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An Aviation Great: Bob Spielman ’59

By Jon Reynolds ’59, H’15 and Don Bishop ’67

Many Trinity grads have made their marks in aviation, but one can make a very good case that Bob Spielman, Trinity Class of 1959, was preeminent among them.

Born in South Windsor, Connecticut, Bob graduated from Ellsworth Memorial High School before coming to Trinity. He first experienced serious flying as part of Trinity’s Air Force ROTC program. In his senior year, he was cadet commander, and he left the college with his degree and an Air Force commission as a second lieutenant. From there, Bob’s flying record was sterling. When he received his wings at Laredo Air Force Base in Texas, he was honored with the Daedalian Award as first in his class. His coveted onward assignments were to fly the F-100 Super Sabre at Luke AFB in Arizona, Nellis AFB in Nevada, and Itazuke AB, Japan. There he upgraded to the F-105 Thunderchief, his second fighter in the famous Century Series. It was in Japan that he met his lifelong love and future wife of 54 years, Debbie. And it was in Asia that he first joined the ongoing Cold War between the United States and Russia.            

Soon flying from Takhli Royal Thai Air Base in Thailand in 1967 with the legendary 355th Tactical Fighter Wing, Bob’s most memorable mission was the bombing of the Paul Doumer Bridge in Hanoi, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. He took his “Thud” through the formidable North Vietnamese air defense system—anti-aircraft weapons, surface-to-air missiles, and MiG aircraft. 

Bob then was selected to attend the Air Force Fighter Weapons School at Nellis AFB in Nevada. He was the top graduate at the school—no mean feat in the world of air-to-air combat.

After his active duty, Bob joined Western Airlines and also flew F-4 Phantoms for the Nevada Air National Guard. He finally retired from Delta Air Lines in 1997. Never one to stay on the ground for long, he embarked on a 25-year journey flying gliders (under the call sign “Chukar”), becoming a club president of the Nevada Soaring Association. He shared his enthusiasm, expertise, and experience with pilots around the country and was recognized with the prestigious Glattly Award. He broke many regional and national—and some international—soaring records.

For 50 years of safe flying, the Federal Aviation Administration presented Bob with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. Shortly after, at the age of 77, he floated from the sky above downtown Reno in his parachute after his glider’s wings snapped off, earning him the nickname “Lucky Bob.”        

On February 25, 2018, at age 80, Bob passed away from a heart attack. His family meant the world to him. He is survived by his wife, Debbie; children Michael (Aiden Gould) and Kimi (Mike Riter), as well as grandchildren Evan, Kita, and Kaia; siblings Arthur Spielman Jr. and Janet Prior; and many nieces and nephews.

Note: Bob Spielman wrote about the successful raid against the Paul Doumer Bridge. His piece was published in The Intake: Journal of the Super Sabre Society, Summer 2018, Vol. 2, Issue 37.

This photograph of a painting by Mitch Pappas, former Trinity professor of fine arts, hangs in a student study room in the Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center (MSFRIC) at the Air University, housed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Alabama. MSFRIC is the premier library in the Department of Defense (DOD).
Photo: Courtesy of Don Bishop ’67