Harry B. Combs was born in Denver, Colorado on January 27, 1913. He had his first encounter with airplanes at the young age of four as he watched his father Albert training as a pilot with the Royal Flying Corps in Toronto, Canada. At 13, he flew in his first airplane when he and a friend paid a mail plane pilot to take them up. He has been hooked on flying ever
At age 15, Harry Combs attended the Taft prep-school located in Connecticut, far from his native Denver, Colorado. While there, he read an advertisement for flying lessons. Too young to drive himself, he persuaded an older classmate to take him to St. Louis. He climbed into an OX5-powered Standard J-1 and soloed in his third hour. At age 17, during a summer vacation, Harry built and tested a sport biplane which he named the "Vamp Bat". This would be the first of two aircraft of his design.
He attended Yale University's Sheffield Scientific School and participated in both track and football. He graduated in 1935 with a Bachelor's degree in business and stayed in the East for a few years working as a dispatcher for Pan American Airways and helped operate a small flying service at Armonk, New York.
In 1938, he returned to Denver to try investment banking. From this, he learned two valuable lessons: 1. He could only be happy working for himself. and 2. He had to get back into aviation. The 120th Observer Unit of the Colorado National Guard let him get back to his love - flying. He logged enough time for an instructor's rating and trained pilots. At age 25, Harry and a partner formed Mountain States Aviation, a fixed base operation which later became Combs Aircraft.
In 1935, he built and flew another airplane of his own design, the Combscraft. An economical, low-wing, retractable monoplane, it might have hit big but for the advent of World War II. Harry, along with other civilian flying school operators across the country, filled the need for trained pilots. In three years, his company turned out 9,000 military pilots. At the height of the war, Mountain States' three schools had grown to 45 aircraft and instructors. To serve his country, Harry joined the Army Air Force Air Transport Command, flying C-54 transports over the North Atlantic, Africa and India.
By war's end, Harry returned to find his company in trouble. He built it into one of the most successful fixed base operations in the country. He was appointed to the Colorado Aeronautics Commission in 1944 and named State Director of Civil Defense for Air from 1951 to 1954. Desiring to be in the air, Harry roamed the skies, flying uncharted Alaskan bush country and prospecting for uranium. He dropped the flying school in 1948 to provide for pilots and airplanes. Fuel, flight information, maintenance, aircraft parts and service - whatever pilots needed, Combs Aircraft provided.
In the 1950's, Harry expanded his operation into Wyoming and Montana, while joining with Ryan Navion, Beech and Piper. He pioneered aircraft marketing and customer service, bringing repeat business, generating records sales, establishing his firm as the nation's leading distributor for Beech. In 1962, Combs Aircraft accounted for 10 percent of Beech's total output, earning him the "Beechcraft Man of the Year" award.
In 1961, Harry Combs' reputation as an administrator who could tackle problems and find efficient, quick solutions led President Kennedy to appoint him to "Project Beacon". This task force was charged with modernizing America's air traffic control system. Harry's plan for segregating traffic based on aircraft performance was adopted by the committee and implemented by the FAA. Harry also served as an industry technical advisor to NASA.
In 1967, Charles Gates, president of Gates Rubber Company, acquired Combs Aircraft, changing the name to Combs Gates Denver, Inc. On Harry's recommendations, Gates later purchased Roscoe Turner Aeronautical of Indianapolis, forming the Combs-Gates network of fixed base operations. Later, Harry made history when he recommended that Gates purchase the financially troubled Lear Jet Industries. Harry introduced Gates to founder William P. Lear, Sr., to create a powerful entity in business aviation. His efforts were rewarded when Gates purchased controlling interest in what became, in 1969, the Gates Learjet Corporation.
In 1971, Harry was elected president of Gates Learjet. Harry's skills enabled Gates Learjet to make a dramatic financial turnaround and take its place with aviation's leaders. Combs was honored in 1974 as America's "General Aviation Man of the Year." For another challenge, Harry entered a new field - writing. Realizing how little was known about aviation founders, the Wright brothers, Combs told their real story of achievement.
In 1979, his book, "Kill Devil Hill: Discovering the Secret of the Wright Brothers" was published. In 1980, Combs was honored by the Aviation/Space Writers Association when he was given America's highest aviation writing award, the James J. Strebig Memorial Trophy as top winner in the non-fiction aviation category. In 1983, Combs completed "How Strong is the Wind", a film based on "Kill Devil Hill". This documentary, which Combs narrates, is now in distribution to educational, industrial, business and professional organizations worldwide.
In 1985, Combs received the coveted Wright Brothers Memorial Trophy for significant public service of enduring value to aviation in the U.S., presented by Vice President George Bush. Over the years, Combs has received other high honors such as the Department of Transportation's Distinguished Service Award for leadership in promoting flight safety, and The Wings Club's Distinguished Achievement Award for developments in the general aviation industry. He was also named honorary member of the exclusive Lafayette Escadrille of World War I fame. For his pioneering insight and business acumen which made significant contributions to aviation as a whole, Harry Combs is enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame.
In 1990, Combs-Gates was sold to the American Airlines AMR Service Division and renamed AMR Combs. Combs owns a Model 35 Learjet and a Model 36V Bonanza which he still loves to fly.