Nearly 25 years have passed since that July 17, 1994, afternoon in New Knoxville.
There were whispers that day about Neil Armstrong possibly attending the air show that was taking place at the newly built airport which bore his name. Few people believed it would happen, though. As one man put it, the odds of Armstrong showing up were about as good as someone on this patch of Earth walking on the moon.
Folks knew of Armstrong’s penchant to stay out of the spotlight. And there were many events at that time to commemorate the 25th anniversary of Armstrong walking on the moon, just as there are this week for Saturday’s 50th anniversary.
So those in a crowd of 8,000 were pleasantly stunned when a man dressed casually in white pants, a blue short-sleeved shirt and mirrored sunglasses started making his way through the crowd.
It was Neil Armstrong.
A bit nervous, America’s most famous astronaut addressed his admirers, took time to shake hands with children and adults and signed autographs.
“It’s always great to be home,” Armstrong told the crowd. “This is a special place for me.”
He had driven to Wapakoneta from his home near Lebanon, south of Dayton, where he met state Rep. Charles Brading. The two then drove to the airport.
That afternoon also marked one of the few times Armstrong ever took questions from the media. Lorraine Whetstone, the reporter who covered the event for The Lima News, described Armstrong as cordial as he humbly answered questions.
“I thought it was pretty spectacular at the time,” Armstrong said of the moonwalk. “We thought it was a great challenge. Fortunately, we’d been given extremely good equipment to do the job. Fortunately, our training was up to the test. We had the tools we needed, the support we needed.
“We were always a little apprehensive because you know the little things are going to go wrong. We were able to handle these, fortunately.”
He talked about his biggest concern and surprisingly played down the moonwalk itself.
“For me, the final descent and landing were far and away the most difficult and challenging parts of the flight. Pilots take no special joy in walking,” he said, cracking a smile. “Pilots like flying.”
Armstrong glanced at the air show as he spoke, comparing the stunt pilots to astronauts and saying he wished he could be in the air with them. No one doubted his sincerity.
“The advantage that we had over these stunt pilots is that in space, there was no crosswind to worry about,” he explained.
Reporters hung on Armstrong’s every word, knowing they had just been granted a rare opportunity. But as quickly as the interview began, Whetstone said, it seemed to end.
Gary Katterheinrich, the airport manager, said at that time he wasn’t surprised by Armstrong’s visit. Armstrong was invited by the owner of a drugstore in Wapakoneta where he used to work as a teenager, Katterheinrich explained. Four days before the show, Armstrong agreed to attend. His only request, true to form, was that things be kept quiet.
Years after that 25th anniversary celebration, Katterheinrich said Armstrong ended up flying into the New Knoxville airport many times.
“When Neil’s parents were still alive, I would get a call from him about every other month saying he was flying in to meet his folks. His dad would come out and meet him, and they would go see Mom. Neil may be reserved, but he was never one to forget his family or hometown roots.”
Jim Krumel is the editor of The Lima News. Contact him at 567-242-0391 or at The Lima News, 3515 Elida Road, Lima, Ohio 45807.