Clyde Wilson died Oct. 24, 2013, just 17 days short of his 102nd birthday. He worked at NASA for 35 years, retiring to Boise, Idaho, and then moved to Hood River, Ore., nine years ago.
The following is from 2010 when Clyde was just getting ready to turn 99 and he was chosen as one of Hood River’s 51 Faces:
It’s only natural that Clyde Wilson would find himself living in the windy Gorge. His whole career was spent working in NASA’s biggest (at the time) wind tunnel in California.
“At the time it was the biggest wind tunnel in the world,” Wilson said “It was 40 by 80 feet, the test section, so it could take an airplane with a wing span of 80 feet, minus a few inches.”
“One thing I’ve found out about Hood River is how polite the people are in relation to old people,” he added. “I was surprised and pleased, needless to say.”
Wilson was born at home on a farm in Alma, Mich., and the family followed his dad’s construction and paving work down to Indiana, ending up in Gary, where he attended high school.
He started at NASA (then NACA) in 1940 as a draftsman and found out that his eyes couldn’t really take the detailed work, so he became an aircraft mechanic, which morphed into a job as wind tunnel mechanic, and eventually supervisor over the mechanics in the wind tunnel.
“I was in charge of the people who ran the wind tunnel up to mach 50 — yeah, that’s a pretty good speed!” he said.
The 40 x 80 test section was used, among other things, to test airplanes during World War II.
“One of the big jobs was, any airplane that came off of production that they had trouble with, flight trouble or design, they’d send one to our wind tunnel and we’d run a test on it and usually found the problem,” he said.
“Like the Mustang P-51 — the report came in that at a certain speed it had a buzz ‘someplace’ and it was really annoying and disturbing to the pilots,” he said. “So they tried to clean that up and they finally found the problem was a door on the oil cooler; it had to be redesigned. So they sent that information to the manufacturer and they corrected the rest of the planes that came off the production line.”
One of the highlights of his career was working on the model of the first space shuttle.
“Then after I retired, my wife and I had an RV and we decided we just wanted to sightsee,” he said. “We saw the No. 1 shuttle take off from Cape Canaveral, then we went over to Edwards Air Force Base in California to see if we could see it come land. But the weather turned better and it landed in Florida instead.”
Wilson actually outlived two wives, and had 36 years with each of them. His first wife, the mother of his three children, became ill 16 years into their marriage, and he took care of her for 20 years. She made him promise he’d remarry and do all the things he had ever wanted to do with her, but couldn’t.
Clyde’s second wife, Helen, had also lost her spouse after a long marriage and she and Clyde traveled all over the U.S. and Canada,
“We got in every Canadian Province except one — the Northwest Territory — and in every state but one — Rhode Island — and went to all four corners of the continent that we could go to by road,” he said. “We went to Homer, Alaska, across Canada to St. John’s, Newfoundland, and to Key West, Fla., and San Diego.”
Though his traveling days were mostly over, Wilson still got around pretty well. He had a standing Wednesday night get-together with Ken Olson of WAAAM, where they talked about “whatever — travel or old cars or airplanes” — and a lunch date with members of his church on Tuesdays; Thursdays he had a standing luncheon with his son-in-law, and on Fridays he rode along with the church choir director, Marv Turner, on his “Meals on Wheels” route.
“I’m called his navigator,” Wilson laughed. “I tell him where to go but he always finds his way back.”
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