Neal Vernon Loving
A Tribute by Carlton Spitzer
His legion of friends throughout the world knew him not only as an aviation pioneer who designed, built and flew experimental aircraft, but also as a truly remarkable man who lived an exemplary life, and whose birth name perfectly described his personality and philosophy of life. He loved life, and he loved his fellow human beings, of every ethnic origin and color, in every economic situation, the world over.
Neal Loving often said if he felt any better “he couldn't stand it,” even as he leaned on a podium to take the weight off two artificial legs. He lost both legs below the knee in the 1944 crash of a glider he had designed. He never used a cane. He continued to live life fully even when he was dying of cancer, getting himself dressed and out the door to address a group of kids interested in aviation.
His deep, melodious voice had a hypnotic effect on young people, especially disabled kids struggling to recover from severe illnesses and injuries. A young boy seated on the floor of a meeting room at Roosevelt Warm Springs Institute for Rehabilitation responded to that voice in 1992, softly asking Neal about his flights, and how he felt about using artificial legs. The room hushed. A counselor began to cry. Neal laughed and told the boy he could wear any shoe size he wanted and be as tall as he liked. Later, the counselor told Neal the boy was blind, and so deeply depressed he had not spoken a word in several weeks. The love and caring in Neal's voice had touched something deep inside the boy. To know Neal was to love him. People of all ages, who were privileged to know him, fly with him or work with him, attest to that.
Born on February 4, 1916—the birthday of Charles Lindbergh, which Neal liked to mention, he graduated from Cass Technical High School, where Lindbergh's mother was a teacher, and then from Highland Park Junior College, in Detroit, where he studied engineering drafting. Over his career Neal would go on to design and build five experimental aircraft, and become the first African-American double-amputee racing pilot in America. At age 40 he entered Wayne State University, Detroit, to earn a degree in aeronautical engineering—affirming what he had been teaching and demonstrating all his life. For the next 20 years he devoted his talents to high altitude flights and traveled the world as a civilian specialist for the Air Force, based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio, near his home at Yellow Springs.
Along the way from childhood poverty, frequent family evictions, blatant discrimination and hard times, Neal worked as a recreational director in the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression of the 1930’s; as a teacher of aircraft mechanics, a production line worker at Ford Motor Company, and, of course, as a flight instructor and co-owner of Wayne School of Aeronautics. He loved flying from age ten, and soon could identify aircraft just by the sound of their engines. He began to design and build gliders when he was still at Cass Technical High School. Few people, even in aviation, can imagine the skill, courage and confidence required to design and fly an experimental aircraft — the first of its kind, and often the only one of its kind ever flown.
Only 18 months after amputation of both legs and the repair of his shattered face, Neal opened a flying service at the old Detroit City Airport. He could recite the tail number of every aircraft he ever flew. Even at the end of his career, struggling against cancer that took his life at 82, he would describe his first airplane ride at age 14 in vivid detail: down the Detroit River in an open Waco. He had worked hard at part-time jobs to earn the $3 it cost. He described the flight as “priceless.”
Chided by his family, discouraged by friends and co-workers who told him there was no place in aviation for a black man with artificial legs, Neal kept right on smiling and working and planning. Perhaps his most famous aircraft is a midget racer with reverse gull wings, named Loving’s Love — which is also the name of a book he wrote about his life, published by Smithsonian Press in 1994: Loving’s Love: A Black American's Experience in Aviation. In 1953, he flew the tiny racer on a 4,800 mile round trip from Detroit to Kingston, Jamaica, where he met, and in 1955 married his beloved Clare Therese Barnett.
He graduated Wayne State University in 1961 as the school’s then-oldest full-time engineering graduate at age 45. After WWII, armed forces desegregation made technical jobs slowly become attainable for determined minorities. Neal landed the post of civilian aerospace engineer at Wright Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
His first notable work there was studying High Altitude Clear Air Turbulence (HICAT). Before, poorly understood effects like wind shear cost lives and downed aircraft through sudden, invisible downdrafts. To study this, Loving had to enlist the loan of a top secret U-2 spy plane and coordinate flight tests across the Pacific Rim. Neal’s work led to safer designs for high altitude planes like the Concorde SST, and vehicles still to come. His later Air Force work included then-new carbon composite construction techniques. Neal’s technical command and communications skills led to dozens of trips overseas representing the Air Force.
Neal Loving was honored posthumously in August 1999 for his lifetime contributions to aviation, at the famous Oshkosh Aviation Museum, during its annual air show. Loving's Love is on permanent display there. Neal’s name was placed on the EPA’s Memorial Wall with these words: “A remarkable aircraft designer.” Neal’s “roadable” folding-wing open cockpit aircraft, which he kept in his garage and often flew over Yellow Springs, is on permanent display at the Wings of Freedom Museum at Huntington, Indiana.
Neal Loving received more than 40 awards and honors, including the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Major Achievement Award, the Air Force’s Meritorious Civilian Service Award, and the Distinguished Achievement Award from the Organization of Black Airline Pilots. He was elected an Honorary Fellow of the Society of Experimental Test Pilots, and was inducted into the Michigan Aviation Hall of Fame in 1997. He was inducted into the Wayne State University College of Engineering Hall of Fame in 2001.
Neal is remembered fondly wherever pilots gather to honor aviation’s pioneers and high achievers, and wherever kids struggling to overcome physical and cultural challenges gather to talk about their inspirational heroes.
Writer, PR professional and aviation enthusiast Carlton Spitzer lives in Easton, Maryland where he is a columnist for the Star Democrat newspaper. His play, “Flying High: Three One-Act Plays Honoring Aviation Pioneers,” features monologues on Bessie Coleman, Ann Morrow Lindbergh and Neal Loving.