Harry Andonian never walked on the moon, but he helped train the men who did.
“I flew a lot of them for flight test activity before they became astronauts,” he said. “I flew with quite a few of them.”
Andonian, 95, retired in 1971 as a Lt. Colonel from the United States Air Force.
During a recent lunch at Chick-fil-A in Greenville, he recalled how after serving as a fighter pilot in Vietnam in 1968, he was reassigned the next year to Wright Patterson Air Force Base as director of operations and began piloting the infamous “vomit comets,” which carried the nickname because of the reaction they could create on passengers. The plane briefly produced a nearly weightless environment during repeated steep dives and climbs. The aircraft were used by NASA to help train astronauts for outer space.
“I trained them for Zero G,” Andonian said.”That was my prime thing, taking care of the astronauts.”
Later on, one of the astronauts Andonian took up was Alan Shepard.
“I took him up out of Patrick Air Force Base in Florida,” he said. “He was down there doing something for NASA.”
Shepard had piloted the “Freedom 7” as the second person and the first American in space. Shepard later commanded the Apollo 14 mission and was the fifth person to walk on the moon.
Andonian said Shepard insisted on making more than 100 maneuvers on one particular flight back and forth between the base and Cuba.
“It was getting to where I was running low on fuel,” Andonian said. “You know what he was doing? Practicing his golf swing. And when he went up on the moon, that’s what he did!”
While on the moon, Shepard was filmed using his one-arm swing to hit a golf ball “miles and miles and miles.”
Andonian flew hundreds of different aircraft in his lifetime, but never got to go into space himself.
“The closest I got was in the U-2,” Andonian said. “I spent seven and a half years in that program.”
Andonian still flies his 1960 Beechcraft Debonair out of Majors Field Municipal Airport in Greenville.
He pilots the aircraft as often as possible to see his family members in Missouri, Georgia, Florida, California and Michigan. He traveled to Missouri Wednesday to get his plane’s annual inspection.
In 2011, the Greenville City Council renamed one of the streets leading into Majors Field for Andonian.
Ten years ago his name was enshrined alongside those of Neil Armstrong, Chuck Yeager, Michael Collins, Gordon Cooper, Robert Crippen, James H. “Jimmy” Doolittle and many more. All, like Andonian, were test pilots who operated at one time out of one of the four flight test facilities near Lancaster, Calif., including Edwards Air Force Base. And all, like Andonian, will forever be included in the city’s Aerospace Walk of Honor.
Andonian was one of the last five individuals to receive the honor, along with John A. Fergione, Brigadier General James A. McDivitt, Jack Fraser Woodman and Jean L. “Skip” Ziegler.
In 2004, Andonian received the FAA’s Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award and has also been inducted into the Flight Test Historical Foundation Gathering of Eagles.