Things just aren't the same around Danbury Municipal Airport in Danbury, Connecticut. When you speak to the locals they eventually get around to it: It's Ray. The FAA designee who gave checkrides to more than 2,700 aspiring aviators, the instructor who gave countless lessons to thousands more — and a friend to them all — isn't around anymore. Ray has retired.
Ray Noble's love affair with flying was kindled by his childhood fascination with Lindbergh's transatlantic feat. After moving from his birthplace of Dayton, Noble discovered airplanes. A friend took him up in a Piper Cub. It was May 7, 1935; Noble was 14. The ride lasted just 10 minutes but the impact would last a lifetime. Even today his brilliant blue eyes twinkle with the telling. "This was the only way to go — I was hooked!" he recalls.
With the attack on Pearl Harbor painfully fresh in the nation's collective mind, Noble joined the U.S. Army Air Corps. "I really wanted to be a pilot," he explains, "and the AAC was the best way to make that dream come true." He was sent to Maxwell Field in Alabama where he spent a lot of time marching — and none flying. A battery of classification tests followed to determine his potential as a pilot. He aced them. But the Army had other plans when it found they were short on bombardiers. "Here I was, ready to earn my wings," he recalls. "But I was in the wrong place at the wrong time."
Noble was introduced to the Norden bombsight, then the most classified piece of equipment in the world, and he quickly mastered its intricacies. Two knobs controlled the sight — one for wind drift, the other compensated for altitude and groundspeed. When the two lined up, the bombs dropped. Noble developed a reputation among his colleagues for being so good "he could drop it in your hat," they said. On August 15, 1942, 2nd Lt. Ray Noble got his bombardier wings.
As the head of a training hangar, Noble taught many more students to master the Norden sight. Late in 1943 he and nine others were assigned to Kearney, Nebraska, where they became the crew of a brand-spanking-new Boeing B-17. "It was shiny silver, not the dark green camouflage you see in many models," Noble explains. "If we were over the clouds or in overcast, we couldn't be seen by the German gunners below."
They flew to England, landing in Ireland because of weather. From there he took a train to Rattlesden, England, 40 miles northeast of London, arriving on June 6, 1944, to join the 447th Bomber Group of the Army Air Corps' 710th Squadron.
After the war, the G.I. Bill finally allowed him to get on track for his flight training. Starting with floats, he quickly graduated to single-engine land and instrument ratings, and a flight instructor certificate. Then, after 23 years with Esso Oil, he could resist his true calling no more and decided to exchange the corporate rat race for a career flying small airplanes. His sister lived in New Canaan, Connecticut, and pointed Noble to Danbury, 15 miles to the north. In 1968 Stan Konecko hired him to work at the Danbury School of Aeronautics.
In 1979 Noble was honored as the FAA's Flight Instructor of the Year. It was an accolade he would receive a total of three times. The next year he was named the FAA designee for Danbury. Over the years he amassed a lot of friends — and wisdom. As you can imagine, he gets pretty passionate about flying. "You've got to do it often to keep your skills sharp. One does get stale." As far as advice: "Many students would come in too high and land long. If you can't make a full stall landing in the first third of the runway, go around." Another: "Be careful to check the weather — this is where many a pilot gets in over their head; make sure you have a way out. Be prepared at any time for the weather to deteriorate. I never fly IFR unless it's VFR down below. The cumulogranite is down there for certain," he adds with a wink.
A third: "Fuel awareness and management are critical. If you're going on a long cross-country, always have another airport to go to for a refuel stop."
And looking ahead: "Safety is safety regardless of how advanced the airplanes or avionics are. Our instructors need to stay on top of their game, too. And it's harder today. Years ago, instructors stayed longer; they'd have 2,000 hours before moving on to airlines. Now you're lucky if one stays six months."
Today his stride is a little bit slower. And, after listening to airplane engines for 60 years, the hearing isn't perfect. But the blue eyes still twinkle. And he could still drop it in your hat.