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Aircraft owners 'soar' at big chance to meet astronauts

HUTCHINSON, Kan. — At 2:10 p.m. Friday, Willowbrook resident Rob Green's BeechJet 400 rolled to a stop outside the Hutchinson Municipal Airport bearing former Apollo 11 astronaut and moonwalker Buzz Aldrin.

Fifty-seven minutes later, Aspen resident Robert Scherer's still futuristic-looking Beech Starship rolled to a stop after buzzing the field and delivered Apollo 12 astronaut Richard Gordon. And two minutes after that, a Cessna Citation X belonging to Texan Grant Jacobson pulled up with three more astronauts: Fred Haise from Apollo 13, Walt Cunningham from Apollo 7 and Kansas native Joe Engle, who flew on the space shuttles Columbia and Discovery and also flew approach and landing test flights on the Enterprise.

And that was only part of the all-star lineup for the Kansas Cosmosphere and Space Center's Fly Around Dine Around fundraising event today. They'll be joined by shuttle astronauts Steve Hawley, Jeff Ashby and Bruce McCandless II, as well as Laura Shepard Churchley, the daughter of the late Alan Shepard of Apollo 14; and Paul Mardikian, the lead conservator for the ongoing Cosmosphere restoration project involving Apollo-era F-1 rocket engines recovered earlier this year from the ocean floor.

Green, the owner of MegaFab, is a longtime supporter of the Cosmosphere. He and his family visit the Cosmosphere four or five times a year, and his children attend the Cosmosphere's space camps.

His company uses his private jet to fly between the company's Hutchinson headquarters and its facility in Chicago about every other week. In between trips, Green said, his two pilots, Monte Reneau and Fred Leeper, don't have much else to do.

"So I said, 'Hey, you guys want to go pick up Buzz Aldrin in California in a couple of weeks and bring him to Hutchinson?' They said, 'What? You've got to be kidding.' "

Green, who was waiting with his family as the plane landed here, called it an opportunity to meet a legend.

"I was 3 years old in '69," Green said of when Apollo 11 took off on the first lunar landing mission. "I can't tell you for sure I remember it. But I remember that every time astronauts were on TV my mother sat me down in front of the TV. I didn't know what I was watching, but she tells me I was watching Apollo 11."

Now, he said, he is looking forward to having lunch with Aldrin today.

"I have met a lot of famous people, but for that guy and what he has done, it was exciting to see a big smile and a good old handshake. I can't wait to sit down and talk to him," Green said.

Scherer also has a childhood memory of the Apollo program.

"When I was 10, my mom took me to see the launch of Apollo 12," Scherer said. "We were there several days and toured around and she got us in some special places. Then I saw (Pete) Conrad, Gordon and (Alan) Bean lift off for the moon in Apollo 12. During the launch, there was a huge crackling noise and the ground was shaking and the grandstand was shaking, and since then I've had a penchant for all things space."

Scherer inherited about $200,000 when he in his 20s, invested in Microsoft, and it turned into $28 million in the course of 10 or 12 years. Since then, he's gotten out of stock trading and makes his living off real estate now. Mostly for fun, he flies chase missions in his Starship for a number of other exotic aircraft, including Burt Rutan's SpaceShipOne, an air-launched space plane that made the first manned private space flight and later won the $10 million X Prize.

Scherer got roped into fetching Gordon to Hutchinson in the Starship by Mark Stucky, a Kansan involved with Rutan's Scaled Composites aerospace company. A few weeks ago Stucky called Scherer and said, " 'I can't tell you who, but some astronauts need a ride to an event in Hutchinson. Are you and the Starship available?' I didn't hesitate," said Scherer.

When he learned he'd be ferrying Gordon, "that was very cool," Scherer said.

Who would have thought, he said, that more than 40 years after watching Gordon lift off in Apollo 12, Gordon would be sitting in the right-hand seat in the cockpit of Scherer's Starship on a flight from Arizona to Hutchinson?

They talked about everything: the sensation he felt when the Saturn V moon rocket's engines were lit, G-forces, technology, whether Gordon worried about leaving his family to go to the moon.

"He's a regular guy," Scherer said. "He's a totally nice guy. He's an aviator guy you can blabber on with forever."

Grant Jacobson wasn't available for an interview. But he is a Texas billionaire who three years ago founded Texas Jacobson Aviation, which provides free air ambulance transportation for military and civilian patients since 2010 and has worked with Grace Flight of America, Angel Flight South Central and Mercy Medical Airlift's Air Compassion for Veterans. TJA has flown more than 900 mission legs and carried more than 1,600 passengers.

All three planes will take the astronauts back to their homes on Sunday.

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