August 10, 2005 - When Harold L. "Bud" Abrams, 83, passed away June 13 following a 23-month battle with cancer, an estimated 500 or more people showed up for his memorial service at the Pima Air & Space Museum.
A large portion of his family, local business people, his employees, old friends from Tucson High School and retired military personnel were in attendance to celebrate the life of Abrams, who, 40 years ago, had a vision of building an aviation empire that he started inside the garage of his family's home on Wetmore Road.
The Northwest business, Abrams Airborne Manufacturing, incorporated in April 1965 and has since grown into a 150,000-square-foot company that employs more than 300 people. Abrams found success manufacturing sheet metal inside a plant on Romero Road, which now creates high-tech electronic components found on naval ships, tanks and aircraft around the world and on space stations and satellites orbiting the planet.
"The whole thing was a family affair," said his daughter, Jenny Wilson, vice president of Abrams Airborne, who was 11 when her father began the company. "He always had that vision."
About 15 years ago, Abrams demonstrated his love for flying by becoming the leaseholder of the Marana Regional Airport, where he created the Tucson Aeroservice Center, Pima Aviation Inc., and the Sky Rider Coffee Shop. He played a vital role in developing the airport into a growing aviation center that is expected to be an economic engine for Marana in the years to come.
"His love for flying was kind of the spearpoint on that. He just always loved airplanes and anything that had to do with flying," said his son, Gary Abrams, president of Abrams Airborne, who said his father was his best friend in life.
"He's the one that built my love for aircraft, airplanes and airports in general," Gary said. "Even when I was a little kid, he used to always take me out to the airport on the evenings to watch airplanes come and go. He had a big interest in warbirds, and it's kind of what created my interest in it."
Bud's memorial service took place under the wing of a Curtis C-46, which was painted the colors of the airplane he flew during World War II, the Syracuse Shackrat. Also nearby was a Boeing B-29. The service was complete with a playing of "Taps," a folding of the American flag, and a DVD showing video clips and photographs of Bud's life from childhood to adulthood.
"It was very fitting for him. It was all about him," Wilson said. "I don't think there was a dry eye in the whole place."
Next year, Bud is expected to be inducted into the Arizona Aviation Hall of Fame, which honored him with a lifetime achievement award last year. In addition to being a trustee of the Hall of Fame, Bud was one of the original founding members and president of the Air & Space Museum for six years.
Marana Mayor Ed Honea, who attended Bud's service, said the town is committed to developing the Marana airport into a future industrial center - a vision Bud and his family had long before Marana bought the airport from Pima County in 1999. The Marana airport, formerly known as Avra Valley Airport, is on Avra Valley Road about five miles west of Interstate 10.
"The Abrams family did a lot of work turning that airport around," Honea said. "It was kind of in the midst of ruins before they went in and built hangars, put in fuel and built the restaurant. I would say Bud Abrams and the Abrams family were very instrumental in keeping that airport alive and building it up to a fairly high-traffic airport now for small planes."
Bud's passion and commitment allowed him to continue working and flying until the very end, Gary said. He worked up until the day before he went into the hospital, where he stayed for two weeks before passing away.
"His mentality … he would be out here at the airport still trying to walk around, always had a great attitude and always had a great joke for you," said Charlie Mangum, director of the Marana airport.
"He'd go take his chemo and come back and go to work," recalled Wilson. "He was an amazing person."
A 1941 graduate of Tucson High, Bud joined the Army Air Corps at the age of 20 after going to glider school. During World War II, he flew in the Fifth Combat Cargo Squadron in the South Pacific, transporting prisoners of war, wounded and cargo.
On May 3, Bud took his last flight in his A-26 attack bomber, "Puss & Boots," which is stored inside a hangar at the Marana airport. On that warm spring day, Bud entertained a crowd of several hundred people during a flyover as part of the grand opening of the Marana Municipal Complex. Alongside Bud in the plane was his son, Gary, and Mangum.
"He just loved to fly that airplane," Gary said. "It didn't matter if it was for a town hall opening or whether he was chasing a jackrabbit. He just wanted to get in that airplane
Bud wore his love for his country on his sleeve, evident by the American flags and framed replicas of the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and George Washington's Oath of Office that greet visitors inside Abrams Airborne, 3735 N. Romero Road.
He married his wife Barbara in 1946 after returning from the war. Together, they raised their three children in Tucson. Barbara still works as secretary and treasurer of Abrams Airborne, which employs several generations of Abrams family members, including Bud's other daughter, Julie Shepard.
Bud demanded certain qualities of his children, including honesty, integrity and hard work, Gary said. But at the same time, he was fun to be around and always had a great sense of humor.
"He's always been my champion, my mentor, my father and my friend," Gary said. "When I was in school, he went to every football game I ever played. He went to every wrestling match I ever had. He was always there.
"He taught me how to fly and then threw me the keys to an airplane. He taught me how to drive and threw me the keys to the car," he said. "But he didn't force me into doing anything, which a lot of parents do."
Gary said it was his father's belief that if you work hard enough at something, anything can happen. He said it was that optimism that served as the engine behind everything Abrams Airborne has accomplished.
"The great thing about him was that he could say, 'Today was a bad day, and we did things wrong and everything got screwed up, but tomorrow will be better and we'll find a way to make it right,'" Gary said. "He was just a great optimist, loved a challenge and could find a way around problems."
Despite Bud's passing, the Abrams still have big plans for Marana's airport where development is on a fast track (see related story,
The family-owned business, Pima Aviation Inc., markets and leases hangar space at the airport and works to attract aviation-related businesses. The Abrams also own Tucson Aeroservice Center, the airport's fixed-base operation, which manages the daily business of the airport, offering aircraft repair, charters and rentals, fuel services, and flight instruction. The family's Sky Rider Coffee Shop, a popular lunch destination at the airport, has served sandwiches and meals to customers since the mid-1980s.
"My father worked very hard building this business. He worked seven days a week, some days around the clock. He always tried to do it the right way, with some sense of honor, integrity, and respect for the people that worked for him," Gary said.
"The airport is a big chunk of our future now. I think it has a lot of potential, especially with the way the city is expanding," he said. "We hope to be able to build it up into some form of future family legacy. We're committed to it long-term, both out of realizing the vision that my father had as well as knowing that he created his family to be a bunch of stubborn people that will not take no for an answer."
On a Sunday morning, just six days before he entered the hospital, Bud climbed into the passenger seat of a T-28 one last time to ride alongside his son as he soared across the desert sky, high above the city he had grown to love during his long life in Tucson. Gary admits there's a strange void now when he looks off to his side to find his father missing.
"When we'd fly the old biplanes, we'd always fly two of them together, and we'd fly in formation. We'd take off in formation, fly around in formation and land in formation," he said. "He'd never get more than 10 feet off my wing tip.
"When I flew my Stearman the other day, I missed him hanging off my wing out there."
But not all is lost. Now, when Gary looks to find his father, his best friend, he simply turns to the clouds.
"I see him," he said.