The Celebrity Collector
Cliff Robertson Collects Vintage Aircraft

By Ken Hall

It's probably difficult for most people to put their arms around (literally and figuratively!) a collection as unusual and gigantic as vintage aircraft. But when you've got the name, resources and passion for flying that Cliff Robertson has, it all makes perfect sense. Robertson's love of aircraft and flying far predate his involvement in acting (which led to an Oscar for the film Charly in 1968).

Robertson was born in La Jolla, Calif., in 1925, the scion of a prosperous California ranching family. As a boy of about 13, he'd hop on his bike to make the 13-mile ride to Speer Airport in San Diego (no longer in existence), just to watch the planes take off and land. He was a self-described "airport rat," one of a group of like-minded boys whose imaginations took flight in easier, lazier times.

"In the summer, I'd ride my bike there six days a week and volunteer to clean planes and grease engines for zero money," Robertson remembered from his home near Southampton, Long Island. "The payoff came once a week, when the chief pilot would take me up in a little Taylor Cub for a fifteen-minute ride. That made it all worthwhile. I never dreamed of one day owning a plane."

Make that four planes, actually, and that represents a downsizing, considering the "Robertson air force" formerly included a Spitfire Mark 9 and three Tiger Moths, all of which have been sold. The current fleet includes a French Stampe, a Messerschmitt, a Grob Astir glider and a Beech Baron. If these names all read like high-flying Greek, a few words of explanation about each will be of help:

  • French Stampe - This is a biplane that is actually Belgian in origin. It first flew in 1933 as a training airplane, but after World War II its construction was taken over by France and the "Societee Nationale de Construction Aeronautique du Nord" (SNCAN). About 700 were made. It's one of those rare airplanes that was rarely "junked," but bought and lovingly restored by collectors like Robertson.
  • Messerschmitt 108 - A four-seater executive liaison military aircraft, developed in the 1930's by the Germans for the Luftwaffe (German Air Force). The plane was advanced for its time, with retractable landing gear, an enclosed cockpit and cantilevered wings. It was used to transport high-ranking German military brass. A cousin craft, the 109, was a one-seater, short-range fighter plane.
  • Grob Astir - This is a two-place (two-person) fiberglass glider -- no engine! One has to be towed for takeoff and, without the benefit of jet propulsion or internal combustion, a pilot must be shrewd and skilled to fly one. Robertson is both. In fact, he holds the distance soaring record in Nevada for that class of plane, having glided 240 miles in the '90s -- with a 6'4" passenger aboard!
  • Beech Baron - This isn't a vintage aircraft at all, but it is one of Robertson's favorite toys. "I fly it along the East Coast to get to speaking engagements, scouting locations, that sort of thing," he said. The Baron is a modern, executive propeller plane, with leather seats and twin fuel-injected engines. Robertson keeps his in a nearby hanger on Long Island, where he can hop in and take off.

The aircraft Robertson once owned but has since sold include:

  • Supermarine Spitfire Mark IX - The most famous military aircraft of all time and one of the most beautiful ever built. It went up against the vaunted Messerschmitt during World War II and beat back the German threat in the Battle of Britain. By the time production ceased in 1949, over 22,000 Spitfires (and Seafires) had been made. Robertson sold his after getting "an offer I couldn't refuse."
  • Tiger Moth - The designer of this British, two-seater biplane -- Sir Geoffrey de Havilland -- was an entomologist and named several of his aircraft designs after moths. The first Tiger Moth was tested in 1934. When World War II broke out, it proved invaluable as a trainer. One heart-stopping feature: no brakes! The tail component had a skid, which slowed it down in grass training fields.

In 1969, Charles Lindbergh flew one of Robertson's Tiger Moths at Santa Paula (Calif.) Airport, where Robertson keeps another hanger (there's a third one as well, in Creve Coeur, Mo.). "He made his flight log entry that day, just like an ordinary pilot," he said. Robertson later narrated a film shown at the Smithsonian Institute commemorating the anniversary of Lindbergh's historic flight.

"Flying is freedom," Robertson once said. "It's the essence of the good life." But, he added, "There's synergism in an activity like aviation. You must give back what you take out." And those aren't just words. In 1969, when a civil war was raging in Nigeria, Robertson helped organize an effort to fly food and medical supplies into Biafran, which was caught in the middle of the conflict.

Then, in 1978, when a famine hit Ethiopia, Robertson organized flights of supplies to this ravaged country. Four years later, he received the L.P. Sharples Award from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association for his many contributions to aviation. He's been honored by the U.S. Air Force, the National Soaring Museum and the National Aviation Club. He often speaks at aviation programs.

In the '80s, Robertson decided to put to test the legend of Gustave Whitehead, the German immigrant who supposedly built and flew an airplane in Bridgeport, Conn., in 1901 -- two years before the Wright Brothers. Robertson rebuilt Whitehead's craft and piloted it himself down a runway in Bridgeport. It lifted off the trailer holding it and briefly took flight, lending credence to the story.

"We'll never take away the rightful role of the Wright Brothers," Robertson said, "but if this poor little German immigrant did indeed get an airplane to go up and fly one day, then let's give him the recognition he deserves." These remarks are consistent with Robertson's on-screen persona. He's often depicted as solid-looking, intense and earnest; an intelligent and reliable 'Everyman.'

But acting wasn't an early ambition. "I acted in class plays to get out of having to do after-school chores," he confessed. When he enrolled at Antioch College in Ohio, it was to pursue writing. He got a job on the town paper, where someone said his writing style would be better suited for the theatre. Robertson liked the idea, but all plans were put on hold with the outbreak of World War II.

Robertson figured he'd be a natural as a Navy pilot, but when one of his eyes tested at less than 20-20, he was forced to take another route. He joined the maritime service -- the Merchant Marine -- and saw action in the South Pacific, the Mediterranean, the North Atlantic and France. "It was a dangerous way to spend the war," he said, "but I'm still here. Not everybody was so lucky."

Back in civilian life, Robertson went to New York to pursue his dream of writing for the theatre. He fell into acting "because it was there and it was something I could do." He got a break in 1950 when he joined a national touring company for the play "Mister Roberts." That lasted two years. Then, he was cast on Broadway in Joshua Logan's "The Wisteria Trees," with Helen Hayes.

In 1955, Robertson made his screen debut in the Logan-directed movie version of "Picnic." That same year he drew praise as Joan Crawford's schizophrenic boyfriend in "Autumn Leaves." In 1963 he was hand-picked by then-President Kennedy to portray him in the World War II action bio-pic "PT 109." In 1965, Robertson earned an Emmy award for his role in the TV play "The Game."

Robertson copped acting's highest prize in 1968 when he won an Oscar for the lead role in "Charly," in which he played a retarded adult who is given temporary intellectual powers following a scientific experiment. In all, he's been in about 70 movies, recently as Tobey Maguire's Uncle Ben in "Spiderman" (he'll also be in the sequel). He just finished work on Stephen King's "Riding the Bullet."

Robertson has two daughters -- Stephanie and Heather -- the latter by actress Dina Merrill, to whom he was married for 22 years but is now divorced. The two appeared opposite one another in the campy '60s television hit "Batman." He is actively involved in many charities and organizations not related to aviation. Fans of Cliff Robertson may visit the star online at http://www.cliffrobertson.net./

2004

Then-President John F. Kennedy hand-picked Robertson to play him in the 1963 bio-pic "PT 109."


Robertson flies high in his Grob Astir glider -- no engine! He holds a state distance record (240 mi.).


Robertson plays square-jawed, dependable types, like in this publicity still from "Renaissance Man."


That's Robertson in the cockpit of his Spitfire, flying over Montreal and escorted by a Canadair jet.


 

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