Birds gotta swim, Fish gotta fly

Kent Wang introduces us to Bob Fish, longtime docent at the Air and Space Museum, who always manages to circle back to his first love, the Cessna 150.

One of the things which sets the Air and Space Museum’s Docent Corps apart from most other flight museums is our commitment to recruiting only the most dedicated volunteers. Many of our docents are experienced pilots and engineers, but all have a passion for sharing their love of aeronautics with others. Robert Fish, a 32-year veteran of the U.S. Army Signal Corps, is a prime example. If it flies, he knows about it.

Fish poses in front of space shuttle

Bob Fish has been a volunteer docent for the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum since 1994.

A NASM docent for more than 23 years, Bob has 100 times that number of tours under his belt. At the museum, Bob leads visitors on two-hour tours, offering insight into the people, planes and spacecraft that tell the fascinating story of human flight. Bob knows more about aviation than many professional historians and acknowledged experts, but he never fails to share what he knows in a friendly, instructive, and humorous way. His knowledge and love for aviation infuse his tours with special energy and value, because he is eager to share his expertise, not impose it.

Bob has had an interest in aviation since he was a kid, but bad eyesight kept him from military aviation. He learned to fly a Cessna 150 in 1968 at Ft Monmouth, N.J., while serving as an instructor at the U.S. Army Signal School. The Cessna 150 still holds a special place in Bob’s heart. Learning to fly and receiving a private pilot’s license requires mastering many critical skills. In addition to takeoff, maneuvering, and landing, pilots must understand essential principles such as power management, density altitude, weight and balance, and many more. The Cessna 150 is a forgiving plane that is perfect for beginners as it is easy to fly and relatively inexpensive.

Bob enjoys telling stories about Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and other pioneers of aviation, such as Jerrie Mock, a great aviator who flew the Cessna 180 Spirit of Columbus and became the first woman to pilot a single-engine aircraft around the world.

Mock poses beside plane

Geraldine L. “Jerrie” Mock poses beside the nose of her Cessna 180 Spirit of Columbus at Port Columbus Airport, Columbus, Ohio, March 19, 1964, immediately before she takes off on her record setting solo flight around world in single engine plane. She was first woman to do so. (Courtesy National Air and Space Museum)

“It’s a labor of love,” Bob says of his docent experience. “I get to do something that combines my background and experience—as an amateur sport pilot and aviation buff—with my military and instructor experience. The Cessna 150 became the most popular civilian training aircraft after World War II, as well as economical recreational vehicles for weekend pilots. It still serves as the principal two-seat, general aviation trainer in the United States.” Three Cessna planes, 152, 180 and O-1A Bird Dog, are on display in the Boeing Aviation Hangar at the Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center.

“The first time I gave a tour in 1994, my mouth was as dry as cotton….To my amazement, I got a standing ovation. It’s interesting to learn from people on the tours,” Bob says. “We learn from the visitors, too, who often have a strong interest or background in air and spacecraft. You have to be very careful—you may be leading a group that includes the designer of the aircraft you’re discussing.

“But sometimes we have visitors who really aren’t that interested,” Bob continues. “Maybe they’re with a friend, or part of a larger tour and air and spacecraft are a mystery. That’s the real challenge—to help those visitors fell comfortable, have fun, and even learn something.

“It’s rewarding to have a buff ask a technical question and you can answer it, but it’s equally rewarding when a spouse comes up to you after a tour and says, ‘I had a really good time.’ You just can’t buy that kind of satisfaction.”

Bob Fish holding two infants

Bob Fish gets a head start on sharing his love of aviation with his grandchildren. At least one seems a little dubious.


Kent Wang has been a volunteer docent at the Air and Space Museum since 1997.

Posted: 8 November 2018
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One Response to Birds gotta swim, Fish gotta fly
    • Janet Baltas
    • I’m a fellow docent of Bob Fish’s at UHC who volunteers on the same day as Bob. When the museum first opened I followed Bob around on his tours and took notes and incorporated his best “nuggets” into my own tour. I truly don’t think I’ve ever asked him a question that he didn’t know the answer………and I ask a lot of questions! He’s a great guy with a wonderful sense of humor and it’s nice to see him being acknowledged. Bob, it’s been an honor volunteering along side of you all these years……….Janet