Retired Kansas state Sen. Rip Gooch, leader in Black aviation industry, dies at 98

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Ulysses Lee “Rip” Gooch, a retired Kansas state senator and former Wichita City Council member whose passion for flight and dedication to civil rights helped pave the way for Black leaders in the aviation industry, has died at age 98.

Mr. Gooch died on Wednesday, according to a post on Jackson Mortuary’s website. His funeral arrangements are pending.

A well-known politician and aviation entrepreneur, Mr. Gooch served the Wichita area as both a Wichita City Council member and as a Kansas State Senator from the late 1980s to the early 2000s, and continued to be a voice for the community well after his retirement.

He is a member of the Kansas Aviation Hall of Fame, is part of the inaugural class of the Black Aviation Hall of Fame in Memphis, and logged around 20,000 hours of flight time over his more than half-century long aviation career.

In the late 1950s, Mr. Gooch also became the first Black person in Wichita to found and run his own fixed-base aviation operation, which stored and maintained aircraft, offered flight instruction and performed pilot examinations for the Federal Aviation Administration, according to The Eagle’s news archives.

“Rip was a pioneer and warrior who fought tirelessly for civil rights and paved the way for Black leaders in the field of aviation,” the Sedgwick County Democratic Party said in a Wednesday evening Facebook post as news of his death began to spread on social media.

“He will be missed but his legacy lives on. We are grateful for his leadership.”

Mr. Gooch was born on Sept. 13, 1923, in rural Ripley, Tennessee. The son of rural Tennessee sharecroppers and grandson of freed slaves, he was orphaned at age 4 after the death of his mother. He went to live with an aunt and uncle and spent his some of his formative years picking cotton in a Tennessee field.

There, according to his 2015 autobiography ”Black Horizons: One Aviator’s Experience in the Post-Tuskegee Era,” he would stare at the airplanes flying overhead and dream of a better life.

He graduated from Lauderdale High School in Ripley and joined the Army in 1943 as World War II raged. His fascination with aviation led him to apply for training with the famed Tuskegee Airmen, a group of primarily Black military pilots and airmen.

But his military service prevented him from going, according to The Eagle’s news archives.

After Mr. Gooch was discharged from the military, he took flight lessons, earning his private pilot’s license the next year. He dreamed of becoming a commercial pilot, according to reports, but couldn’t find full-time work in the aviation industry because of his race.

He moved to Wichita, a major aviation hub, in the early 1950s and started his own flight business — Aero Systems Inc. — within a few years. It was among the first Black-owned fixed-base operations in the country and the first in the city, according to reports.

Later, he continued his career as a freelance charter pilot and aircraft manufacturing company consultant.

In a 2008 interview, Mr. Gooch told The Eagle that overcoming hardships including an inadequate education in childhood and racial discrimination had given him strength.

“I just used those things to make me strong; to give me more determination,” he said in 2008. “I didn’t let those things be my handicap.”

Mr. Gooch went on to serve on the Kansas Commission on Civil Rights from 1971 to 1974 and was elected to the Wichita City Council from 1989 to 1993. He also served in the Kansas State Senate, representing northeast Wichita’s 29th District from 1993 until his 2004 retirement.

In a 2003 interview as he was preparing to step down, Mr. Gooch told The Eagle that his greatest accomplishment as senator was helping to pass a bill that provided drug rehabilitation as an alternative to prison for some offenders.

When he retired at age 80, he was the state’s oldest serving senator.

Mr. Gooch is survived by a daughter, Bonita Gooch, and was preceded in death by his wife, Dora, and two children, Camellia Gooch Lee and Kerry Gooch.

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