Philip H. (Phil) Holcomb

HolcombUnder my mug shot in my High School yearbook, it said: “Has Tuba-Will Travel”.  I don’t know who came up with that prophecy, but I should have paid more attention.

I attended the New York State Maritime College for two years until I found that I could win a commission in the Air Cadets in 9 months. I left the swabbies and passed all the tests for Air Cadets until they checked my eyes more closely.  Having burned my bridges and since the Draft was in effect- I enlisted in the USAF and became a radio relay equipment repairman. I applied several times for OCS, but even though I took the test each time, my application was rejected for various administrative reasons- too soon after assignment, too close to rotation, etc, etc.  Anyway, I ended up in Tokyo and made Staff Sgt living in comparative luxury as an enlisted man. I almost forgot my OCS application, when I suddenly received a letter from Kel-Lac Uniform Company congratulating me on selection to Class 62D.  My name then appeared in Stars and Stripes, and a month later I received official notification!

After three weeks of OCS, my right knee was swelling up during the 5-mile runs (at 5 A.M.) and I was directed to go to Wilford Hall Hospital.  The doctor took one look at the X-rays and told me to check in the hospital the next day! I was scheduled for an operation on both knees that week!!!  They finished one and decided to delay the second until I recovered from the first.  Truthfully, I was glad to be out of OCS with an honorable excuse.  But after 10 depressing months lying on my back in the hospital, I became determined to rejoin OCS.  Little did I know that the doctors had given me only a 50/50 chance to walk properly.

I survived OCS this time (it helped a lot to know what was coming in advance) and went on to Communications Officer School in Biloxi.  My first assignment was at HQ-TAC Langley AFB Virginia.  I worked as a Direct Air Support Officer, evaluating and deploying new communications equipment systems for Forward Air Controllers and Combat Control Teams in Vietnam. This included field testing in exercises in Florida and Alaska.

I then went on Bootstrap to the University of Nebraska at Omaha and graduated after 2 full semesters with a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature and Speech (a rather abrupt change in direction!).   While I was languishing as Lt. Joe College on full pay and allowances, I got a call offering me an assignment with the 1956 Comm. Squadron – Detachment 1, Hickam AFB Hawaii.   I was worried that Det.1 was Hanoi-South, but as it turned out, Det. 1 was Camp HM Smith- CINCPAC on Oahu.  I worked there as Chief, Command Center Communications through 1968.

During this time, my knees were again giving me trouble, and a doctor at Tripler gave me the bad news that I was unfit for worldwide assignment, and that I would never be eligible for a Regular Commission.  He recommended that I meet a Medical Evaluation Board.  With a rather bleak and limited future before me, I decided to abandon my military career and take a chance in civilian life. The Medical Board agreed with the doctor but instead of a separation, they offered me a disability Retirement – at the rank of Captain.  At the time, I was finishing a Master’s degree program at night in Systems Management with USC.

I soon landed a civilian job with the consultants expanding Honolulu International Airport – and after a couple of years moved over into Airport Operations with the State of Hawaii – ending up as Assistant Manager, HNL.  I was happily racing my yacht and living the good life in my condo in Waikiki – when I lucked into a 9-month leave of absence to work with Bechtel Corp studying major airports all around the world.  After visiting Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, and temporarily living in San Francisco, I found myself somewhat less enamored with Hawaii when I returned. A few months later, I was suddenly offered a job in Saudi Arabia at several times my state salary, so I bid Aloha to my boat, condo, and the good life and started working in the big kitty litter box- not an easy transition…

In 1980 I had enough of Saudi and accepted a position with the UN (International Civil Aviation Organization) and was posted to Sri Lanka where I was appointed General Manager of their new Airport Authority – a challenging but deeply satisfying job for three years.   I then was transferred to Muscat, Sultanate of Oman where I served as Senior Aviation Adviser for six years- (living in a villa on the beach). I started buying Oriental Carpets in Oman and soon became an avid collector.

Remember the Tuba??  Well while on leave in Copenhagen, I bought an old tuba for fun – and soon joined a group of musicians calling ourselves the “Muscat Brass”.

In 1989 I accepted the post of ICAO Deputy Director, Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific in Bangkok. Our office was responsible for ensuring the implementation of Standards and Practices for the safe and secure operation of international civil aviation for 35 countries in Asia and the Pacific.  My position had me traveling from Bhutan and Nepal in the Himalayas out to Vanuatu and The Solomon Islands in the Pacific.  I also served as Aviation Security Coordinator for Asia and Pacific.  I conducted workshops and seminars in Airport Management and Operations in places like Beijing, Singapore, and Kuala Lumpur.

Between trips, I formed the “Bangkok Brass Ensemble”. I became the Vice President of the Bangkok Music Society and took on a role of an impresario – coordinating and hosting concerts by the Canadian Brass and other groups. At the same time, I started collecting old and unusual brass instruments.

My collection of oriental carpets grew out of control during this period, and I formed the Bangkok Carpet Collectors Club. I also bought a hot, racing trimaran which I raced in Pattaya and the annual Kings Cup in Phuket.

My life was certainly interesting – but somehow incomplete – until I met a lovely Thai lady named Phanpen who managed the hotel near the Yacht Club where I stayed each weekend. We courted for a couple of years and then married.  We were immediately (and doubly) blessed with twin girls, Samantha and Jennifer in 1996  ( I was always a bit behind the curve – a perfect application of the OCS Panic Principle!!).

After 20 years with ICAO, I retired in 1999 and we moved back to my house in St Petersburg Beach, FL which I had bought some years before.  We had to immediately expand the house to fit the kids, my extensive carpet collection, and some 100 tubas and other brass instruments in a mini-museum I have since established a website at <> where much of our treasures are displayed in galleries in a cyber-museum and I am now considered a semi-dealer in such items.

St Pete Beach is a great place to live – we have a house directly on the water with our 35 ft Catamaran at the end of our dock.  We enjoy the little pleasures of watching sunsets and the dolphins and manatees swimming by. Our greatest pleasure of course is watching our lovely girls grow into little ladies.  They start 2nd grade this year and we have 10 more years of taxi service to look forward to!  We are the luckiest taxi drivers alive!


Philip Hanovan Holcomb, 74, passed away on October 18, 2013, at Edward White Hospital in St. Petersburg, Florida.

Phil was born on November 7, 1938 in Canandaigua, New York, and raised on Long Island where he began his lifetime passions for sailing and music. He was a  graduate of The University of Omaha and a retired United States Air Force Captain. For 16 years, he worked for the United Nations as a director in The International Civil Aviation Organization.

Phil is survived by his sister, Lorie Friedrich of Shoreham, New York; his wife, Phanpen; and their 17-year-old twin daughters, Samantha and Jennifer. A memorial service will be held at Bay Pines National Cemetery on November 7th, at 2:15 pm. In lieu of flowers, the family requests donations be made to Disabled American Veterans.