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From Orbit to Airstrip
copyright 2006 by H. Paul Shuch, All Rights Reserved

Aviation had always been an important part of my life. Since my first flying lesson in an Aeronca Champ at age 15, whenever the world piled burdens at my feet, I knew I could always escape to the sky. But when I left the Air Force in 1969, married, had children, returned to school on the G. I. Bill, the sky became a distant memory. I'll fly again, I told myself, when I can afford to. Right now there are more important things. Air Force burned me out, I told my family; I never want to see another plane again. I doubt that they believed me.

Then, in 1977, Jack Unger came to work for me. Between teaching duties at the local college, I was running Microcomm, a small Silicon Valley startup, and Jack was my star technician. His keen eye and steady hand put together the modules that went into some of the world's first commercial home satellite TV receivers. For his part-time efforts, I paid Jack the princely sum of $5 per hour, but every Friday he'd take his meager earnings down to Reid-Hillview Airport, for another flying lesson. I'll fly again, some day, when I can afford to, I told myself, while Jack completed his Private Pilot rating.

The irony of it all was slow to dawn on me. How came I, successful big-time captain of industry, to be chained to a desk, unable to afford flight, while my lowest paid employee was discovering the wonders of the sky? Priorities, that's how! Suddenly I sensed that if I waited until I could afford to fly, I'd be bound to the ground forever. Upon coming to that realization, the funds somehow appeared. I had only to give myself permission.

By 1979, I was taking my own flying lessons at that same Reid-Hillview Airport, chipping away at a decade of rust. That Christmas, I took my family on vacation to Hawaii, rented from the local Fixed Base Operator a Piper Tomahawk to fly all over Oahu, and decided it was time to make some drastic changes in my life.

For about a year, Microcomm had been selling its amplifier, mixer, filter, and oscillator modules to International Crystal Manufacturing in Oklahoma City, to put into their ICM Video satellite TV receivers. In early 1980, I decided to bail out. I negotiated with ICM's Royden Freeland to sell him my plans, parts, and remaining module inventory, for something like $50,000. That money went into my airplane (a Beech Sierra, purchased that June), a big hangar on a private airport (Frazier Lake Airpark in Hollister CA, 1C9 on the San Francisco Sectional chart), and the acquisition of instrument, commercial, instructor, and instrument instructor ratings.

Of course, my flight activities meant I had to scale back the business, and lay off Jack. There's no justice in the world.

Microcomm took off in a wholly new direction after I quit the satellite TV industry, bravely saving myself from the sad fate of becoming a Silicon Valley millionaire. I returned to grad school, developed the BiDCAS airborne anti-collision radar as my Master's Thesis project, patented it, won the Experimental Aircraft Association's safety achievement award in 1987, and used those earnings to take a break from my teaching duties, and start work on my Ph.D. BiDCAS went on to win me the Goddard Scholarship in 1988, and a Hertz Fellowship in 1989. By 1990, I had completed my doctorate in aviation safety, published several seminal works in airborne collision avoidance, and left the Left Coast for a teaching job at Penn State.

Satellite TV, which had brought me fame and fortune, was clearly in my past. But fame is fleeting, and the fortune is all spent. All that remains now is the plane, and the hangar, and my share in the private airport. And an enduring friendship with Jack, who shares my love of the sky.


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Copyright © H. Paul Shuch, Ph.D.; Maintained by Microcomm
this page last updated 14 June 2007
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