Williamsburg aviator spent decades at NASA, now looks toward future of flight

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Dr. Bruce Holmes worked for National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for more than 30 years and serving in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House under two presidents. (Courtesy Bruce Holmes)
Dr. Bruce Holmes worked for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for more than 30 years and served in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House under two presidents. (Courtesy Bruce Holmes)

For much of his life, Dr. Bruce J. Holmes has taken to the sky. In fact, he began to fly airplanes before he even learned to drive a car.

His father, Harold, was a jet instructor in the Korean War who taught Holmes everything he wanted to know about planes.

Holmes went on to leave his own mark in the aviation field, working for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) for more than 30 years and serving in the Office of Science and Technology Policy at the White House under two presidents.

“I’ve been flying for more than fifty years,” Holmes said. “To me, it is the ultimate expression of freedom and liberty. It’s terrific. It’s almost an emotional experience for me each time I fly.”

Holmes grew up in the Chicago area and earned his private pilot’s license at the age of 19. He later worked as a flight instructor and a commuter airplane pilot while studying for a degree in aerospace engineering at the University of Kansas. He met his wife, Connie, in college, and the pair moved to Hampton Roads in 1974 when Holmes began working at NASA Langley Research Center. Holmes, his wife, and their two children later settled in Williamsburg in 2004.

Holmes quickly climbed his way up the ladder at NASA Langley, assisting with the improvement of technology in airplanes. The technology advances in aviation today are a result of the research and development Holmes helped conduct from the 1970s to the 1990s.

“NASA was a fascinating place,” Holmes said. “It’s a thrill to fly in airplanes now that I’ve been hands on with directly or indirectly all those years ago. It’s very satisfying.”

In 2000, Holmes began a stint at the White House, serving in the Office of Science and Technology Policy in aviation policy analysis. He assisted with the establishment of the President’s Commission on the Future of the U.S. Aerospace Industry, and also helped found the U.S. Joint Planning and Development Office (JPDO), leading the development of the strategies for the Next Generation Air Transportation System (NextGen). Holmes worked for both President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush during his time in Washington, D.C.

“I was in awe working at the White House,” Holmes said. “I really liked working with both administrations. I felt a powerful, meaningful sense of contribution, and it was gratifying to have mentors all along the way, individuals who really helped me discover how to make a difference. We really did change the world of aviation forever.”

Holmes’ expertise in aviation led to multiple television appearances. He’s been featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes; The Discovery Channel; The History Channel; NASA’s educational programming; and other numerous national news broadcasts. His work has also been chronicled in the book “Free Flight-Reinventing Air Travel” by James Fallows.

After retiring from NASA in 2007, Holmes became the Chief Strategist for DayJet Corporation in Florida, supporting the launch of the industry’s first per-seat, on-demand air carrier. The company covered more than 60 markets in seven states.

“Our customers loved it,” Holmes said. “It was nirvana.”

These days, Holmes continues to have an impact on aviation technology. He is an aviation consultant as well as vice president and executive director for the Skytelligence Group at SmartSky Networks, LLC, a firm launching an innovative WiFi and software system for aviation. Through SmartSky, he aids in the development of mobile device apps that can be used in both the cockpit and the cabin on an airplane while in flight.

“It’s a fun thing to be a part of,” Holmes said. “Recently, I was on Facetime with my wife while she was here and I was on a plane. It was pretty amazing. This is going to be an amazing advancement for aviation.”

Eventually, Holmes would like to see self-flying airplanes much like the self-driving cars that are just emerging.

“I know that sounds ambitious, a bit wild and crazy, but most of my career has been wild and crazy,” he said.

Read more profiles of local residents in WYDaily’s section In Our Hometown