Rare air: Gypsum’s Robert Heckendorf receives FAA’s top civilian award
Longtime corporate aviation pilot has just about done it all in 52 years in the air
GYPSUM — Do you like great stories? Well, you’ll like Robert Heckendorf, who’s got so many rich tales to tell, you’ll wonder how one man actually accomplished so much in one life.
Life, singular, doesn’t do Heckendorf justice. He has been more places than you could even name, rubbed elbows with rock legends and the uber-wealthy, survived prostate cancer and an attempted hijacking where he took a bullet that missed his heart by the “thickness of a nickel” and set two sanctioned world speed records in the air. And, yet, he’s as modest as a pair of worn jeans.
When asked about the recent award he was nominated for and received from the Federal Aviation Administration, the Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” honor, Heckendorf mentioned that it might make for a nice story in the paper. The award, which is the FAA’s highest civilian honor in the country, has only been handed out 33 times in its existence.
His is a remarkable story, but Heckendorf, a fourth-generation Coloradan who grew up on big ranches, isn’t boastful as he tells it, plainly explaining how he went from punching cattle in rural Colorado to opening for Jefferson Airplane in the ’60s as a keyboardist in the psychedelic group The Rainy Daze to training military pilots in Hawaii before embarking on a highly successful career in corporate aviation. In his golden years, he has retired to Gypsum, where he lives with his beautiful wife, Carleen, and spends as much time as possible with his 13 grandchildren from the couple’s six children while also managing the couple’s small oil and gas business.
He still keeps their corporate aircraft in the hangar at the Vail Valley Jet Center and still flies on the regular, continuing as a “Gold Seal” FAA instructor for his 52nd year in the cockpit.
Heckendorf said he wanted to learn how to fly as far back as he can remember. He grew up on ranches in the ’50s and ’60s, including the 87,000-acre Blanca Trinchera Ranch near Trinchera Peak in rural Costilla County, the Sheephorn Ranch in Eagle and Routt counties, and the Georgia Pass Ranch in Park County.
“My dad would hire planes a lot because we wintered sheep out in western Kansas and with the different ranches and stuff and I couldn’t get enough of it,” Heckendorf said. “Then my mom got her pilot’s license in Monte Vista. She’d let me go up with the instructor after her lesson was finished. Growing up on a ranch, it’s hard work. It’s a wonderful, wonderful lifestyle, but it’s hard work, and I used to always watch the planes going over, thinking, I really, really, really want to do that.”
In the fourth grade, the Heckendorfs sold the Blanca Trinchera and moved to Littleton. Heckendorf bounced between public schools and Colorado Academy, a military prep school, as a young man. It was at Colorado Academy that his interest in rock ’n’ roll led him to form a garage band with a few classmates.
“My parents made me learn the piano,” Heckendorf said. “Then I taught myself how to play the banjo and the guitar and about that time, the Beach Boys got popular. It was just before the Beatles and all that. So we started a band. I can remember in ’61 and ’62, going to Aspen and Pinocchio’s, some of the other places. We’d go over there for a long weekend. We played a lot in Aspen, and of course, always (went) skiing. Some girlfriends and their parents were in on the bottom of Vail, getting it started, so we started spending a lot of time skiing there, too.”
‘That Acapulco Gold’
After graduation from Colorado Academy in 1963, Heckendorf enrolled at the University of Denver, but the band, The Rainy Daze, continued to pick up steam. Featuring Tim Gilbert on lead vocals and guitar, Kip Gilbert on drums, Mac Ferris on lead guitar, Sam Fuller on bass and Heckendorf on the keys, the Daze grew a following around Denver, landed a manager and wrote a song in 1965 called “That Acapulco Gold” that began to pick up radio play.
Everybody dropped out of college and the band relocated to California.
“Our manager, Frank Slay, his partner was the top DJ in the basin out there. And his name was Dave Diamond … I’ll never forget, with ‘Acapulco Gold,’ we’d done a bunch of TV shows and stuff,” Heckendorf said. “I remember, Frank said, ‘OK, we’re going to have a band meeting.’ Frank was this old Tennessee kind of gentleman, and I’ll never forget, he said, ‘Boys, boys, that song’s about drugs.’ We said, ‘Well, Frank, no s—. Why do you think it’s a hit?’”
Once station managers caught on to what “That Acapulco Gold” was in reference to, the song — which reached the top 20 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1967 — was banned from a number of markets.
The band, which had signed with UNI Records, an imprint of Universal, never equaled the success of its subversive pro-marijuana hit, and at the height of the Vietnam War, Heckendorf decided to give up the rock ’n’ roll life and go back to college at DU.
“They drafted my best friend, the bass player, and I said, you know something, I’m going back to college,” Heckendorf said. “Our last song was called ‘Stop Sign’ and I know the Hollies wanted to buy it. It’s a perfect Hollies song. We had an album that maybe sold five copies. We probably all bought one. It was a real eye-opener. Crossed paths with a lot of famous people and a lot of good musicians that never made it, but a lot of musicians that did.”
Among those who did: Heckendorf remembers hanging out after shows in the vampire hours of the morning at the Whisky A Go Go on Sunset Boulevard with other L.A. musicians when he first heard Cass Elliot, otherwise known as Mama Cass, of the Mamas & the Papas.
“Everybody would show up either stoned or drunk and everybody had been playing their gigs and (Jim) Morrison and all these guys we’d kicked around with were there. I’m sitting there and having a beer with Dave Diamond or whatever and this big, fat girl got up on stage,” Heckendorf said. “I never paid much attention to the Mamas & the Papas. I liked their music. She got up and played ‘Dream a Little Dream of Me’ and sang it and it was the most incredible thing. I thought, this woman, the pipes are just fantastic.’”
Heckendorf also remembers Grace Slick pulling him aside after The Rainy Daze opened for Jefferson Airplane at the San Jose Civic Auditorium in 1967 and telling him she dug his organ riffs.
“I had a huge crush on her,” Heckendorf said. “It was like, Oh dear god, I’ve died and gone to heaven.” Diamond, the DJ, also tried to convince the band to add a female lead singer, which led to a trip to Phoenix to see a yet-undiscovered Linda Ronstadt playing with the Stone Poneys at a small dive.
Ronstadt, of course, went on to superstardom, while Heckendorf went back to college.
Up in the air
It was at DU, while Heckendorf was studying political science and sociology as an undergrad, that he finally scratched his itch to become a pilot. He started out with lessons at the tiny, since-abandoned Columbine Airport, west of Littleton, and also flew out of Greeley and spent time in Nebraska flying helicopters.
“I got lessons, then got all my ratings, and my instructor’s rating,” Heckendorf said. He also got into parachuting, forging his parent’s signatures so he could make jumps before his father found out and “threatened to close the airport down.”
In 1969, the same year he got his Executive MBA from DU, Heckendorf was offered a job by Continental Airlines as only the second civilian pilot the carrier had hired in 10 years. He realized it would take him a long time to make any real money, though, so he decided to pursue a career in corporate aviation. Early in his career, he spent time at Hickam Air Force Base in Hawaii during the Vietnam War teaching military pilots who were upgrading to specialized civilian aircraft.
Later in his life, he created an air show act portraying rescued downed American pilots during the Vietnam War. The show, which traveled internationally and featured seven Vietnam-era aircraft that Heckendorf owned personally, was featured on three Discovery Channel programs, one of which, “The Detonators” was a 30-minute tribute to his team and its part in presenting a little known fact from the Vietnam War about the rescue and recovery by the Air Force Pararescuemen, aka “PJs” and the Special Forces of over 1,000 downed U.S. pilots in North and South Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia.
In 2000, the Special Forces presented him and his wife a Special Forces commemorative award.
If it has got wings
How do you get nominated for and receive the Wright Brothers “Master Pilot” honor? Well, you do a lot of flying in a lot of planes and do it well. In his corporate aviation career, Heckendorf said he’s accrued more than 20,000 hours over 52 years and has flown 17 different types of aircraft, all of it with no accidents or violations. He’s lapped the globe too many times to count, flying planes for a variety of different corporations and clients, including a long stretch with the Johns Manville Corp. in Denver. His passports have stamps from nearly every country, including Bhutan, on the eastern edge of the Himalayas, where you have to get an invite from the king.
He has lived in London for a stretch and charted sailboats in Greece, but Colorado has always been home.
One of his favorite sayings is that “the good Lord smiles on little children and dumb pilots.” Heckendorf certainly isn’t dumb, but he has been lucky, most notably when he survived an attempted hijacking in Central America on a flight back from Brazil in the mid-1980s while flying the president of the Johns Manville Corp.
“A guy came up to me and poked a gun in my stomach and said, ‘If you don’t give me the keys to the plane I’ll blow your f—ing head off,’” Heckendorf said. “The only thing I could think of was I didn’t want to be gut shot. I grabbed the gun with my left hand and smacked him with my elbow with the right and still have a little tooth scar left. I held on to the gun as tight as I could to keep it pointed away as he started firing. My left hand was a mess of powder burns and swollen for weeks.”
Heckendorf said it “felt like he headbutted me and then I felt one of the bullets go down my left leg.”
The bullet exited out of his lower calf — a “through and through” wound — that didn’t hit any bones or the femoral artery. Heckendorf fell after being shot and his assailant fell on top of him. When the man got up and ran away, Heckendorf said he tried to give chase but couldn’t catch his breath.
“I had my left hand over my left chest and I looked down and all I saw was blood pouring out between my fingers,” he said. “I knew right away that I had a serious chest wound and since I wasn’t already dead it probably missed my heart.”
The second “through-and-through” bullet just missed his heart “by the thickness of a nickel,” Heckendorf said, according to the doctors who treated him at a thoracic trauma center in Florida after he was medically evacuated back to the United States. He spent the next six months recovering before getting back in the cockpit.
Heckendorf hasn’t stopped flying since, surviving a bout with prostate cancer after being diagnosed in the early 2000s.
Vail Daily Editor Nate Peterson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 970-445-0117.