“I always go back to the ejection as the launching point for what I was going to do with the rest of my life.”
For OU Aviation Professor Todd Hubbard, who also serves as the Clarence E. Page Professor at OU, the reason for wanting to be a pilot was never just about the joy of flying. It was a means by which he could achieve larger goals—from his childhood idea of being a missionary, to serving his country as a Lt. Col. in the Air Force, to ultimately teaching the next generation of pilots.
Hubbard grew up in Vestal, New York, a suburb of Binghamton, in a farming area comprised mostly of pastures and dairy cows. It was there that the first germ if the idea of one day becoming a pilot was planted by a group of Christian missionaries called Sky Pilots. That seed took root when he was 15, and he met a Sky Pilot while at a summer camp by the name of Jack McGucken, who had been a fighter pilot in WWII and Korea.
“His stories were so fascinating,” Hubbard said. “He was a missionary pilot after the war. I thought ‘What a perfect way to tie aviation with something that’s really necessary and important to other people?’”
A Reason to Fly
Hubbard’s family moved to Putnam City, Oklahoma, a year later, and by 1970, he was pursuing a career in flight through the Air Force ROTC at Oklahoma State University.
“I wanted to be a pilot rather than anything else,” he said, his focus shifting from using aviation in service of missionary work to service for his country. “Once it looked like that could become a reality, I decided this was what I wanted to do.”
Hubbard went active duty Nov. 11, 1974. He spent his first 6.5 years in the Air Force flying KC-135s on refueling missions and the next three years training pilots as an instructor in T-37 jet trainers before ultimately joining a squadron flying U-2 reconnaissance missions in 1984.
“I thought ‘That would be the coolest ever,’” he said of first learning of the U-2 opening. “You’re in a space suit. Who gets to wear a space suit? In fact, that‘s the very same suit the space shuttle pilots wore on their first mission. I just thought that was cool.”
Hubbard was barely halfway through a military career that saw him fly everything from the giant KC-135 to T-37 jet fighter trainers to the U-2 reconnaissance aircraft he was in on the day the back of his plane ruptured, causing the ejection. He had only spent 110 of the more than 1,100 hours of flight time he would eventually log in a U-2 when the accident occurred.
“Five minutes after 1. July 18, 1984. 95 degrees. The winds were 5 knots out of the southwest. It’s still there. Burned into my brain,” he said as he retrieved the actual yoke and ejection ring of the aircraft from a bookshelf in his office. “The tail of the plane exploded right after takeoff. I watched the airplane blow up as I was coming down.”
He spent the next few days at the heart of an investigation into the crash, all while dealing with a broken jaw, several broken teeth, lost fillings, and a broken back and ribs.
“The whole thing—from when I was on the runway before takeoff to when I hit the ground—took just 15 seconds.”
He spent the next 10 years flying U-2s for the Air Force and NATO, reaching the rank of Lt. Col. before retiring in 1995. Almost all of that time coming after the accident.
A New Mission
After separating from the Air Force, Hubbard worked as an instructional designer and programmer for Boeing and an instructional systems designer for the FAA before joining the Aviation Department at OSU. While those jobs had been rewarding, Hubbard felt he had more to give back to a profession he loved, and teaching was how he determined he could best combine his personal mission of service to others with his love of aviation.
The desire to teach had surfaced while he was training pilots in the Air Force. However, it was the real-world difficulties he faced once he left the military that drove him to share his experiences with the next generation of prospective pilots.
"In aviation, you have to understand early on that you have to take personal responsibility. That’s how this profession is. If you want to be on the flight deck of a commercial airliner, your decisions that are going to be the difference between life and death, and you have to take responsibility seriously."
Hubbard was diagnosed with PTSD and Bipolar Disorder after leaving the Air Force, stemming from his near-death experience more than a decade earlier. It led to the end of his career as a pilot, but it has not stopped him from being a vital part of aviation education in Oklahoma.
“Everyone at some point is going to be the senior citizen and have to stop flying,” he said. “I just had to stop earlier. I dedicated myself to more of the cerebral side of flight. Pilots are not stupid, but they don’t look at journal articles very much unless they happen to be a professor.
“My passion is human factors related to flight, but the intensity of that passion comes when I talk about things that can get you killed. I don’t want anyone to go away from my class without the knowledge that if they do something stupid, they will die. Not only them, but all of the people in the back of the plane, as well.”
Hubbard’s approach to teaching supplements what his students learn from their textbooks with his own practical experiences in the cockpit, offering them the nuances of the profession they are training for well before many will have the chance to experience them firsthand.
“That’s what I bring to class,” he said. “I’m a storyteller. In aviation, you have to understand early on that you have to take personal responsibility. That’s how this profession is. If you want to be on the flight deck of a commercial airliner, your decisions that are going to be the difference between life and death, and you have to take responsibility seriously.
“I live for that moment they finally get it, when they finally get with the program and understand the professionalism they need to apply to their studies and take responsibility for their careers. It’s awesome. I can’t teach you how to be a better pilot by being in the airplane with you, but I can sure make you a better pilot in other ways.”
Hubbard is currently working on creating a lab that will use augmented and virtual reality to help not only train pilots, but possibly one day revolutionize how every aspect of the aviation industry is managed.
“I’m really excited about the possibilities that AR and VR can bring to aviation,” he said. “I want to use those technologies to increase reliability, to potentially begin to define things that are undefinable now.
“It’s thrilling to me to be in a position to change the way the FAA does business, to one day use VR and AR to reach available experts and break down silos of knowledge and increase the safety and viability of everything going forward. There is a lot that we can do to make every aspect of aviation better.”
To learn more about a career in aviation or pursuing your aviation degree, visit pacs.ou.edu/aviation.