“We had no idea we were creating memories, we just thought we were having fun.” —author unknown
“You’ve enjoyed many adventures,” a good friend complimented me a couple of weeks ago. “Adventures? I just enjoy having fun.”
The conversation started while recounting a fun story involving a mutual friend, Jimmy Mason at Mason Hardware in Mount Pleasant, Texas. I was a brand-new pilot in 1974 with less than 100 hours logged, Jimmy was a student pilot working on his license, and we shared a common instructor in Grady Firmin who suggested, “Let’s go to the CAF air show down in Harlingen.” The CAF, aka the Commemorative Air Force, has for decades produced one of the best air shows in the country celebrating vintage military warbirds. Their spine-tingling re-enactment of the 1941 surprise bombing of Pearl Harbor that brought the United States into World War II, “Tora Tora, Tora,” is something not soon forgotten.
A plan was forged for flying to the southernmost border of Texas loaded with bags and bedrolls for camping under the wings. For reasons lost to time, I was designated pilot-in-command, student-pilot Jimmy filled the right seat, and Grady, a Vietnam veteran combat pilot with logbook entries for flying Huey gunships and F-8s off aircraft carriers took the back seat. Go figure!
“Let’s go,” Grady said. “Wait,” I objected, “We need weight and balance checks with all this baggage and a full load of fuel.”
“Give it ten degrees of flaps,” Grady commanded. “Run up to full power and release the brakes. If she doesn’t want to fly by mid-field, stop. We’ll throw some of this stuff out and try again.”
The plane lifted off albeit begrudgingly, and we were headed south as sunlight slipped away. I still maintain that the most memorable sunsets and sunrises are those viewed from a mile high or more.
A stop for the night in Corpus Christi and we were back at the airport early the next morning. I prefilghted the plane and requested a Brownsville sectional to get us to Harlingen. Navigation then was with paper sectionals, not a whole lot unlike a Texaco road map.
“Sold out,” the attendant replied. “Everybody’s headed to Harlingen.”
“How do we get there without a sectional?”
“Easy,” he said. “Fly the coastline south toward Mexico until you don’t hear English on the radio any more. Turn around, fly back about 30 miles and you should be pretty close.” His intent was humor…I think.
The serenity of the early morning flight down the coast was interrupted when we began to encounter hundreds of other planes swarming the area heading for the same place. “Enter holding pattern over Combes,” the radio repeated, “Maintain 500-feet vertical spacing, when the last digit of your N number is called, switch to tower frequency and enter left downwind for 35, maintain one-mile spacing on final.”
We joined the others circling the tiny burg of Combes below us where we stayed until I had memorized the recorded instructions and the fuel gauge was about to bottom out. Finally, I heard the magic number—ours. On final approach, airspeed was bleeding off and runway was rising up to greet us when the tower directed, “Go around—you’re too close to the aircraft ahead of you.”
“Forget it”, Grady said from the back seat, “You’re fine!” Who was I to argue with the veteran? Keying the mic, I replied, “Negative Harlingen tower, insufficient fuel for go-around.”
Seconds later, I pulled the nose up to flare for landing and breathed a sigh of relief as the tires chirped on the runway confirming our reunion with Mother Earth. We had arrived.
Loaded with memories of one of the best airshows on earth for the return trip home a couple of days later, we touched down at Mount Pleasant about midnight with no clue regarding the value those memories would have in the years to come. After all, we were just having fun.
P.S: “Tora” footnote—Not long after this adventure, I was fortunate to meet Charles Hutchins, one of the CAF “Tora” pilots, and to call him my friend ever since. Charles retired as a Tora pilot a few years ago, and his son, Patrick, now flies the same replica Japanese Zero aircraft in the CAF airshows. The replica airplane Hutchins flies was built by 20th Century Fox Corp. for the 1970 movie “Tora! Tora! Tora!”
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