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- Story Listed as: True Life For Adults
- Theme: Adventure stories
- Subject: Life Experience
- Published: 01/08/2019
Lone SentinelBorn 1938, M, from Canon, GA, United States
LONE SENTINEL By Michael D. Warner
Copyright 2005 by Michael D. Warner All rights reserved.
By now, you ought to have a fairly accurate picture of rural Alabama in 1960. Likewise, my airport is familiar to you. You have learned not to clip off Ms. Maude's prized house-top TV antenna just off the approach end of runway one-seven with your landing gear. You have learned not to admit being lost and you have learned not to accept a free cup of my coffee, with the possible exception of on a Sunday morning upon which, you will recall, is the only day I ever made it fresh.
You know too that although poor in assets, I was rich in enthusiasm, and that I loved airplanes and in a strange way loved the people who hung around them, some of whom you have met. I've shared some of my most intimate thoughts and also some of my dumbest acts.
There isn't space here to tell about all of the folks and their curious antics, like when Shorty Phipps got lost while flying the old L-2 Taylorcraft, a sixty-five horsepower ship having no electrical system, hence no lights nor radio.
Shorty found himself circling haphazardly in the night sky for almost two hours, searching for Bussell Field.
I had been worried for at least that long and was both surprised and relieved when I heard the hum of a small horsepower engine coming closer from somewhere out in the darkness. Turning toward the sound, I strained my eyes searching the dark, moonless heavens trying to spot him. Finally, I detected a tiny shadow against the stars off the approach end of three-five and ran toward the runway for a better look.
The airplane landed, bounced, then settled to the runway, rolling fast indeed toward the intersection where I stood observing. After stopping he turned and taxied to the grass parking area in front of the building then cut his engine. The bright red glow in the cockpit turned out to be the inch-long tip of his cigar upon which he had puffed mightily while on final in order to see the airspeed indicator!
V.V. Logan is another. He was the man who managed the nearby resort-farm owned by the University of Alabama. Widely liked and respected, V.V. not only ran the large estate but commanded the main polling place for the county. His was the final hand that counted the ballots, and his was the official seal which certified the vote!
V.V. taught me more than a man might safely wish to know about Alabama politics of the era. Loving to fly, he had to settle for riding with another pilot whenever he wished to exercise that desire. V.V. had a medical issue precluding him from obtaining a license. He always wore a coat and tie. I never saw him otherwise attired.
Another episode was when a shady looking character had landed a patched up Piper Super Cruiser one Winter's morning. The Super Cruiser was adorned with duct tape covering tears in rotten areas of her fabric covered wings. While I topped off the ragged airplane with 80-octane fuel, he informed me that Castro in Cuba was paying pilots $3,000 apiece to fly World War II fighters, preferably F-51's, to the island paradise.
Shooting the old Piper a rueful glance, he said: "The only catch is that you have to furnish your own way back home."
He sighed, reached into his pocket, then paid cash for the gas from a wad of bills that would have choked a mule.
A few days later another strange character entered the pilot lounge. He had driven to the airport in a nondescript four-door sedan. Upon its rear seat lay a pile of bulletin-board posters. Each warned U.S. citizens not to deal with Cubans regarding aircraft matters, and promised a reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of those so disposed to risk doing that.
In 1960 three-thousand dollars was a lot of money. Median middle-class annual income was not much more than that amount.
According to that pilot, Castro paid regardless the condition the fighter was in when it arrived, ...even if you belly-in when you get there, he had assured me.
Many days after that I held visions of sliding a World War II F-51 Mustang across a sloppy Cuban sugar cane field, collecting my $3,000, then floating across to the Florida keys in a homemade raft powered by a single shirt sail. That would have been a lot of money to earn for a few days work.
Another fellow I thought to be rather curious was the owner of an immaculate red Swift, a low-wing all-metal ship. The tail-wheel retractable-gear airplane was hangared up at Talladega, where the man came out every weekend, waxed and polished the Swift, then taxied it to the end of the runway, ran the engine for ten minutes or so, then taxied back. No one ever knew him to fly it.
Unfortunate things happened to some folks, one of whom was the man who had constructed a home-built Benson Gyrocopter from a kit.
Working alone in the hangar at Talladega, he had welded each section of the frame's complex steel tubing to its neighbor, mounted the engine, and wheels, and rigged the controls. Untold man-hours had accumulated during the course of the more than one year it had taken to complete the awesome project. We were as anxious to see the ungainly machine perform its maiden flight as was its builder.
The big day finally arrived. Bright midmorning sun shone on the Talladega airport as a light breeze blew in from the East, making runway eight the logical choice for the test flight. Six of us had piled into Ol' Wilker's '38 Chevy. We bounced across the field to secure the best vantage point from which to watch.
We sat back in the warm Spring grass joshing one another, sharing the excitement of the occasion and waiting. Presently, the Gyrocopter rounded the corner where the sun-cracked taxiway joined runway eight. We came to our feet to get a better look. The approaching machine resembled an unholy combination of bicycle, lawnmower, helicopter, airboat, and baby-carriage with its three wire wheels, its drooping three-bladed rotor, small pusher-engine and prop and its handle-bar controls.
Her principles of flight were simple enough: The pusher engine provided forward motive force while the resulting air flow drove the rotor, spinning it to sufficient rpm to provide lift.
Taxi trials came first. We heard the engine rev and watched the awkward machine accelerate from our right to our left. After traveling a hundred feet or so, the pilot cut the power and idled to a stop. The man who had accompanied him onto the field ran to the ship. We watched excitedly as each gestured back and forth, then held our breath as the pilot's assistant gave a final wave then backed away.
The pilot pulled round goggles over his eyes, grabbed the handle bars and hunched forward with determination. The engine zoomed to life and the gyrocopter began rolling slowly forward. The drooping rotor blades began spinning. We watched the machine pick up speed, standing on our toes to see as we heard each blade of the rotor whip through the air.
In less than one-hundred feet the machine popped into the air, reaching a height of perhaps ten feet. Suddenly, it nosed up, stalled, then came crashing to the pavement. By the time we reached the scene of the disaster the pilot had extricated himself from the bent and broken framework and was staring at it.
An untimely gust of wind had upset the craft. Being as yet unfamiliar with its characteristics, he had not had time to compensate. As I approached, I heard him mutter something unintelligible and watched him shake his fist at the heavens. I think we all knew how he felt: Why me, Lord?
Aerial Birth Control
In 1960 the Auburn-Opelika airport served those two communities with a very modern, up-to-date aviation facility. Yet, try as they might, the mayors of both cities had been unsuccessful with continuing attempts to secure scheduled airline service to the only airport within reasonable driving distance of Auburn University. The Civil Air Board regulated every aspect of airline travel, setting rates and awarding routes. The august and somewhat archaic body of the Civil Air Board's reply was, "...this area is adequately served by the airport at Columbus, Georgia." As a result, many of the flights landing at Auburn-Opelika were charters.
I had flown my share of passengers into the attractive field and was quite familiar with its layout. One Fall evening, Jack B. and myself delivered a charter customer, a somewhat inebriated college boy, to that airport and assisted him into the terminal building. We had noticed an inordinate number of cars scattered about the large parking lot situated adjacent to runway eleven. Jack had made a comment about the vehicles as we were taxiing in. Our bleary-eyed customer had slurred something about "...getting to be a regular lover's lane..." unknowingly precipitating an evening to be long remembered by people I never expect to meet.
Taxiing back to the runway, Jack nudged me with his elbow. Being a man of few words he asked, :Are you thinking what I am?"
"We'll depart runway one-one straight out," I answered, "and make a climbing left turn to a thousand feet and cut off all our lights, then we'll come back around, dive and buzz 'em!"
"We'll light 'em up!" Jack exclaimed. "They're just too snug in the darkness of them back seats," he added.
The night was pitch black. A high overcast obscured the stars and the Moon lay somewhere on the other side of the planet as we pulled up until our altimeter read 1,800 feet above sea level, about 1,000 feet above the field. We cut our lights then turned a left downwind leg, eyeing the darkened parking lot as we cruised slowly past. A quarter-mile off the end of the runway, we made a tight left U-turn. I shoved the nose down about sixty degrees and the ship screamed toward the cuddling lovers.
Two-hundred feet above ground I leveled off, shoved the throttle to the firewall and Jack switched on the ship's brilliant landing light. A hellish beam of bright light flooded the parking lot. Roaring across the lot, I pulled back on the wheel and rolled into a left chandelle as Jack cut the light. By the time we had completed three passes, the entire lot had emptied, testimony to the efficacy of aerial birth control.
***** PAUSE *****
Throughout known history, that is up until October 1957 when the Russians put the first satellite, Sputnik, into Earth orbit, pilots remained comfortable in knowing everything that went up always came back down. After all, Sir Isaac Newton had developed the law of gravity somewhere between the years 1665 and 1685, a force whose origins are a complete mystery to man. No one has yet to deceive it in an airplane and, that brings me to another story:
Auburn-Opelika's lack of service notwithstanding, the airlines did serve Birmingham. In days long before approach-control radar had been installed there, traffic could become crowded during the evening rush hour. Four air carriers competed with each other for on-time service and rapid baggage-delivery. Southern Airways flew the venerable 30 passenger DC-3, whereas Eastern, Delta and United Air Lines used the 44 passenger Convair-440 to service non-major cities.
It was on a busy June evening such as this that Jack and I parked the 172 at Wood's ramp and went inside to await delivery of the aircraft part we had contracted to haul. The ambient air was foul with smoke from smelters of the industrial, coal-fired city. Eastern was running behind schedule for some reason. The other three carriers had already arrived, deplaned, reloaded and departed for the next airport before Eastern's blue and white Convair from Atlanta called on a ten-mile semi-left base for runway two-three.
A newspaper reporter for the Anniston Star, the daily paper serving that medium-sized city and surrounding area, had discovered the utility of flight. He had purchased a Mooney Mite, a small, all-wooden, single seat, low-wing aircraft having a sixty-five horsepower engine and no electrical system, which meant no lights and no radio. The reporter-pilot was proud of his ship. He was able to cover stories over a much wider radius than his contemporaries. He bragged that the little ship got better gas mileage than a motorcycle.
He had mastered the art of cranking the engine while seated in the cockpit. Leaning forward, he could reach the wooden prop with his right hand. Flipping the blade down smartly, he was able to start the engine.
Far from home base at the end of a harried day spent covering an election campaign in Southwest Alabama, the reporter had jumped into his wooden ship, spun the prop, and had taken off headed for the Anniston airport. By the time he had passed Tuscaloosa, the sun had dropped below the horizon. As darkness ensued, he noticed that his fuel gauge was bumping the low side of empty. Peering through the foundry smoke suffocating the city of Birmingham, he spotted the green and white rotating beacon of the municipal airport.
The reporter had taken much ribbing about the size of his tiny airplane and had made the mistake of letting his irritation show, which only served to encourage his tormentors.
But now, he held his breath, subconsciously urging his ship to make it to the runway. Having no radio and no position lights, he slid silently and invisibly into the traffic pattern, made two left turns and landed more or less illegally (and quite unnoticed) on the long strip of cement designated as runway two-three.
Just then, half way through a decent cup of Wood's coffee, Jack and I heard the Eastern flight calling in.
We listened to the radio monitor in the pilot's lounge tuned to the tower frequency as the co-pilot's voice broke through the squelched receiver.
"Eastern Six-forty-nine, ten northeast. Inbound," the crisp voice of the pro announced.
The tower came back: "Six-Forty-nine, ten northeast. Straight in, runway two-three. The wind west at six. Altimeter: Three-zero-zero-four. Show a landing light, over."
Jack and I strolled to the large plate glass window and looked into the distance. The Convair's lights stabbed through the smoky air as we heard: "Eastern Six-Forty-nine is cleared to land."
Another radio monitor was tuned to the Ground Control frequency.
Meanwhile the reporter landing on two-three, ran out of fuel just after touching down. When his engine quit, he jumped out and hastily began towing the Mite across the wide runway.
Jack and I watched the Convair whoosh across the threshold. She flared slightly, then burned her tires against the pavement, rolling two-thirds of the way down the long runway before slowing to make her turn onto the taxiway. We heard Gronnd Control advise: "Six-Forty-nine cleared to the ramp."
Just then a different voice, probably the captain's, rasped from the monitor. "Uh, Ground," it began, "there's, uh, something down near the end of two-three. Uh ..looks like a man leading a horse...".
I frowned at Jack. "Did you hear what I just heard?"
We returned our empty mugs. After the Eastern ramp-rat had delivered our part, we put the small box in the 172. We were still checking fuel caps and pulling chocks when we saw the newsman come puffing across the ramp, towing his docile Mite by its prop.
Jack nudged me and spoke softly, "Looks like a man leading a horse..."
The story spread.
A light drizzle fell silently from the thick deck of low stratus clinging to middle Alabama. Sitting in the parking lot behind the main building at Bussell Field, my old Buick appeared shinier than she actually was. In her were stashed all my meager belongings. I reached into my pants pocket and fished out the spare key to the office door. I handed it to the new man who wisely slipped away from me to go back inside.
Walking across the wet grass, I stopped at the corner of the runway intersection and looked back. The weak flash of the airport beacon brightened for an instant as it swept past. I wondered how many times that same flash had startled me from a night's sleep before I had hung the blackout curtain across the window of my lonely room.
Looking East toward the old wooden hangar, I spotted a brave Martin plummeting from the eaves to snatch a bug of some kind from the grass. I was reminded of how I had angrily emptied a b-b gun at dozens of the fat, black birds who had so accurately messed up windshields of the airplanes parked below, scaring them temporarily away, but bagging nary a one.
I had experimented with firecrackers but soon gave up. The birds stayed. Whenever they saw me coming with the gun they flashed from the hangar to flock into the trees at the far side of the East-West runway. After I left, they always returned.
The hangar doors were open and I could see the green and white Cessna 172 sitting inside, her nose pointed impatiently toward the ramp. I remembered the night I had flown her all the way up to sixteen-thousand five-hundred feet. The owner's manual claimed the swept-tailed airplane could do it ..and she did!
I had been groggy from lack of oxygen for a long time after I landed, but I had discovered a new world where, with wide open throttle, the airplane just mushed along , nearly stalling, nose high through the thin atmosphere. I saw the glow of cities over a hundred miles away from me. I remember feeling like I could have glided all the way to Florida that night. In actuality she would have glided about forty miles.
The drizzle increased to light rain and I forced myself to plod across the sodden ground past the building and into the graveled parking lot. I jerked open the door then slid behind the wheel of the old '52 Buick sedan. My duties at Bussell Field had ended. A minute later as I pulled onto the state highway, a white flash in the rear view mirror caught my eye. I glanced back to spot the revolving beacon, lone sentinel against the gray sky.