Smoke On Go

A tribute to a fallen friend

I remember the first time that I met Glen Warden at the Virgina Airshow in 2000.   

Such was the magnetism of the man, that after the days flying, a significant crowd of enthralled people gathered around him as he told highly entertaining stories of his airforce days.  He was really funny, and at the same time extremely humble, there was no trace of self-aggrandizement.  Because of this people liked him instantly and he always left a hugely positive impression with everyone.

But his engaging personality is not what I remember most about my first meeting with Glen, the airshow circuit worldwide has always been full of larger-than-life raconteurs. 

What left an everlasting impression on me was the encouraging, sincere, and warm way that he first approached me. Understandably there is a hierarchy in any display pilot fraternity, and me just starting out with my 1946 vintage Chipmunk, was very much at the bottom of that hierarchy.  Glen already a much-celebrated jet fighter pilot and a member of the one of the leading aerobatic display teams was close to the top of that hierarchy. Yet he found time to have an extended and meaningful conversation giving me undue praise, valuable advice, and sincere encouragement.  He didn’t do this once, but at every airshow, and it was not just me; he made all junior display pilots feel welcome in that intimidating world, and so from this our friendship developed.

Sincere humility was always a hall mark of Glen. Who do you know when collecting their aircraft after a service, goes to the boss of the maintenance organization to find out which engineers worked on his airplane, including the people who washed the airplane, and then personally thanks everyone involved? Glen Warden did that.  

From his earliest display days, he was admired by fellow display pilots.  I remember at an early Rand airshow he was scheduled to fly the challenging inverted ribbon cut, made all the more difficult that day with a strong and gusting cross wind.   The cross-control coordination while inverted is not simple, and we wondered if he would even attempt the act in those winds. But fly it he did, and with great panache. I was standing next to pilots from another formation team, and they all openly expressed their respect for his flying ability that day.

I once offered Glen the opportunity to fly the Chipmunk from the pilot’s seat, it is a simple aircraft by most standards, especially Glens, and would have been no challenge for him; he however declined the opportunity until he had studied all the aircraft manuals and knew them thoroughly, the consummate professional, this too left a lasting impression.

It was in 2004 that Glen and I became closer. By that time, I had upgraded to a Pitts Special and was entering the aerobatic competition arena along with a bunch of other rookies. And to be frank in those early days, as a competitor Glen was totally unplayable. Us new guys were fighting it out for second place, because it was a given that Glen would win. And in truth no one minded, he was hands down always the most admired and liked guy in the club; for us new guys it was a huge honor to merely be in the same starting field as a pilot of his caliber.

Around that time that Glen saved me from potential calamity. It was the day before the National Aerobatic Championships, and demand for airtime in the aerobatics box is always high so competitors are limited to 15minute practice slots. I was first up that day, airborne at dawn. After my brief 15-minute slot I moved a few miles away from the airfield making room for the next pilot, and I continued training.  

I became so engrossed in the aerobatics and did not notice that a typical early morning mist had very quickly developed covering the ground. I had a clear horizon, and I could see the ground, but only directly below the airplane and no further. I did not know the area, was running low on fuel (this was after all supposed to be a short aerobatic sortie close to the airfield) and I could not find the runway.

Scared, I informed the guys on the ground of my predicament. Within seconds Glen came onto the radio, he quickly reminded me to configure my engine and propellor to ensure maximum endurance and then he asked me what I could see. I reported I could see a mast and some hills sticking through the mist. He then calmly and confidently put me at ease assuring me that he knew exactly where I was and proceeded to give me a compass heading to bring me closer to the airfield. Using my engine sound as a reference he made corrections to heading and soon had me overhead. After landing, I sheepishly approached Glen to thank him, I was hugely embarrassed and expecting to be justifiably chastised. Glen did the opposite, while he was certainty clear about my irresponsibility, he did not belittle, and instead was again very encouraging.

From that time Glen sort of took me under his wing, passing on valuable advice about aerobatics and competition, not only about physical technique but about mental and emotional approach and even about the philosophy of flight, because Glen always a very deep thinker understood these intangible things intimately.

With his help, I was eventually able to attain a narrow and lucky victory over him, I was really happy that day, but I don’t think that I was as happy as Glen.  As I walked up to receive my medal, he literally attacked me with the huge bear hug.

As the years passed, younger fitter pilots joined the competitor ranks, guys with the latest equipment and lots of time to practice, a luxury that a very busy high achieving Glen seldom had.   And yet he helped train, advise, and build up most of these guys, who were soon to become his competition rivals. Regardless of wherever Glen ended up on the results board, it was understood by all that he was really the top dog, he was always everyone’s champion. And whenever he did win everyone was sincerely happy for him, none of us minded losing to Glen.

At every event Glen was the guy you most wanted to spend time with, and his was the phone call that you really enjoyed receiving. Because every encounter with him would be positive and enriching. Whether it be simply enjoying his good-natured humor or being inspired by his well thought through views on life, relationships, business, politics, airline operations or anything else that he was thinking about at that time.

At the memorial last week, Nigel said that he never heard a bad word spoken about Glen, this is true. Equally true is the fact that I never heard Glen speak a bad word about another person.  He may not have liked irresponsible or selfish acts, and as a leader amongst us he knew that he had a duty to speak up advising against unsavory behavior, but he never defamed the offending person.  Another great Glen Warden lesson on leadership.

As much as Glen enjoyed aerobatics (both his display team and competition) and as much as he was dedicated to his airline and colleagues, his family always trumped these two, just as it ought to be, he was a fiercely dedicated family man.

What the wider aviation fraternity may not know is that Glen was also a very capable businessman. He built a profitable training business within the airline; because unlike many highly qualified MBAs Glen understood that business is never about merely making a quick buck, but rather about providing a valuable and loyal service to clients and looking after employees – profits were a byproduct of these.

No matter in what role, Glen always left people with an example of how a gentleman ought to behave – as a family man (husband, father, and grandfather); as a friend and a colleague; as a professional pilot and a businessman; as a warrior and a patriot; as a poet and a philosopher (yep you read that correctly); as a leader and a wingman; as competitor and a teammate. Through triumph and tragedy Glen’s behavior and attitude was always exemplary.

I don’t think that we can even begin to fathom how much we will miss him.

For now, all we can do is remember him fondly, seek to follow his example, and extend our condolences to his family, to Karien, to his airforce comrades, to his airline colleagues, to his teammates and to his diverse circle of friends. And of course, to Dennis Spence, who long ago recognized Glen’s passion and talent, and who gave him an opportunity and nurtured him; and in so doing gave South African aviation one of its leading lights.

The are many great aviators that make a lasting impression on our lives, some of these exceptional men and women walk amongst us today, and many others we will no doubt meet in future.   But I doubt that we will ever again see the likes of Lieutenant Colonel Glen Warden (fighter callsign Gringo).

A life well lived; a rest well earned.