Robert “Bob” Givens, 86, has been given a mechanical mind and a few miracles of modern medicine that have kept him well enough to enjoy his golden years in Canyon Lake. In April, while The Friday Flyer was gathering aviation stories from other readers, Bob was undergoing open heart surgery.
He returned home from UCLA Medical Center the last week of April, in good enough spirits to talk about his adventures in aviation – adventures that include flying in small planes at age 16, building and flying three of his own airplanes, building and flying two single-seat helicopters, and flying various other aircraft such as powered parachutes and ultralight planes.
Bob also piloted his own 46-foot yacht, a wood boat, from the tip of Baja California to Glacier Bay, Alaska, and, until recently continued to drive his 20-foot motorhome and 17-foot trailer (to carry a plane or helicopter) all over the West. He used to be an avid skin-diver and was among the first people in the United States to dive with an Aqua-Lung.
Raised in Willowbrook, California, near Compton, Bob lived near a small airport where he made a deal to wash and fuel airplanes in exchange for free rides. He loved flying, but it would be many years before he got a pilot’s license.
After becoming a truck driver, he went to work for British Petroleum, which paid for him to go to school at night. He met his wife, Marie, while attending college.
Advancing in the ranks of the corporate world, one aspect of his work involved finding good properties for BP to build gas stations. He developed negotiation skills and met real estate contacts that benefitted him later on when he began his own gas station business. Eventually, a real estate transaction he made in Texas resulted in a source of income that allowed him to pursue his flying hobbies once he and Marie moved to Canyon Lake in the mid-1980s.
The Givens got a good deal on an east-facing house on the Main Lake that was 80 percent complete at the time of purchase; then they finished it to their liking. They had a boat and enjoyed water-skiing. Bob, whose hearing had been going out since his BP days, got a cochlear implant to improve his hearing and surgery to improve his eyesight. He’s also in the midst of getting dental implants.
Approaching retirement age and excited to fly again, Bob got his pilot’s license at Hemet-Ryan Airport and started flying small rental planes. He says he didn’t like the way the rental planes operated, so he decided to build his own airplane. He built the first one in his garage on Big Range, then two more in a hangar. Asked how he knew how to build a plane, Bob says simply, “I’m mechanical. My father was mechanical and he passed that gene to me.” He and Marie and their cat flew to small airports all over California and Nevada.
About four years ago, he decided to get his helicopter pilot’s license. Learning to fly a helicopter includes learning how to land if the motor quits working at several thousand feet. One may think a helicopter would drop straight to the ground in such circumstances, but Bob explains how the blades can be engaged to keep turning and slow the descent for a not-too-hard landing.
Once again, he wasn’t happy with the helicopters for rent, so he decided to build his own. “The first one was a piece of shit; I crashed it numerous times and didn’t want to fly it anymore,” he says. He donated that one to an air museum in French Valley. Then he built a new one with a jet engine that allowed him to travel up to 160 miles per hour. He says he didn’t build the electronics but he customized the small helicopter with special instrumentation.
He was able to fit the helicopter into his trailer and haul it with his RV, so he and Marie would drive to the Salton Sea and other destinations where he could get the helicopter out to go sightseeing. Finally, Marie convinced him that, even if the helicopter worked fine, his heart might not and he was putting others at risk by flying at his advanced age. That was when Bob decided to give up his wings. Sadly, it was Marie’s heart that gave out first last July.
Bob isn’t sure what the future will hold now that he’s had major heart surgery. He hopes he’ll get the the okay from his doctor to keep driving his RV. And he’s trying to adjust to life without his lifelong companion. But he’s grateful for all he’s experienced – and still ready to tell his stories.