Former Thunderbird pilot embraces corporate flying

 - September 20, 2007, 8:50 AM

Business aviation attracts pilots with wide-ranging experiences, whose career paths may have taken them in a hundred different directions before they landed in the cockpit of a Gulfstream, Hawker or Falcon.

Take for example Ron Mumm, the director of flight operations for Atlanta Falcon owner Arthur Blank’s AMB Group. Mild-mannered and affable, Mumm today manages and flies the department’s lone Gulfstream IV. But before joining the pinstripe ranks, he spent 20 years in the Air Force amassing thousands of hours in
F-15 and F-16 fighters. He was an instructor at the USAF fighter weapons school and, if you twist his arm, he will admit he served a turn as lead pilot and commanding officer of the Thunderbirds demonstration team.

Oddly, for someone with such an impeccable flight résumé, Mumm was not one of those kids who hung around the local airport dreaming about one day becoming a pilot. In fact, as a boy growing up in football-crazed Alabama, his first choice was to play in the NFL. But he gradually realized he was competing against many others who were bigger, faster, stronger and who could throw the ball a lot farther than he could.

His epiphany came as he was considering his college options. “I was working a summer job as a surveyor in what I call the jungles of Alabama, near Newcastle, and this stuff we were running a section line through was really thick,” he recalled. “The night before, I had pulled 21 ticks off of me. So here I am chopping away, I take a big sweep with the bush axe and right at my feet there’s a rattlesnake in the blackberry thicket that I just cut, and he starts rattling. So with the bush axe, I killed the rattlesnake. I sat down on a stump with my heart pounding, I reached over for my canteen, and I’m out of water. I’m four miles away from the truck where the water cooler is, and I look up in the sky, and right through a break in the canopy there’s an airplane flying overhead, and I said to myself, that has got to be better than this.”

Rather than receiving a hoped-for college football scholarship, Mumm settled instead for a spot in the Air Force ROTC program at Auburn University. Football began to be a less likely part of Mumm’s future. “As I went through it in my head, I thought, this pilot thing looks like it’s a pretty promising career, and so they paid for my education and I jumped into the Air Force.”

Nearly a year after graduating, Mumm was assigned to Air Force undergraduate pilot training. “You eat, sleep and breathe flying 24 hours a day for one whole year,” he said. “For a 20-year-old kid from Alabama it was so much excitement, such a neat experience, it was one of the highlights of my life.”

After earning his wings, Mumm’s first assignment sent him to Honolulu, where he flew T-33s for two years. There he gained flight experience as a young officer, along with something even more important. “I thought it was going to be a wonderful place to be a bachelor,” he said. “It was, but it was also a place to find a lasting commitment. I met my wife Heidi there,” he said. The couple celebrates their 25th wedding anniversary this month.

Mumm was eventually tapped to fly the F-15 Eagle–at the time, the Air Force’s premier fighter. “The F-15 is a wonderful airplane, tremendous power, an incredible platform and an unrivaled success in air combat,” he said. Mumm would go on to spend 13 years in that cockpit.

In 1986, at the exact time that Tom Cruise’s character Maverick would have been entering the Navy Fighter Weapons School in the movie Top Gun, Mumm was entering its real-life Air Force counterpart at Nellis Air Force Base outside Las Vegas, where he received what he described as a Ph.D. in fighter piloting. At the end of his Air Force career, Mumm would serve as an instructor and aggressor pilot.

When asked about his role as lead pilot of the world-renowned Thunderbirds, Mumm answers with self-deprecating humor: “Well, if you ask my friends how I got selected, they all wonder the same thing,” he said. At the urging of his wife, Mumm submitted his name to the volunteer selection process and was invited to travel with the team for an evaluation. “They must have liked what they saw, and
I sure liked what I saw, and the next thing I know I got a phone call from the general saying, we’d like you to be the next Thunderbird leader, and truthfully I was humbled, honored and very surprised.”

For two years (the standard tour of duty in the Thunderbirds), Mumm led the team through its grueling airshow schedule, highlighted by a flyover at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics opening ceremonies. “For the Thunderbirds, the season starts in March and runs through November, so somewhere in the first week of March you pack up and you’re on the road for airshows. The way it works, you’re doing an airshow every weekend somewhere in the world, so you get very good at packing and unpacking a suitcase.” The duty is demanding even in the off-season with training and flying three times a day to hone the legendary heart-stopping aerial routines to perfection.

Along the way, Mumm has touched the lives of others. He was invited this past May to the Air Force Academy graduation in Colorado Springs after receiving a request from a cadet to administer his commissioning oath. “My wife and I went out to do the commissioning, but we didn’t know exactly where we had met this young man and he wouldn’t share that information, saying only that he met us at an airshow,” said Mumm. On stage, after reciting his oath, the cadet looked him in the eye and said, “Colonel Mumm, you probably don’t remember this,” as he pulled out a Thunderbirds’ pin, “but back in 1997 [when the cadet was 11 or 12 years old, having just enthusiastically witnessed a Thunderbirds performance] you gave me this pin and said, ‘I hope to see you graduating from the Air Force Academy.’ Well, you just commissioned me.” One of Mumm’s favorite sayings in life is, “You never know when you are going to make a difference.” On the tarmac that day at Jefferson County Airport in Colorado, “I was privileged and honored to have made a difference in this young man’s life,” said Mumm.

Mumm retired from the Air Force in 1999, at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel, and said the vagabond life of military officer weighed heavily. “Most of my decision was wrapped around family. At the time my kids were 11 and 9, and I knew as I went up in rank and increasing responsibility in the Air Force, the travel demands on my family would be much more. It was hard enough to go from the eighth grade to the ninth grade [changing schools] once in your life, it would be very hard to do it a lot more than that.”

Upon leaving the service, Mumm joined BellSouth’s aviation department as director of safety and standards. Within a year he was the director of flight operations, supervising a fleet of Falcons, Hawkers and Citations. At the time, the company ran a corporate shuttle between Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta that annually moved about 35,000 people. Today, he flies the AMB Group’s GIV as often as he can, logging several hundred hours per year.

Looking back at his career, the most important thing Mumm said he took away from his time in the Air Force was the sense of pride that one brings to an organization. “I’m very proud of the AMB Group and all the good things they are doing for the community in Atlanta,” he said. “I was very proud of what BellSouth did and similarly I’m very proud of what our Air Force is doing today. There’s a side of me that says I’m humbled, a kid from Alabama participating in such an outstanding organization.”

Asked if he ever has second thoughts about leaving the glamorous life of a Top Gun pilot, Mumm replied with a chuckle, “Every now and then I have a dream about flying a fighter because it was just so much doggone fun–but no, I don’t have any regrets.”