Harry B. Combs

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Harry B. Combs
Harry Benjamin Combs

January 27, 1913
DiedDecember 23, 2003(2003-12-23) (aged 90)
EducationYale University
Taft School
Fessenden School
Occupation(s)pilot, aviation executive, author
Employer(s)Gates Learjet Corporation
Combs Aviation Corp.
Mountain States Aviation

Harry Benjamin Combs (27 January 1913 – 23 December 2003), America aviation pioneer, airplane manufacturer, and author.[1][2] He was founder of Combs Aviation and president of Gates Learjet Corporation.[1][3]

He was a pioneering soaring pilot who "lived and breathed the Golden and Jet Ages of aviation."[4][5] He was inducted into the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 1996.[3]

Early life[edit]

Combs was from Denver, Colorado.[1] His father was Albert Henry Combs, a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps in Canada.[4][6]

Combs saw his first airplane in 1917 at the age of four when he traveled with his grandmother from Denver to a Royal Flying Corps training field in Deseronto, Canada where his father was training.[6] Combs' father was shot down twice while in aviation combat in World War I, and was said to have warned his son never to set foot in an airplane.[4][6]

From 1920 to 1926, Combs attended Fessenden School, a preparatory boarding school in Massachusetts.[6] While at school, he read Diary of an Unknown Aviator, World War I chronicle by Elliot White Springs.[4] Combs was inspired by Springs and wanted to fly an airplane, despite his father's warning.[4][6] While on summer vacation in Denver in 1926, Combs and a friend paid $4 for a ride in a mail plane.[4][6]

In 1927, Combs enrolled in the Taft School in Connecticut for five years.[6] That was the same year, Charles Lindbergh made his historic crossing of the Atlantic.[6] When Combs saw a magazine advertisement for $99 flying lessons taught by Lindbergh's old company, he made his way to St. Louis for three hours of flight instruction.[4][1][6]

In 1929, after thirty hours of flying, the sixteen–year–old Combs designed and built a sport biplane named Vamp Bat.[1][4][6] However, the Vamp Bat was short-lived, and crashed after a flight in Pueblo, Colorado.[6] Combs said, “You didn't have any means of controlling it when the wind was blowing. There were no brakes—just a tailskid. If you sped up, it got away from you and you turned upside down. I was hanging upside down inches from the ground. It busted up. I should have known that when you don't have brakes you have to stay on the grass.”[6]

Starting in 1931, he attended Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School, graduating in 1935 with a degree in applied economics.[4][6] While at Yale, he lettered in track and football and was a member and president of St. Anthony Hall.[6][7] He was also chairman of Cannon & Castle Military Society and a member of the Torch Honor Society.[6][7]

He then attended reserve officer’s training, where he was commissioned as a ROTC second lieutenant in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.[6] However, he did not go on to cadet training because he had fallen in love—and cadets were not allowed to get married.[6]



In 1935, Combs worked as a ticket agent for Pan American Airways but quit after two years because he wanted to fly.[1][8][6] Then, he ran a small flying service in Armonk, New York.[4] Next, he worked in investment banking with Bosworth, Chanute, Loughridge & Co. in Denver.[4][6] Wanting to return to airplanes, he was enlisted as a second lieutenant pilot officer in the Colorado National Guard 120th Observation Squadron, logging enough flying time to earn an instructor's rating.[4][6] Now able to teach, he was hired by the Ray Wilson Flight School in Denver as an instructor.[6]

In 1938, he co-founded Mountain States Aviation in Denver, a flying school and airplane sales company.[1][2] In 1939, he started Combs Aircraft Corp. to design and build an experimental aircraft known as the Combscraft; however, the airplane could not pass a spin test and the project was abandoned.[6][2]

During World War II, Mountain States Aviation trained more than 9,000 pilots on bombers, fighter planes, freight planes, and gliders with 45 planes, 45 flight instructors, and 160 employees.[1][2][7] In 1944, he enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Forces and flew C-54 transport planes across the North Atlantic, Africa, and India.[2][6] After a year, he was honorably discharged to return to his company.[6]

Combs was the state director of Civil Defense for Air from 1951 to 1954.[9] He was also associated with Lockheed Aircraft's Skunk Works, working on the U-2, the F-104, and the SR-71 Blackbird projects.[5]

In 1958, Combs Aircraft operated from Stapleton Airport and grew into of the largest network of aircraft sales and service centers in the United States, and the leading Beechcraft distributor in the United States.[4][9] In 1962, he sold Mountain State Aviation.[6] By 1964, he was the largest Beechcraft distributor in the world.[8] Combs developed and implemented business practices that are now industry standards.[4]

President John F. Kennedy appointed Combs to Project Beacon which was tasked with modernizing air traffic control systems in the United States.[2][4] Combs developed a plan to separate air traffic based on aircraft performance .[9] Many of Combs' suggestions are still used today by the FAA.[4] He was also a consultant to NASA during the early days of the manned space program and helped create an air-training base in Arizona for CIA Covert Operations.[2][9]

Comb Aircraft was sold to Gates Rubber Company for $1.5 million in December 1966.[9] Renamed Combs Gates Denver Inc., it became a subsidiary of Gates Aviation Corp.[9] Combs decided to retire.[9]

In December 1969, stockholders elected Combs to serve as president of the board of directors of Gates Learjet, a new merger of Gates Rubber and Lear Jet Industries.[9] In October 1970, he moved to Wichita, Kansas to oversee Gates Learjet, which manufactured corporate airplanes.[9][1] His salary was around $50,000 a year, but the company was failing with a $13 million deficit.[9] Combs said, “When I first got down there, I said to the sales manager, ‘What are our hot prospects?' He had about three. We had about 800 employees and half-built bodies of airplanes laying around. There were no sales. I was told it was because the market was bad. I said, ‘No, it's the way we’re running things!’”[9]

Under Combs’ leadership, Gates Learjet made a remarkable financial turnaround, with some $15 million in the bank and no debt by June 1972.[9] It became the largest manufactures of business aircraft in the world.[10] In 1975, he relocated the business from Wichita to Tucson, Arizona.[10] The Learjet was the first United States civil aircraft to be FAA-approved for a normal cruise at 51,000 feet.[4] It was also the first plane to incorporate NASA's thrust-enhancing "winglet" technology.[4] He retired in 1982 when the company had $240 million in equity.[1][9]

Combs was also the founder of the national chain of corporate airplane service centers, AMR Combs.[1]


Neil Armstrong gave Combs a copy of the Wright brothers notebooks.[8] Combs was amazed by what he read, and even went to Hollywood to try and put together a television show about the brothers.[8] When that did not pan out, he decided to write a book.[8] In 1979, Combs', Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers, was published.[9] It received the James J. Streiberg Award from the Aviation/Space Writer’s Foundation and the National Air and Space Museum.[2][4]

He also wrote a trilogy of western novels, starting with Brules in 1992.[9] Brules won a Big Horse Award from Conquistadores del Cielo.[9]

Professional affiliations[edit]

Combs served on the board of the National Aeronautic Association and the Aerospace Industries Association.[9] He was also a president of the Wings Club.[9]

He was chairman of the Colorado State Game and Fish Commission and served on the Colorado Aeronautics Commission and the Colorado State Air and Water Pollution Board.[9][6]



  • Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers, with Martin Caiden. Houghton-Mifflin, 1979. ISBN 978-0-395-28216-8.[1]
  • At the Battle of Little Big Horn Where Was Custer? Ternstyle Press, 1999 ISBN 978-0-940053-03-8[9]


Articles and presentations[edit]

  • "The Air Age Was Now" with Martin Caiden. American Heritage vol. 31:1 (December 1979).[11]
  • "Four Flights at Kill Devil," Dayton Daily News, (January 27, 1980): 89.[12]
  • Twelve Seconds that Changed the World: The Amazing Story of the Wright Brothers. Washington, D.C.: American Society for Aerospace Education, 1982[13]


  • How Strong Is The Wind —40 minutes. TernStyle Press, Ltd, 1983. 303-790-8250



Personal life[edit]

In 1936, Combs married Clara Van Schaack.[6][7] They had three children—Harry B. Combs Jr., Anthony "Tony" Combs, and Clara Combs—before divorcing in 1954.[6][1][7] He married his second wife Virginia (Ginney) in 1956.[7]

Combs liked skiing, fishing, and big game hunting, going on safaris in Botswana, Kenya, Mozambique, Uganda, and Zambia.[9] He was an avid horseman and owned three cattle ranches in Colorado—The Sleeping Indian in Ridgeway, a 19,000-acre ranch and game preserve in Elbert and El Paso counties, and a 6,000-acre cattle ranch and game reserve in Ouray County.[9] After he retired, he summered at a ranch in Montana and spent the winters in Wickenburg.[9] However, he also maintained a house in Denver.[9]

For the First Flight Centennial Celebration of the Wright brothers' first flight, Combs donated a full-scale reproduction of the 1903 Wright Flyer to the National Park Service.[1][4] Valued at $1 million, the airplane replica was reversed engineered using documents from the Wright brothers.[4] On December 17, 2003, he attended the dedication ceremonies for the Combs-Wright Flyer at Kitty Hawk.[6] The replica was displayed at the Wright Brothers National Memorial at Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina.[1][4] He gave $1.2 million to the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2001 for a learning and research center.[17]

In 2003, he died in New York City at the age of 90 due to a heart condition.[1][6]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r "Harry Combs, Former President Of Gates Learjet, Is Dead at 90". The New York Times. December 23, 2003. p. 36. Retrieved May 27, 2022.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k "Harry Benjamin Combs | National Aviation Hall of Fame". Retrieved 2022-05-27.
  3. ^ a b c Goyer, Robert (December 1996). "National aviation hall of fame inducts four." Flying, vol.123, issue 12, p. 46. Retrieved from Proquest, May 27, 2022.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa "CentennialofFlight: Harry Combs Press Release". Archived from the original on 2012-10-07. Retrieved 2007-02-01.
  5. ^ a b c d "Hall of Fame - Henry G. Combs". National Soaring Museum. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af Freeze, Di (2004-02-01). "Harry Combs: Spoiled for Anything Else. Born 1913 "Flown West" 2003". Airport Journals. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  7. ^ a b c d e f Lipps, Jessie (2001-03-01). "Harry Combs: The Early Years". Airport Journals. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  8. ^ a b c d e Zito, Tom (1979-12-15). "Harry Combs and the Wright Stuff". Washington Post. ISSN 0190-8286. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z aa ab ac ad ae af Lips, Jessie (2001-04-01). "Harry Combs Enters the Jet Age". Airport Journals. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  10. ^ a b Allen, Frank (May 16, 1975). "Learjet to Locate Plant Here". Tuscan Citizen (Tuscan, Arizona). p. 35. Retrieved May 27, 2022 – via Newspapers.com.
  11. ^ Combs, Harry and Martin Caidin, 1979. "The air age was now". American Heritage. 31 (1). via WorldCat
  12. ^ Combs, Harry B. (January 27, 1980). "Four Flights at Kill Devil". Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio). p. 89. Retrieved May 27, 2022 – via Newspapers.com.
  13. ^ Combs, Harry. 1982. Twelve seconds that changed the world: the amazing story of the Wright Brothers. Washington, D.C.: American Society for Aerospace Education. via WorldCat.
  14. ^ a b c d e f g h i America, Soaring Society of. "Soaring Performance Awards - Henry Combs Perpetual Trophy". Soaring Society of America. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  15. ^ "Wright Bros. 1980-1989 Recipients | National Aeronautic Association". Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  16. ^ "Distinguished Achievement Awards". The Wings Club. Retrieved 2022-05-28.
  17. ^ a b Gaffney, Timothy R. (July 22, 2001). "National Hall Enshrines Aviators". Dayton Daily News (Dayton, Ohio). pp. B1. Retrieved May 27, 2022 – via Newspapers.com.
  18. ^ Honoree Album - Colorado Aviation Historical Society, 1994, Holmes, Charles W., Editor, Director Emeritus, Audubon Media Corp, Audubon, IA