One of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville’s all time great football players was inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame on November 7, 2015, in Nashville. Curtis L. Watson was known as “Curt” during his gridiron days at Knoxville. His nickname “Griz” was also his aviation call sign.
Curt was born in Winchester, Tennessee, and his family moved to Crossville in Cumberland County when he was only nine months old. As a high school and college football fullback at UTK he became known as “The Cumberland Comet.”
He held the school record at graduation for yards gained by a fullback (2,364), 22 touchdowns and a 5.4 yard per carry average and was a three-time All Southeastern Conference honoree. He was initially drafted in the sixth round of the National Football League by the New Orleans Saints and played two seasons with that team and the Green Bay Packers before receiving a career-ending injury.
Subsequent to his football career he joined the Navy in 1975 and was accepted into flight school at Pensacola Naval Air Station. He served 11 years as a pilot and the last four years he spent as a Navy aviator with the famed “Blue Angels” precision flight team.
While stationed at El Centro, California, air base in 1985 he was introduced to actor Tom Cruise who was to be the star in a move about naval aviation jet pilots which would be filmed at El Centro which was the Fighter Weapon School but better known as “Top Gun.” Watson was asked to take the 22-year-old Cruise on a flight to show the young actor the realities of being in a tactical jet. The purpose of the flight was to educate Cruise and develop his character for his role in the movie which would be released in 1986.
On the 30th anniversary of the release of the film an article in the Naples Daily News carried an interview by reporter Patrick Riley of Watson at his Marco Island, Florida, home. It described the 40-minute flight in the dual cockpit trainer that included Cruise being allowed to fly various maneuvers in a TA-4J or “Skyhawk” that could reach speeds of 400-450 knots and produce gravitational forces of up to sic “G’s.”
Although at first Cruise seemed reluctant to take the role of “Maverick” in Top Gun he immediately called his producer after the end of the flight with “Griz” and accepted the part.
Curt in 1987 joined his sister and brother-in-law as pilots with Federal Express in Memphis, Tennessee. He retired in 2015 after flying 9,522 accident-free hours as an international captain on the McDonald Douglas MD-11 and Boeing 771.
Perhaps his greatest accomplishment has been the funding of the Memphis Mid-South Air Show in 1999 to raise support for children and adult charities in several areas such as down syndrome, cystic fibrosis, breast cancer, and hearing impairment.
From his first interest in flying in a Piper Tri Pacer partially owed by his father, his career as a naval aviator including the Blue Angels and Federal Express, Curt Watson has used his extraordinary talents on both the ground and in the air to rightfully earn a position in the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.
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Jerry Summers can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org