People in Aviation: Harry Combs 1913-2003

 - February 1, 2007, 5:12 AM

Harry Combs, former head of Learjet and founder of AMR Combs, died in Wickenburg, Ariz., on December 23 at the age of 90. Long fascinated by the achievements and legacy of the Wright Brothers, Combs had participated in the December 17 centennial-of-flight activities at Kitty Hawk, N.C., less than a week before his death. There, Combs saw the Wright Flyer replica whose construction he had sponsored take part in the commemoration of aviation’s hundredth before he formally gave the airplane to the National Park Service as part of a new permanent exhibit at the Wright Brothers National Memorial.

Born in Denver, Colo., on Jan. 27, 1913, Combs was the son of a World War I pilot, Albert Combs, who had trained with the Royal Flying Corps in Toronto, Canada, and, perhaps as a result of being shot down twice, advised his son to avoid airplanes. The young Harry disregarded his father’s warnings and, at the age of 13, paid $2.50 for a ride in a mailplane, which hooked him on flying. While attending the Taft prep school in Connecticut at the age of 15, he read an ad for flying lessons and persuaded a friend to drive him to St. Louis, where he paid $99 for lessons and soloed in his third hour. At age 17, during a summer vacation, Combs built and test flew a biplane he called the Vamp Bat.

Combs graduated from Yale in 1935 with a bachelor’s degree in business and stayed East for a few years working as a dispatcher for Pan American Airways, and he helped operate a small flying service in Armonk, N.Y. In 1938 he returned to Denver to try his hand at investment banking and learned two lessons that would anchor his career: he could be happy only when working for himself; and he had to get back into aviation.

Flying with the Colorado National Guard allowed Combs to log enough time to earn an instructor rating, and at age 25 he and a partner founded Mountain States Aviation, an FBO that later became Combs Aircraft. Mountain States Aviation trained 9,000 military pilots. Combs joined the Army Air Force Air Transport Command and flew C-54s over the North Atlantic, Africa and India.

After the war, Combs expanded Mountain States into Wyoming and Montana, and, now trading as Combs Aircraft, became a successful Beech and Piper dealer. Later, Combs Aircraft was named a Learjet distributor. In 1961, President Kennedy chose Combs to lead Project Beacon, a task force charged with modernizing the ATC system. The FAA implemented Combs’s plan for segregating traffic based on aircraft performance.

In 1967 Charlie Gates, president of Gates Rubber, acquired Combs Aircraft, changed the name to Combs- Gates Denver and later acquired Roscoe Turner Aeronautical of Indianapolis, the beginning of the Combs-Gates network of FBOs. Combs planned on retiring and, having recommended to Gates that he buy financially troubled Lear Jet Industries, introduced the rubber baron to Bill Lear. A deal was struck, creating Gates Learjet in 1969. Two years later Combs found himself president of the company and
he engineered a financial turnaround. He held the post of president until 1982.

Combs turned his hand to writing, too, and in 1979 Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers was published. The book won the Aviation/Space Writers Association James Strebig Memorial Trophy the following year in the nonfiction category. In 1983 Combs completed How Strong Is the Wind, a film based on the Kill Devil Hill book that he narrated himself. In 1985 Combs was awarded the Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy for significant public service of enduring value to aviation in the U.S.

In 1990 American Airlines’ AMR Service Division bought Combs-Gates and renamed it AMR Combs, later purchased by BBA Aviation in 1998 to become part of Signature.
Many of the snappy and attentive services pilots take for granted at FBOs today have their roots in Combs’s firm beliefs about how business aviation pilots and their passengers like to be treated. That attention to the customer’s wants and needs formed the bedrock of the success enjoyed by Combs’s FBOs, and established them as model oases for business aviation operations.

Combs delighted in his western roots (a trait he shared with Charlie Gates) and as a horseman he enjoyed his ranches in Montana and Colorado to the full. He is survived by his wife, Ginney; two sons, Terry and Tony, both of Denver; a daughter, Clara Moore of Montrose, Colo.; and several grandchildren.