Phoenix Harry Combs, a former president of Gates Learjet and founder of AMR Combs, a national chain of corporate aircraft service centers, has died. He was 90.
Combs, honored last week in North Carolina as one of aviation's top 100 leaders during ceremonies honoring Orville and Wilbur Wright's first successful flight, died Tuesday, according to Frey Funeral Home in Wickenburg, Ariz. He died at a Phoenix hospice, apparently of heart failure.
"He was a very dynamic individual -- a perfectionist, really, in everything he did," said close friend Jim Greenwood, a former Wichita aviation public relations executive. "He was a real aviation pioneer."
Combs, born in Denver on Jan. 27, 1913, was 4 years old when he watched his father train to fly combat planes in World War I. After being shot down twice during the war, the elder Combs warned his son never to set foot in a plane.
But after Charles Lindbergh's historic crossing of the Atlantic in 1927, Combs began to pilot his own planes. In 1929, at age 16, he built and flight-tested a sport biplane named "Vamp Bat."
Combs graduated from Yale University, and after flying for two years with Pan American Airways, he founded Mountain States Aviation, an airport operation business and flight school that later became Combs Aircraft. The business trained more than 9,000 pilots to fly freight planes and fighters, gliders and bombers during World War II.
From 1971 to 1982, Combs was president of Gates Learjet. During that time, a Learjet became the first civil aircraft to be FAA-approved for normal cruise at 51,000 feet.
Combs moved Learjet to Tucson, Ariz., in 1975, believing the company played second to Wichita's larger lightplane manufacturers, Cessna Aircraft Co. and Beech Aircraft Corp.
The brand is now owned by Bombardier Aerospace, which is now consolidating its Learjet production in Wichita.