Steve Hyle

April 5, 2010
Steve Hyle, who served with the Air Force Thunderbirds, is on the top row on the far left. NONE SUBMITTED PHOTO

Steve Hyle has eaten dinner with the Bush family, sipped champagne with Frank Sinatra, shared a class with Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski, worked with Colin Powell and flown with the prestigious U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds. He’s also lived at 20 addresses in 40 years and cut grass on a local golf course.

To say the 66-year-old Lewes resident has done it all might be an understatement.

Hyle, who moved to Lewes in 2003 with his wife of 40 years, Linda, is one of a host of transplants with long résumés who now call the Cape Region home.

Hyle had ambitions to attend law school after graduating from Ohio University in 1966, but a troop buildup during the Vietnam War got in the way. He joined the U.S. Air Force and a planned four-year stint ended up as a 20-year career. That decision also set the stage for the rest of his life. He never did get to law school, but he has no regrets.

By the time he was finished serving in the Air Force, he had attained the rank of lieutenant colonel.

Steve Hyle as he looked serving in the U.S. Air Force.

Life-changing experiences

Hyle says he has experienced four life-changing events: taking part in the prestigious Air Force High Flight program; working for Gen. Jack Catton, a four-star general; serving as executive officer for the Air Force Thunderbirds; and serving as administrative officer for the Presidential Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident.

In the Air Force, Hyle moved to bases from Thailand to New Jersey, getting an MBA along the line at Indiana University.

He said through it all, the most influential man he met was Catton. “He had a presence when he walked in a room,” Hyle said. “He told me he demanded only one thing from people in headquarters. That was that staff was working with him and not for him.”

That message was the foundation for Hyle’s career in management. He was director of central base administration at Grissom A.F. Base in Indiana where he brought a base at the bottom of the evaluation rung to the top in just one year.

He also served as executive officer with the Thunderbirds from 1977 to 1979 at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas. “It was the most demanding two years I ever experienced,” he said. “It’s all about perfection. There were self-critiques every day.”

It also occasionally turned his world upside down as he flew 50 feet off the ground, going 500 mph, during Thunderbird shows.

He was selected for a special Air Force Education with Industry program where he spent 11 months working on an IBM research team on the cutting edge of the word processing explosion.

In 1981, Hyle was assigned to the Pentagon, where he was promoted to major and worked in the Air Force legislative office, lobbying for the Air Force in Congress, coordinating congressional travel and dealing with Air Force constituent concerns.

Hyle said he received an invaluable education on the inner workings of Congress. “It’s light-years apart how Congress functions today,” he said.

He also worked as the deputy administrative assistant to the undersecretary of defense where he interacted with other high-ranking members of the military including Colin Powell.

In January 1985, he was assigned to the family of Vice President George H. W. Bush during inaugural ceremonies. “I literally lived with George and Barbara and their kids. Everywhere they went, I went,” he said.

He and his wife might also have played a small role in history when they were guests at a Bush family dinner the night of the inaugural balls. Talking about pets, Linda mentioned they had a dog named Millie.

“Barbara said she really liked that name,” Hyle said.

The Bushes’ White House dog was named Millie.

He also rubbed shoulders with Hollywood celebrities, including Frank Sinatra, who helped coordinate an inaugural salute show to the president and vice president.

The Challenger investigation
During the last year of his Air Force career in 1986, he was selected for the most taxing of duties as the administrative officer for the President’s Commission on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. Known as the Rogers Commission, named for Chairman William P. Rogers, a former secretary of state and attorney general, the commission investigated the Jan. 28, 1986 explosion and crash, just 73 seconds after takeoff ,of the shuttle Challenger. The crash killed all seven crewmembers, including Christa McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space participant.

“Everything I had done and learned over the past 20 years came together,” he said.

He oversaw the inner workings of the Washington, D.C.-based commission, whose high-profile members included Chuck Yeager, the man who first broke the sound barrier; moon walker Neil Armstrong; and the first female astronaut, Sally Ride.

Hyle said President Ronald Reagan had given the commission 120 days to determine a cause without going on a witch-hunt. The original investigation was conducted in tandem with NASA.

“It was the most complex investigation since the Kennedy assassination commission,” he said.

Hyle said during interviews, it quickly became obvious there were problems with NASA staff and the agency’s contractors. “We realized the whole management within NASA was a part of the problem as much as any physical cause,” Hyle said.

The commission found that the Challenger accident was caused by a failure of the O-rings, which allowed pressurized hot gases and eventually flame to blow by the O-rings and make contact with the adjacent external tank, causing structural failure. The failure of the O-rings was attributed to a design flaw, because their performance could be too easily compromised by factors including the low temperature on the day of launch.

Hyle said it was below freezing the night before the launch.

Hyle said the report highlighted the failure of both NASA and its contractor, Morton Thiokol, to respond adequately to the design flaw. The commission found that as early as 1977, NASA managers had not only known about the flawed O-ring design; they also knew O-ring failure held the potential for catastrophe.

The report also strongly criticized the decision-making process that led to the launch. Hyle said an earlier decision by 30 engineers not to launch was reversed after the engineers were asked to make the decision as managers, not as engineers, what Hyle called putting on their management hats. He said outside pressures, including previous delays, played a role in reversing the decision.

The commission generated 6,300 documents totaling 122,000 pages plus an additional 2,800 pages of hearing testimony transcripts.

After military life
That experience was a single chapter in Hyle’s life. As soon as he finished work on that commission, he was appointed to the Martin Luther King Holiday Commission, where he served for two months.

After retiring from the Air Force, he worked briefly as a legal administrator, but discovered it wasn’t for him. He then ended up at his alma mater as an assistant dean in the College of Business where he traveled the county for five years reconnecting successful alumni to the college.

Before making a decision to move to the Cape Region, he worked for a now-defunct company on the cutting edge of information technology, where he recruited the brightest and best college students from around the country. He also worked briefly for the College Center of the Finger Lakes.

But the nearly 30 years of traveling and moving had taken its toll. “We decided to downsize, go to the beach and never some back,” he said. “We knew someday that we would come back forever. It was the best decision we ever made.”

His family has made annual treks to Rehoboth Beach for 23 summers. Hyle has no plans to retire since the move to the beach. Over the past seven years, he has worked at a golf course, helped to get a local TEA Party movement started, worked at a bed and breakfast and furniture store and done work for the Center for the Inland Bays and the Boy Scouts. He is chief executive officer of the Support Our Soldiers Foundation and also serves on the board of directors of the Caesar Rodney Institute.