From flying Navy planes off an aircraft carrier deck, to the front lines of NASA’s Space Shuttle program, to his current mission helping veterans through Norman’s American Legion Post 88, Harley McPeek definitely fits the category of a Hometown Hero.
Originally from West Virginia, McPeek served on active duty as a naval aviator from 1964 to 1969, achieving the rank of lieutenant. During his time in the service, he was stationed aboard the carriers USS Wasp and USS Essex, where he flew S-2 fixed-wing planes and participated in anti-submarine warfare activities in the Atlantic, Caribbean and Mediterranean oceans. Pursuits of Soviet nuclear submarines, carrier landings in bad weather, and other hair-raising incidents were frequent, he said.
“Flying is exciting, challenging, and obviously there’s a lot of teamwork going into the missions,” he said. “For me as an individual, when you’re flying, you’re above the world, and you’re in control. I loved it.”
McPeek decided he wanted to become a pilot as a teenager, after seeing Air Force planes fly overhead, and chose to become a Naval aviator after speaking with their college recruiters at West Virginia University. He joined the service at age 21, and got his wings and commission on his 23rd birthday.
After retiring from active duty, McPeek completed undergraduate training at the University of Rhode Island. He served in the U.S. Naval reserves for the next 18 years, rising to the rank of commander. As part of those duties, he flew both H3 helicopters from Rhode Island and Massachusetts and operating from various naval vessels. Or as he put it, “anything with a helo deck.” He also took the time to earn his master’s degree in business administration from the University of South Alabama. Serving his country, however, continued to be first and foremost.
“We often had more flight time as reservists than the guys on active duty,” McPeek said. “In fact, we were the first reserve squadron ever to deploy on an attack carrier.”
In what might be seen as foreshadowing of his later career, McPeek also was among the Naval team charged with retrieving a number of NASA astronauts from the ocean after their space capsules’ splashdown to earth.
Outside the service, McPeek utilized his mechanical and leadership abilities to build a successful civilian career, starting with CIBA Geigy Corp., where he worked as a production foreman supervising industrial chemical production. In 1981, he began a prestigious 14-year stint with Lockheed Martin Michoud Space Systems, where he helped create and maintain the external fuel tanks for the Space Shuttle. During his tenure with Lockheed, he received the company’s NOVA award for his work, and in January 1981 was designated a Space Shuttle Launch Honoree. The latter award was given for his work implementing redesigns to the shuttle’s liquid hydrogen fuel tanks.
“It was challenging, to say the least,” McPeek said of his time with the shuttle program. “There are so many different parts, and the process to put them together is so precise, and there’s no room for error, of course. There are literally miles and miles of welds on the shuttle fuel tanks, just as one example. So, it was challenging, but at the same time it was great because of the visibility and importance of what we were doing.”
After living in Louisiana for several decades, McPeek and his wife, Sandra, moved to Norman several years ago to be near her daughter and grandson. He had been an inactive member of the American Legion for many years, but decided it was time to become involved. Since March 2018, McPeek has served as an accredited Veterans Service Officer for Norman’s Post, where he works to help veterans and their dependents obtain disability and other benefits. He’s also a big part of its community outreach programs, helps organize the annual Veterans’ Day parade, and serves as the Post’s unofficial photographer.
Of his VSO duties, McPeek said, “I feel like I’m contributing to other vets. They’re a group that’s uncared for, especially from Vietnam and some of the more recent conflicts. They have needs that haven’t been met, and it just seemed the Christian thing for me to do at this point.”
McPeek said he is fiercely proud of his time in the service, and stays in touch with many of his fellow comrades in arms.
“You go through so many things together as a team,” he said. “You make friendships in the military that you just don’t make anywhere else.”