History of the Harvard ROTC Aviation Award

The Harvard ROTC Aviation Award originated in a suggestion by Joseph Gano, Jr. ’64, who wanted to encourage Harvard ROTC students to pursue careers in military aviation. When Joe was admitted to Harvard in 1960 he nearly declined the offer, because he wanted to fly in the Air Force, and he thought that he would have a better chance to achieve that goal if he went to the Air Force Academy. From the age of nine he had wanted to be a jet fighter pilot. Upon learning that he could enroll in Air Force ROTC at Harvard and go on to pilot training, he decided to come to Harvard. He went on to fly F-102s on active duty. A successful business career and the end of the Cold War enabled him to indulge his love of jet aircraft by acquiring what he described as "very fine, well maintained, low time aircraft … at prices just above scrap value." In 2002 his company owned two MiG-21s and a Czech L-29 jet trainer and was part owner of two MiG-23s. He subsequently acquired a second L-29 and two L-39s, and his company now owns both of the MiG-23s. He has regularly taken his "Warbirds of Delaware" to air shows and has also made them available to the Department of Defense to add realism to jet fighter training programs.

Joe Gano ’64 with one of his MiG-21s, September 20, 2013

Joe has participated in the annual Reno Air Races and Air Show for many years. His company engineered two of the fastest aircraft ever to race at Reno: an L-29, designated "Race 77", and an L-39, designated "Race 2." Curt Brown, a six-time Space Shuttle Commander, holds the absolute record for the course in "Race 77", and Joe holds the record for an L-39 in "Race 2".

In 2011 Joe spoke of his hope to continue flying his MiGs until age 75. At that time, he said he could "still pull 10 Gs in a pinch". He attributed his longevity as a pilot of high-performance jets to diet and a weight training program that he had maintained since high school. The anticipated change came sooner than he expected, in November 2013 at Reno, when he experienced a brake failure on landing in one of his MiG-21s, overshot the runway, and was seriously injured. There was no fire, but the aircraft was damaged beyond repair. In May 2014 he said he would give up flying his MiGs but expressed the hope of continuing to fly his L-29s and L-39s. About a year later he had fully recovered, and he resumed flying.

In 2002 Joe proposed offering a flight in a MiG as an award to a selected senior cadet or midshipman. He declared, "I want real pilots," and he asked the directors of the Alumni Fund to develop a set of objective selection criteria. After much discussion with Joe, the ROTC unit commanders, and a lawyer, the directors of the Fund decided that the award should consist of a certificate or plaque plus a cash stipend. Joe agreed with our suggestion that not only pilot and navigator candidates but also candidates for other aviation-related career fields would be eligible. The directors of the Fund annually invite each unit commander to nominate one candidate, and they invite each candidate to submit a one-page personal statement. From the beginning, Joe has offered to each recipient a flight in one or more of his aircraft. Although the Alumni Fund places no restrictions on the use of the stipend, it is intended to enable the recipient to travel to Wilmington, Del., where Joe’s aircraft are based.

The directors of the Alumni Fund have greatly enjoyed getting to know the recipients of this award and sharing their enthusiasm.


2004: Ens. Daniel Walker (Navy). Ens. Walker’s interest in aviation grew from his grandfather’s experience as a Navy pilot in the Pacific Theater during World War II. Although medically disqualified for pilot training, he was accepted as a Naval Flight Officer. He arranged with Joe Gano to take a flight in a MiG-21, including a few minutes of supersonic time, in October 2004, before he reported for active duty.

2005: 2nd Lt. William Conners (Army) decided to become a pilot after his first ride in a Blackhawk helicopter, early in his ROTC training. He was attracted by the opportunities and challenges of aviation. He did not have enough time to arrange a flight with Joe Gano before he reported for his initial active duty assignments, but Joe stated his willingness to let his offer stand for the duration of each recipient’s active duty.

2006: Ens. Joseph Payne (Navy). Ens. Payne had decided on Naval Aviation before he entered ROTC. "For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a fascination with the honor, pride, and rich tradition associated with this field." Although medically disqualified for pilot training, he was accepted as a Naval Flight Officer.

2007: Ens. Danielle Thiriot (Navy). Ens. Thiriot thought about aviation during her first year in ROTC but was uncertain until she went on a 3-hour surveillance flight in an SH-60 helicopter over the Pacific Ocean during the summer before her senior year. "It was the most amazing feeling I had ever experienced, and I couldn’t wait to go back up." She flew in Joe Gano’s MiG-21 in July 2007. She described the experience as "incredible" and declared that it "really got me excited to start up my aviation training." She returned to Cambridge in November 2012 in an F-18E to participate in a flyover of the Harvard-Yale Game, celebrating the return of ROTC to Harvard and Yale.

ENS Danielle Thiriot ’07 in MiG-21, July 2007

LT Danielle Thiriot ’07 with F-18E at Hanscom Air Force Base, November 2012

2008: 2nd Lt. Michael Arth (Air Force) is the son of a career Air Force officer and grandson of a World War II aviator. He flew with Joe Gano in June 2008. He described his time at the controls of a Czech L-39 Albatross as "one of the most exhilarating experiences of my life. I can't believe I'm about to get paid to fly for a living!".

2nd Lt. Michael Arth ’08 in MiG-21, June 2008

2010: Ens. Michael Kaehler (Navy). Ens. Kaehler was fascinated by aviation from an early age, watching operations at a local small airport and seeing military aircraft at air shows. His first flight was in a biplane operated by a family friend. In his personal statement he said, "From a young age the idea of flight has fascinated me beyond bounds, and it seems almost too good to be true that I can experience this as a part of a deeper commitment to the country which has given me so much." He flew with Joe Gano in June 2010, and Joe reported that Michael "flew twice, pulled 7 G, and left totally amped up for fighters."

2011: Ens. James Reach (Navy). Ens. Reach described a life-long interest in flying, inspired by several family members who served in the Navy, Marine Corps, and Air Force. He described a flight in an F/A-18F in 2010 as "by far the highlight of my time at Harvard." He flew with Joe Gano in October 2011 and described his flight in the MiG-21 as "simply exhilarating … its sheer power was amazing." Of his flight in Joe’s Czech L-39 Albatross he said, "Although we were in the air for close to an hour, by the time we landed it seemed as though only fifteen minutes had passed."

ENS James Reach ’11 in MiG-21, October 2011

2016: 2nd Lt. Carolyn Pushaw (U.S. Marine Corps) became interested in naval aviation during a two-week cruise on the aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan in 2012. Flights on a T-6 trainer, an SH-60 helicopter, and a C-2 cargo aircraft during the summer of 2013 confirmed her desire to become a pilot. She aims to become a helicopter pilot. She met Joe in Reno in June and flew with him in one of his L-29s. She declared, "It was an absolutely incredible experience."

2nd Lt. Carolyn Pushaw ’16 and Joe Gano ’64 with one of Joe’s L-29 Vipers, June 2016

2017: 2nd Lt. Kira Headrick (U.S. Air Force) has a long-standing fascination with aeronautics and astronautics. Two summers at NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center, in addition to orientation flights in Air Force aircraft, confirmed her goal to become a pilot and astronaut. Joe Gano offered flights to her and to runner-up Ens. John Holland, and both of them flew with Joe in his L-39 Albatross "Pipsqueak" on May 14, 2-17, ten days before they were commissioned.

Midn. John Holland ’17, Joe Gano ’64, and Cadet Kira Headrick ’17 with L-39 "Pipsqueak", May 14, 2017

In-flight selfie of Cadet Kira Headrick ’17 in Pipsqueak, May 14, 2017

Midn. John Holland ’17 preparing for takeoff in Pipsqueak, May 14, 2017


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