With his humble beginnings in the small farming area of Parkrose, Oregon, Roy Simmons never dreamed that he would have a distinguished career in aviation.
A past chairman of Helicopter Association International (HAI) and past president of Columbia Helicopters, Simmons has received many accolades over the years, including HAI’s Distinguished Achievement Award in 1999. With more than 5,000 hours of total flight time between his military and civilian service, Simmons has held FAA commercial pilot, rotorcraft, single-engine land, instrument, and instructor ratings, in addition to type ratings in Boeing Vertol 107-II, Sikorsky S-61, and Sikorsky S-58 helicopters.
Simmons was born May 22, 1936, in Portland, Oregon. The country was still recovering from the Great Depression and times were tough. “My parents owned an acre of land, and I recall we always had a big garden,” says Simmons. “During World War II, my parents loaned out some of the land to local families to grow victory gardens. They saved a little money during the recovery and built a house.”
Sadly, Simmons’s father passed away when he was only 11. His mother worked hard to support her son, working as a bookkeeper for several companies before becoming a registered nurse.
During his senior year of high school, his mother lost her job. Because Simmons had enough credits to graduate, he took a job in a lead fishing-sinker factory, attending school in the mornings and working in the afternoon and on Saturdays.
Simmons attended Portland State College from 1954 to 1956, majoring in business and technology with a minor in accounting. “While attending college, I worked part-time during the summer months for Warren Northwest Paving Company, driving pickup trucks and trailers,” he says.
After college, Simmons’s attention turned to aviation. From 1957 to 1958, he attended naval flight school as a cadet in Pensacola, Florida, where he received fixed-wing and helicopter training. Simmons then served in the US Marine Corps from 1958 to 1963, leaving active duty with the rank of captain.
Simmons flew both helicopters and airplanes in various squadrons in the United States, overseas in Japan, and aboard carriers in the South Pacific. “My overseas tour of duty was spent in Okinawa,” Simmons says. “It was an interesting assignment, as I was assigned to a marine observation squadron, flying both helicopters (the HOK-1 [later designated as the OH-43D]) and fixed-wing (the Cessna OE-1 [later designated the O-1B]). We were the only marine aviation unit on the island supporting a marine division. Our mission was flying search and rescue with the helicopters and using the airplanes for flying aerial observers and forward air controllers.
“I also spent several months during my 15-month overseas tour of duty on an aircraft carrier. I attended Embarkation Officers School, where I learned how to load vehicles, supplies, and aircraft onto navy ships. I was in charge of several shipboard movements during my overseas assignment. In early 1960, I was reassigned to another marine observation squadron at Camp Pendleton, California, helping to train pilots for their upcoming tours of duty overseas.”
Simmons spent the last two years of his active duty at the Marine Corps Air Facility in Santa Ana, California, flying the Sikorsky HR2S-1 (later designated as the CH-347). “At the time, the HR2S was the largest helicopter in the free world,” says Simmons. “It had two Pratt & Whitney R-2800 radial engines and could carry about 32 troops or several jeeps internally. It had clamshell doors in the nose with a hydraulic ramp for loading vehicles. It was a great instrument helicopter and very stable to fly under instrument conditions.
“However, I was always up on my emergency procedures, as most every flight was an emergency in the making. I spent several nights in the Okefenokee swamps of Florida; made an emergency landing in the desert near Tucson, Arizona; and made a single-engine night GCA [ground-controlled approach] into Fort Ord, California, with 28 troops in the belly. After those incidents, I decided I had all the fun I could handle and asked for release from active duty in 1963.”
After leaving active duty, Simmons was a member of the US Marine Corps Reserve from 1963 to 1969, drilling in Seattle, Washington. After having attained the rank of major, he left the reserves when the demands of his civilian job became too pressing and included extensive travel time.