1,500′ from mine. Most people at our airport work elsewhere, but Bob and I worked solo in our hangars. Sounds like fun, and it is when times are good. But in a bad year, it can be savagely lonely. 2017 was a lot like that. I’d get on my dirt bike and ride up to Bob’s. Its hard to express how thankful I was on some bad days find him working out in the hangar. We rarely needed to talk about much. Bob had passed through his own tough spots in life, and many times it was enough to have him as living proof that you can choose to live beyond what threatens to consume you.
The last two weeks have been really busy, and not much of this sunk in until yesterday. All the immediately required tasks stopped at sundown tonight, and I found myself alone in the house, with a light steady rain falling outside. I thought about calling some friends, but didn’t. I sat down with a beer and thought about Bob. I’d like to share something really moving that could capture a glimpse of his spirit, but half a dozen beers later, everything that comes to me is diminished by putting it in words. Last month, cancer got my mentor in flying, Chuck Nelson. It was hard, but it came with some warning, Bob is a very different story. I’ve lost a number of really close friends in accidents over the years, but this loss has some really sharp teeth I have not felt in a decade.
When you lose some people, you wonder if you will ever meet anyone like them again. There is none of this with Bob. I’m 56, and I won’t live long enough to meet anyone like him again. That may come across as somber, but it’s realistic. I’m going to get one last beer and sit on the front porch and stare into the dark, even though I understand there will be no answers. Before anyone writes to say ‘I’m sorry for your loss’, let me just say in advance, if you didn’t have a chance to know Bob, I’m the one who is sorry for your loss.
5 Replies to “Speaking of Bob Woolley”
You write amazing stuff about airplanes and engines, but your very best writing is ALWAYS about people.
Thanks for what you do and thanks for sharing. It makes a difference to more people than you know.
Thank you for an emotional and thoughtful read, from someone who does not know either of you.
Mark, Thanks for the note. The anguish of losing an irreplaceable person has been felt by many people, the names are specific only to those who knew them, but the understanding belongs to anyone who loved someone who left too soon.
I have learned so much about life from your writing. It sounds strange, but Thank You. This brought chills to me: “If you didn’t have a chance to know Bob, I’m the one who is sorry for your loss”.