The Sundance Kid

 

There are few things in life that are as pleasant as awakening to the smell of freshly brewed coffee and frying bacon. (For my vegan friends, you can ignore the last part of that sentence, but it doesn’t change the fact…sorry.) Smells are time machines, for they, almost better than anything else, have the ability to transport us back to long ago places. To this very day, I can’t smell Old Spice after shave without feeling the strength of my father’s hug, and when a pot roast is cooking in the oven, I’m back in the loving arms of my dear mother. Ah, “thank you” olfactory nerves…you’re the best.

This story begins before dawn on a Texas summer day with the smell of bacon and coffee. The year is 1969, and I’m  enjoying my 13th year of life. Obviously, drinking steaming hot “Joe” was not a part of my daily routine, for I would not adopt that habit for another two decades, and then only to stave off fatigue over the long, dark Pacific as a Boeing 747 Flight Engineer. Saying that international pilots cannot fly without that heavenly bean, would be a gross understatement indeed. But the bacon? That was another matter altogether. I think it’s fair to say that your average teenage male can consume his body weight in fried pork without too much effort. I have no doubt that on this particular morning, that theory was alive and well.

The destination for this day, and the reason behind an excited teenager bounding out of bed at 0400, were part and parcel of an adventure that few (if any) present day teens can say they’ve been a part of. My dear Dad and I quickly devoured the forlorn pig (plus an egg or two), washed it down with several cups of “mud” (me having milk), and mechanically (and stealthily I might add) began the process of gearing up for our one hour drive westward. We were outbound for a small, “one horse town” on the ragged, scrub-brushed plains of North Texas. After loading into the Chrysler Town & Country wagon, my Dad would begin his routine of pouring another cup of coffee from his green thermos, lighting up a Salem, and finding some George Jones on the AM radio. He would reverse out of our slanted driveway on Westfield Drive in south Ft. Worth, turn west, and off we would motor. The eastern sky would be sporting a dim, faint glow, the cicadas would be singing their nocturnal summer tune, and life simply could not be better.

town and country

(The “mini-van” of the 60s and 70s…the family station wagon.)

Mineral Wells, Texas lies just east of the Brazos River, squarely astride the demarcation line for Palo Pinto and Parker counties. Its fame lies not only in its mineral springs, but also in the fact that in the year 1919, it was the spring training location for the Chicago White Sox (the year of their infamous “Black Sox” scandal). One other small fact about this hardscrabble little village, is that in 1925 an outfit by the name of the United States Army opened its gate to Camp Wolters just a few miles down the road. It would soon become one of the largest infantry training facilities during the Second World War, and two famous people (for vastly different reasons) would darken its doors. Two Army privates…one named Audie Murphy and the other Eddie Slovik…take a moment to look them up on Al Gore’s internet. Shortly after the war, the Air Force held the keys to the facility, but it wasn’t truly again on the BIG map until the year 1956. Two incredible things happened in that pivotal year; yours truly was born and spanked into life in an Army hospital in Schwabisch Gmund, West Germany, and the United States Army’s fledgling rotary-winged world opened its Primary Helicopter School on the sun-bleached plains just outside of town.

At this time in my young life, my father had recently ended his active duty career, had “separated” from the Army, and our family had moved from Germany to north Texas (our second tour in Deutschland…counting of course, my “birth tour”). A few years earlier, he had spent his time in the skies over war-torn Vietnam, and after surviving that, had taken a cushy overseas assignment in the cockpit of the CH-34 Choctaw with the 7th Army just outside of Munich. Toward the end of his Germany rotation, he received orders to report for training to fly the CH-47 Chinook (his dream machine), with the ugly caveat that his next assignment would be in that lovely machine, but back in the hell of Vietnam. By now he had served far more than his required 20 years (for a full pension), and decided to simply retire and let the young bucks win the war (it was, after all, his second war…his first as a combat medic in Korea).

The question then became…what next? As any pilot knows, if you can cop an easy gig, that pays good scratch, AND remain in a cockpit, then take it! He found one, it did, and he did. As the 1960s waned, the demand for young men to fly the Army’s newest marvel of aerial warfare (the helicopter) was skyrocketing, but there was a rather large problem. The big hurdle wasn’t finding the needed volunteers to pilot these things, but finding those that could teach their precarious trade to said volunteers. The Army, of course, supplied qualified active duty pilots (most with time logged in Vietnam), but that simply wasn’t enough to meet the ever increasing demand for cockpit crewmembers. An enterprising outfit by the name of Southern Airways stepped in and offered a solution. They would not only provide the lion’s share of the maintenance on the hundreds of helicopters at the blossoming facility at Ft. Wolters, and be responsible for many of the support duties on base, but they would also hire hundreds of retired Army aviators, make them Instructor Pilots, and blend them into the Army Aviation Primary Helicopter curriculum where needed. It was truly a win/win/win for everyone (Southern Airways/the Army/AND the retired pilots). With that “marriage of convenience”, Army aviation history was made.

ch-34

(My Dad’s ride in Germany, the CH-34 Choctaw.)

Where and how my father found out about this gravy train is beyond me, but I’m guessing it was from within his network of Army pilot buddies. He began his second career in aviation in the last days of the 60’s, and within a short period of time, found out that he took to it like a duck to water…and so did his youngest son (me). From his comments to my dear Mother, I surmised the following; he loved the fact that he no longer had to wear a myriad of uniforms (his “work clothes” consisted of a zipper-infested flight suit, his old Army combat boots, and a baseball cap), he didn’t mind not having to salute folks anymore, he had little or no paperwork involved other than the usual student forms, and he simply didn’t have to deal with 99% of the crap that came with many of his active duty flying stints. He was in heaven…albeit a strangely scheduled one. It seems that the Southern Airways “I.P.s” worked an “early week”, then transitioned to a “late week”, on and off ad nauseam. The students would fly in the mornings, do school-house work in the afternoons, and then swap that rotation the next week. Strange to be sure, but so are many of the ways of the Army…hence our pre-dawn launch.

Roughly 30 minutes after leaving my slumbering siblings, we would pull off the massive I-20 superhighway onto the old “Ft. Worth Highway” (legally known as Texas State Highway 180).  At this point, we would be just a few miles east of Weatherford, about 20 minutes from our destination, and the flavor of our drive would begin to change. My dad would begin to lose his usual air of nonchalant conversation about such earth-shattering topics as the upcoming season of the Dallas Cowboys, or my last performance on the baseball diamond or the football turf (he was the coach of my baseball team and suffered through MANY a Saturday morning watching me play Gray Y football). His mind began its time-honored process of switching between the happy-go-lucky groundling to a serious Instructor Pilot (I notice I tend to do it myself as I pull into the airline employee parking lot). I however, would typically become more excited, knowing what lay in store for me that day, but would try my best to let him sink into his thoughts. After all, pilots have a “game face”, and he needed to slip into his.

North Texas Mineral Wells2

As we would make the right turn onto Washington Avenue, under that iconic main gate sign, I would be spellbound under those magic words; “Primary Helicopter Center” with the two beautiful rotary-wing machines, each standing guard on its respective side (the OH-23D on the left and the TH-55A to the right).  Adorning the apex sat a replica of the wings that I grew up seeing proudly displayed on my own father’s chest…those beautiful silver wings of an Army Aviator.  That one shiny symbol always represented to me such enviable qualities as: courage, honor, integrity, and that AMAZING ability to hover! We would pass underneath this metal and mortar gate, but we would also be crossing an actual, no kidding, Rubicon of sorts…we had now crossed from the world of those that know nothing about helicopters, to those that knew everything about them. I was in heaven, and I knew it. It was much like walking into a major league ball park before a big game; these folks were “different” then the rest of us…not a point of judgement, just a simple fact.

gate 3

(Main gate circa 1969.)

gate 4

(Main gate as it looks today.)

By now, the sun would be low in the morning sky, portending another scorching, sweat soaked Texas summer day, and as we drove toward one of the 3 big heliports; my Dad would be lost in his thoughts of that day’s lesson plan with his three students. The civilian (Southern Airways) I.P.s would take the WOCs (Warrant Officer Candidates…they also had Commissioned Officers coming through, but I don’t remember if he had any of those type students), and get them from Day 1 (the nickel ride as it were) through solo and on to some magic “stage check”, where they would disappear off to an actual Army I.P. for the rest of their “Primary” training. After graduation, they would be sent off to “Mother Rucker” down in the red clay world of Enterprise, Alabama for the rest of their journey into the world of Army Aviation. From there, almost all of his students had but one destination…Vietnam. This meant he got them brand spanking new to the world of rotorcraft flight, and all it entailed. I’m convinced that it was not only some of the best flying he ever did, but also some of the most challenging.

fw28

(What else is there to say?)

The Briefing.

Pulling into the parking lot adjacent to the old, paint-peeled building where this would all begin, was tantamount to entering a quasi-world of the military (mixed with us civilian and –ex active duty types). The smell of diesel exhaust, lots of loud olive-drab vehicles, groups of men all moving purposefully, the iconic checkered control tower looming over us, and of course, the requisite HUGE ramp where hundreds of little orange/white flying machines sat inertly squatting in anticipation of flight. The crunch of the gravel under my tennis shoes was drowned out by the dozens of “size 10 combat boots” that my Dad and the other I.P.s wore. They would greet each other with the time-honored banter of all aviators, and although most of the conversation centered around how each of them were in fact THE best damned pilot the Army ever constructed…at times the conversation would become hushed, and snippets of “by the way, I flew with your boy Jones last week, and….”. At this turn, their faces would adopt a deadly serious expression, and I knew that I was seeing them deep within their element…and they were indeed the best.

 

fw27

(One of the three main heliports.)

My father would hustle me into the big room, get me seated at his briefing table, fire up a smoke while pouring another steaming cup of coffee, and start paging through the folder of each of the three WOCs he would be flying with this fine day. Many times, I would be in their world at a “post solo” stage for these young guys, so their first HUGE hurdle (in a long line of hurdles) had been successfully jumped. This meant that a tiny part of the mountain of pressure that they were living with had been relieved, and this translated into relaxation and fun for BOTH the student and the I.P. Presently, the hissing of the air brakes from the Army buses would announce the arrival of said students, and the bright morning sun would invade the cool room as the door flew open, and in would pour a couple of dozen boisterous, smiling, young men. I’m not sure what they thought of me being there, and since I never saw any other dependents hanging out with their old man, maybe they thought I was some sort of “junior, junior ROTC” type kid. Not sure, but they were always really friendly, and essentially just accepted me being there.

briefing tables

(A typical briefing room.)

This is where the rubber would meet the proverbial road for them (and me in some ways), for now the imparting of knowledge would begin. My Dad had an easy way about him, with a smile that could disarm most anyone, and this seemed to lend itself to a relaxed air of learning. Growing up in this world, I had added a strange mix of vocabulary to the normal lexicon of most young men.  At this time in history, most teenage American boys would speak in the language of things like: the wishbone formation, a double play ball or the infield fly rule, a Ruger .22 rifle, a Honda mini-bike, and the Cowboys verses Packers… (All the way to the mysterious) “Bra hook…what the hell is that?” But because of my dear ol’ Dad, you could add to my conversational English terms such as: translational lift, retreating blade stall, vortex ring state, pedal turns, auto-rotations, and about a million other little snippets from the world of Army Aviation. I must admit it…I was a rather weird 13 year old kid.

With the formal briefing now underway, I became a fly on the wall. These conversations were all about some rather cool things like approaches, landings, auto-rotations, and mastering that all important art of the hover. I noticed that my Dad always had a big blank pad of paper on the briefing table, and in later years when ALL of his students were young Vietnamese pilots (Google Richard Nixon and “Vietnamization”), he would end each and every instructional dissertation with “Do you understand?” This was (almost always) met with vigorous nodding of three heads, and a resounding “Yes!” He would then push the blank pad toward them with the comment…”OK, you draw for me what I just taught you.” This was (many times) countered with a blank look and a resounding, “I no understand!”…lol.  I can hardly imagine a more difficult task than to teach something as complicated as rotary winged flight to someone from a third world country with a (mostly) agrarian society. God bless the I.P.s and the ARVN pilots that teamed up to get the job done.

 

The Stage Field.

One of the ingenious ideas that the Ft. Wolters brain trust developed, was the concept of dozens of relatively small training heliports scattered throughout the local area. These little training facilities became known as Stage Fields, and they allowed this huge facility to train literally hundreds of pilots simultaneously. Originally, they were given really cool “cowboy” names like Pinto, Mustang, Bronco and Ramrod. Later in the decade, as the war in Vietnam ramped up to its horrific climax (thus requiring thousands of additional chopper pilots), more Stage Fields were built and given monikers of actual in theatre airfields. These were christened with names like Hue, Chu Lai, Danang, An Khe, Bien Hoa, Soc Trang, and several others. And here’s an interesting tidbit concerning these little airfields; they were positioned in the same relative position as their real world counterparts, thus allowing the newbie pilots to have a slight modicum of familiarity with the names and locations before they shipped overseas. Cool idea…right?

 

Stage fields map

(Map of the Stage Fields.)

With the lesson plans and briefings complete, my Dad and his three students departed for the massive ramp to begin their pre-flight duties on the venerable little Hughes TH-55 (the I.P.s dubbed it “the Mattel Messerschmitt”). With the morning heat and humidity building by now, yours truly would be bouncing across the plateaus of North Texas in a (very) used Ford pickup truck. For each shift, one member of the staff in each flight would be tasked with driving out to the assigned Stage Field, operate the “Unicom type” radio, and generally just run the compact little airfield. It was considered rather cushy duty, for rather than spend hours in a hot, sweaty, cramped little cockpit, he simply hung out, drank coffee, and provided information to the pilots such as the wind, temperature, altimeter setting, etc..

FW_north_takeoff

(Traffic pattern cheat sheet.)

 

pinto

(Stage Field Pinto.)

When I was lucky enough to accompany my father on one of these amazing adventures, I would be allowed to ride shotgun with this man out to the Stage Field. After thirty or so minutes of dusty gravel roads, several cattle gates, lots of hot Texas wind (and several good pilot stories), we would arrive at roughly the same time as the inbound swarm of small helicopters that was darkening the horizon. Our exciting destination for this particular day? A magical place by the name of Stage Field Sundance. The protocol would be that one of the students would fly out to the training airfield with the instructor, while the other two would fly solo to that facility, then spending several hours doing the day’s syllabus while my Dad would rotate between students in their respective machines.

Stagefield Sundance

(Stage Field Sundance)

Once at the Stage Field, I adopted the guise of defacto mascot for the Instructor Pilots. These men were all ex-active duty pilots, they had all been to Vietnam, and several of them had been decorated for their bravery and valor. In my eyes, they all stood 7 feet tall, had the Wisdom of Solomon, and the strength of Hercules. They generally made John Wayne seem like a 98 pound weakling, and they all seemed to have a twinkle in their eye and spark in their soul that few people possess. In short, they were heroes of the finest order, and I felt honored to be allowed into their world. What were my duties as said mascot you might wonder? I was to keep the coffee pot percolating (yeah, this was way back when coffee pots didn’t have fancy names/buttons/etc. ….you put in the water, the coffee, and basically boiled it to within an inch of its life), the snack machine had to be up and going, and just generally whatever else they needed me to go “fetch”, grab or procure for them. I personally felt like my major job description was to stare at them, wide-eyed and speechless, and simply listen to their stories… of which there were plenty.

Within a few minutes of heading into the building at Sundance, it quickly became evident that I was in the midst of a maelstrom of aviation activity. The radio frequency was alive with position reports, requests for landing instructions, and lots of other stuff that my neophyte ears could not discern. Nowadays, I routinely converse with air traffic controllers from nations all over the world. Russian, Chinese, Thai, Korean, Japanese, and yes, even those that are the most difficult to understand…the Atlanta ATC folks…lol. Back then however, I was four plus decades removed from my current expertise, so I could make out the occasional word, but most of it sounded like a confused jumble of nonsense. By now I could hear the whine of dozens of little Lycoming engines and the steady beat of hundreds of rotor blades slapping the hot morning air. Looking out the aged window, I witnessed the stream of many small orange and white TH-55s forming a daisy chain headed inbound to the Stage Field. Stepping out of the building, ignoring the glaring sun, my gaze was drawn skyward in an attempt to see them all…knowing that my Dad was occupying one of those small works of wonder.

The next several hours would be spent in a mix of excitement, exhilaration, and joy. I was in a world I barely understood, in the presence of men steeped in a society so closed that few (other than their own) had ever seen, and I was tolerated, accepted, and somehow even made to feel like I belonged in that strange place. I would sit transfixed by the constant noise of engines, the rhythmic beat of rotor blades, and the endless parade of little helicopters making their way around the traffic pattern.  Auto rotations were as exciting for me to watch, as they were for the I.P.s and students to perform (maybe not, but they were fun to watch). At times, one of the machines would make its way past me, close enough for me to feel the rotor wash of hot Texas wind, settle to a landing and out would bound the instructor. Up the machine would rise into a wobbly hover, make its way back to the conga line of machines in the pattern, and the dance would begin again in earnest.

728px-TH-55_Osage

(The TH-55 “Mattel Messerschmitt”.)

 

T55 checklist

(I still have my Dad’s TH-55 Manual…I wouldn’t trade it for a king’s ransom.)

 

The art of the hover.

One of the common traits of the Stage Fields was always a huge concrete area that was used for parking the helos, but more importantly it was for learning that ONE thing that a helicopter pilot can do that no other pilot can…and that’s hover. A TH-55 would amble over to the middle of the area (always steady as a rock…obviously the I.P. would be at the controls), it would settle gently to the pavement, then there would be a few minutes of the imparting of a brain trust (I.P. to student) in the sacred art of acting like a hummingbird. Upon completion of the unveiling of the most sacred of secrets to this un-enlightened soul, the fun (or torture as it were) would begin!

The little machine would rise and begin a rock and roll dance LITERALLY ALL OVER the football field sized area! The nose would dip, it would rear back up, drift left, drift right, the little machine would shoot up, drop back down…and all the while myself and the Instructors that were standing around (their students were in the traffic pattern doing solo work), would be laughing our asses off! As a 13 year old (and one that had never tried this myself), I was afforded only a small amount of guffaw, but these men in their zippered “hero costumes” would laugh, point, slap each other on the back, and generally have far too much fun watching some poor I.P. out in the “rodeo arena” trying to teach what must’ve been surely the un-teachable. At regular intervals, the machine would cease its spasmodic spectacle, would remain in place as if frozen there (with the I.P. flying it), then presently, the student would be in control again, and the spasms would start all over. The delight we took in watching was almost sinful.

Stagefield Bien Hoa

(Stage Field Bien Hoa)

Eventually, the instructor would somehow solve the riddle of the student and his inability to grasp this golden chalice, and things would indeed improve. To quote my Dad, it was like trying to teach someone to rub their stomach while patting their head, while walking up and down a staircase, all the while chewing bubblegum…and at a critical moment, the I.P. would yell “SWITCH” and it would all be reversed with surgical precision and correctness! Eventually, the “light bulb” would come on over the student’s head, it would “click” somewhere in the deep recesses of their grey matter, the little bird would hover over the same patch of ground (well almost) for the required amount of time, and the fun would be over…

…until the next little orange and white machine would taxi into the “rodeo arena”.

“NOW…out of chute number 7….being ridden by WOC Jones…..WIDOW MAKER!”

It was a type of fun that few (if any) other young teenage boys can say they were ever a part of. Apparently, these “square-jawed”, “steely-eyed” Instructor Aviator types had all completely forgotten about their time in the proverbial barrel, and how retarded they looked trying to hover when they were a bottom-feeding newbie. I’m sure they were no more adept at this dance than “WOC Jones” and his embarrassing maneuvering. My Dad used to say that if you could detect movement in the controls while hovering, then you were completely over controlling the machine…it was more of “thinking” yourself into the maneuver. I’ve often wondered (and have put these thoughts to paper a few times) what my father would think about the current state of flight simulations. Hovering the UH-1H “Huey” in DCS can be challenging, but would he think it even close to the real deal? My guess is that he would love it, spend my inheritance on a new PC rig, and I would never hear the end of it from my dear Mother.

Huey Formation

(Yours truly flying the UH-1H “Huey” in the flight simulation DCS World)

All too soon the day would begin to wind down, and though it was but lunch time to my young body, I would have already put in a full day. I would be riding high on adrenalin for hours, flush with the stories of the heroes, and the sights, sounds, and yes, the smells of my time in their world. Funny, but it always seemed that when they told their flying yarns, they would speak with a sense of awe about the OTHER pilots (and their Crew Chiefs and door gunners), and they did it with a love and admiration that reminds me very much like how I speak of my beloved family. These men loved their craft, their machines, and their fellow airman. When my father returned from his tour in Vietnam, and I inquired about his medals, the question was always met with a “no big deal…they asked for volunteers, I simply raised my hand” type response. I would find out later that he had stepped up to fly into danger to pick up downed friends. I know ALL of them would have done it for him without skipping a beat. Such are the men (and women) of the Armed Forces.

 

One sad note.

Very often, my Dads students would take a huge liking to him (like he to them). Many a time he would return home from Ft. Wolters (after a class had graduated) with a symbol of that bond. It was usually in the form of a brand new coffee mug with three names emblazoned on the side (and the time honored bottle of Jim Beam whiskey…lol). It was their way of saying “thank you” to a man that they had come to know, trust and admire. They knew that his knowledge was borne from thousands of hours spent in the sky, they knew that it was true and (most importantly) they knew that it just might save their life someday.  I’m sorry to say that on far too many occasions in those sunset days of his flying life, I would see him arrive back to our humble home with sad eyes and a heavy soul. He would speak in hushed tones to my Mother, and they would stare at each other… knowing a thing that only they could know. Later I would hear (from her) that he had been given the news that one of his students had perished in the crucible of combat in Vietnam. I KNOW from within my heart, that he would spend the remaining hours of that day searching HIS heart to once again see that young man’s face, to hear his excited “I have the controls” when my Dad would give him the machine, and I know that he would find that face, and a small piece of my dear father would perish along with that young man.

Ft.Wolters 1

(My Dad as an I.P. with three of “his” guys…can you tell they kinda liked him? My God they look young…)

Flying for a vocation takes as much as it gives. There are times in every aviator’s life that it takes a toll that is borderline too much.  But sometimes, every so often, as in my days spent as “the Sundance Kid”, it gives more than you can ever imagine. Those unbelievable, magical hours spent with my Dad (and his contemporaries) on those funny little “airports”, across the hot, humid, Texas plains will live with me until the end of my days. I gain comfort from the thought that someday I will get to sit with him again, in the clouds of Salvation, and speak of those times. We’ll laugh and we’ll smile, and I’ll be sure and remind him of his days spent teaching the “art of the hover” to those eager young men just beginning their journey as an Army Aviator. Some would not survive that journey, but thankfully most would. I hope they all remember the man that launched them into the sky…I would hazard a guess that they do. He spent those days shaping them from just past teenagers, into pilots of war-time helicopters. He may not have realized it, but he was also doing some shaping of one rather weird 13 year old boy.

a2a

(You can’t hover the B757…but if you could…if you only could.)

‘till next time.

 

 

 

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