Former Sewart Air Force Base “army brat” David Bucher shared two milestone dates with famed astronaut Neil Alden Armstrong.
David Bucher (left) and astronaut Neil Armstrong stand in front of Bucher’s American Champion airplane.
Millions of Americans, including Bucher, shared the July 1969 “moon walking” date with astronaut Armstrong.
“I vividly recalled being in a boat on a cloudy Sunday afternoon (in 1969) on Percy Priest Lake (near Smyrna)…” Bucher floated back to his teen years. “(I was) listening to the radio coverage of the lunar surface landing,” as the astronaut voiced these immortal words: “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
Their fateful “private” meeting came in June, 2003 at a private airfield outside Troy, Ohio, near Dayton: “All of Dayton area was abuzz with the 100-year celebration of the Wright Brothers’ first flight.
Donna (Bucher’s wife) and I finished restoring our 1946 Champ (airplane) earlier that year and Dayton photographer Dan Patterson asked if the Champ could be used as a backdrop for a photo of Neil Armstrong that would be in a book being written by Ron Dick and Dan.
“It was a very warm morning at Wagner International (home grassy airfield of flight enthusiasts’ Bob and Pat Wagner),” recalls Bucher.
The Wagner name may be familiar with Middle Tennessee flight fans, since they appeared in the 1970s and 1980s as a wing-walking act at air shows in Smyrna.
The “photo op” set in motion events that allowed Bucher to experience one of his proudest moments of life.
“As (photographer) Dan wrapped up the photo session, I asked Neil if he wanted to fly the Champ, to which he replied that he did, only he wanted me to go with him,” Bucher noted, recalling some initial apprehension.
The Champ model was the same Armstrong took his solo flight in as a teen-aged native of Wapakonata, Ohio.
“The grass was tall, and there was no appreciable wind to help with the takeoff,” pilot Bucher assessed. “And we would be at the maximum gross weight capability for the Champ”
The concern was understandable, since Bucher was about to “slip the surly bonds of earth” with the first earthly man to land on the moon.
“The first thought that came to me, ‘you do not want to be in an airplane incident with the guy who first stepped on the moon’…” recalled Bucher, a 1971 graduate of Smyrna High School. “Visualizing the headlines if we had a mishap was not pretty, so I declined the offer. But then, a thought came to me that flying with Neil Armstrong is like sailing with Columbus, so how could I pass up such an opportunity.”
But Bucher, whose son Thomas works at the Smyrna/Murfreesboro Woodfin Funeral Chapels, still had “doubts” and “concerns.”
“I said to Neil, that I would go if he would permit me to do the takeoff, to which he readily agreed,” pilot Bucher soared back in time. “My reason? I knew the airplane and the (Wagner private) air strip … and by my calculation, we would use most of the strip to get airborne. As it turned out, we were off the ground within three fourths of the air strip’s length. As they would say at NASA and in the movies, ‘we were good to go.’”
Once airborne, the astronaut, who received medals from 17 nations for his lunar landing, took the small plane’s controls.
“Neil took the controls, and did a few landings and takeoffs at Troy (Ohio) Skypark,” Bucher noted. “By Neil’s recollection, it may have been 40 years or more since he had been in a Champ, but he flew like he had been in one every day since he soloed as a teen-ager.
“His hands went immediately to every control as inflight adjustments were made,” Bucher added. “His landings and takeoffs were perfect.”
As they swooped, swirled and soared over the rolling hills of Ohio, the first man to walk on the moon shared personal information.
“As we flew, Neil told me about being a young pilot in the Korean War, and that his favorite airplane of all time was a Grumman Bearcat,” Bucher shared flight information. “After we had been in the air for maybe 45 minutes, Neil turned the Champ back towards Wagner International near Troy…as he set up the approach, Neil then said it was my turn to land the plane…and as a good ‘first officer,’ I did as commanded.”
Although Neil Armstrong was world famous, he’s been described as a very down-to-earth, even humble man, who died Aug. 25, 2012 at age 82.
“I refer to him as Neil, rather than Mr. Armstrong, because that is how he introduced himself as he extended his hand for a hand shake,” Bucher shared. “Someone thanked him that morning, for his service to the U.S., to which Neil replied that what he did back then was his job, for which he was paid, and it just happened that NASA decided the moon landing would be on his turn in the capsule.’’
Multiple historians record Armstrong as an unpretentious gentleman.
“If Neil had an ego, he must have kept it in his pocket,” Bucher described. “In fact, he seemed more proud of his tenure as a professor at Cincinnati University than about being the first man on the moon, a feat he seemed reluctant to talk about.”
The Bucher family has their own aviation history, dating back to when they “landed” at historic Sewart Air Force Base (now Smyrna Airport) from West Tennessee back in the 1950s.
“A neighbor from Oneida (Tenn.) moved us and our belongings to Smyrna in the back of a farm truck, when I was a small child,” Bucher noted. “Dad (Edwin Earl Bucher) served as a tech/sergeant in the Air Force until he left the military, having served 16 years, including with the Army during World War II. After his longer stint in the Army, Dad joined the Air Force Reserve, and was called to active duty in 1955. But after only one month of active duty at Sewart, he was told ‘you can go home’ because they were downsizing the Air Force. Upon leaving the military, Dad and Mom (Lillie Mae), decided to stay in Smyrna, making it our hometown.”
His father had a civilian career in appliance marketing. His mother had a popular hair salon in Smyrna for decades. Both are deceased.
Bucher is married to the former Donna Ries, a native of Smyrna and daughter of the late Billie Jean Raikes Ries and Don Ries.
“We return to Smyrna for visits every six weeks or so,” noted Bucher, who likely will think of his famous “co-pilot” each and every time he gazes up at the moon…Amen!