Steve is such a cool name.
I always thought that “being a Steve” is probably one of the coolest things to be. Just think of all the REALLY cool guys over the years named “Steve”. I give you likes of: Steve Jobs who gave the entire world a laptop, Steve Perry, lead vocalist for the band Journey, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin from the world of WWF, Steve(n) Segal, the super kick-ass dude from the realm of B movies, Steve Young, NFL Hall of Fame quarterback for the SFO “49ers”, Aussie environmentalist Steve Irwin and his howl of “Crikey!”, comedian Steve Martin…the list is almost endless. Of course, the coolest dude to ever show “Steve” on a birth certificate is the one and only king of awesome, Steve McQueen. During the 1960s and 70s, the big screen (and real world of “cool”) had but one superstar action guy, and that was none other than Mr. McQueen.
(Steve McQueen in the Oscar nominated film, “The Great Escape”.)
The two Steve’s in this yarn are also very cool. They are to be sure, very different types of human beings mind you, but totally cool nonetheless. One was an acquaintance, and the other became more like a brother in my life than simply a friend. One was tall, muscular, of broad stature and could play middle linebacker on anyone’s football team, the other was of average height, slightly slump shouldered, a bit soft in the middle and would’ve looked far more natural sitting on a bar stool, than engaged in a goal-line stand. One was stamped from a gregarious mold, the other a bit reserved and prone to deep pondering. However, in one very important arena they were both cut from the same piece of cloth; they were both exceptionally gifted pilots.
“Acquaintance Steve” (Steve M.) was trained in the crucible of Marine Corps Aviation, while the “dear friend” Steve (Steve B.) took his aviating baby steps with yours truly in sunbaked skies over Oklahoma. Steve M. and I never actually shared a cockpit, for he and I were domiciled at different cities with the small regional airline in the early 1980’s, but we frequently crossed paths on the line, or on an overnight layover. As with most groups of people that are tied together by trade, some folks just seem to have their own brand of lore, and his lore mostly involved flying fast jets for Uncle Sam. He was “that guy” at most gatherings, and held court with fantastic yarns of exploits flying in the yank and bank world of military aviation. We were not at all sure if he actually DID all the amazing things that he SAID he did, but regardless of that fact, his stories were exciting and quite fun to listen to.
Steve B. was the exact opposite. He would enter my life as a college friend (and later roommate), become an aviation buddy, and through the years grow to become a trusted confidant and best friend. We spent countless hours sharing various cockpits and found that we shared many things in common (see Logbook titled “Laughter and Heartache” https://bubba757.com/2015/01/06/laughter-and-heartache/ ). We engaged in regular discussions regarding current and past events, often comparing our similar up-upbringings in an effort to plead our opinionated conclusions. We discovered that both our fathers had introduced us to the wonderful sport of golf early in our lives, and hence, we logged years abusing golf courses across the world. As many of us know, after you’ve spent untold number of hours in close proximity with another person, you will eventually see their true “self” rise to the surface. Again, he and I would become fast friends, and I would grow to know him as I do myself.
Steve M. was a force to be reckoned with. As mentioned above, his physical being was impressive…think of the wrestler/actor John Cena, only taller. With that said, his personality was the magnet that drew folks to him, and although being something of giant among men, he seemed to have the inner voice of a restless third grader. He was perpetually up to something; a prank to play on someone, or a joke to spring on the next unsuspecting fool. However, from what I had gleaned from his pilot contemporaries in the Little Rock base, he was able to reign in the “Jokester” when it came time to get serious in the flying machine (probably due to his training in the world of military aviation). One thing I will say about every single Marine I’ve shared a cockpit with over the last 4 decades; they’ve all been mountains of fun to work with, for they seemed to have an innate ability to NOT take themselves too seriously. However, when it was time to put on their game face…in other words, time to do “some of that pilot sh*t Mav”, there are few equals. For my tax dollars, I would have to say that “the Corps” turns out good…no, strike that… excellent…pilots.
Point of fact. If you want to piss off a Marine, just do the following; pronounce their beloved “Corps” incorrectly (as a former occupant of the White House so infamously did a few years ago). It’s “Corps” as in “Core”, not “Corps” as in “Corpse”! Take it from me, just don’t do it. (BTW, there is no such thing as an EX-Marine. As the saying goes: “Once a Marine, always a Marine”. President Ronald Reagan so famously once remarked, “Some people spend an entire lifetime wondering if they made a difference in the world. But the Marines don’t have that problem.”) “Semper Fidelis” to my Marine friends, you guys (and ladies) are a special breed to be sure.
(Marine Corps F-4 Phantoms loaded for an air to ground mission.)
(The following tale was related to yours truly by “acquaintance” Steve M. himself.)
The year was 1982, and Steve and his Captain (Tom) were on the second leg of a 3-leg day at my old regional airline Scheduled Skyways. Their mission for the day included a dawn launch from that mecca of country and western music (Nashville), and were to wing themselves a few hundred miles southwest to the city of Little Rock, Arkansas (their home domicile…mine was Fayetteville, Arkansas). After a small break, they were to do a flight down to Dallas, turn and be back in Little Rock in time to enjoy the freeway tango known as the evening rush hour. The morning dawned clear and calm, and the first segment went off without a hitch. One down, two to go.
(Top: A Scheduled Skyways SA-226TC Metroliner at DFW. Bottom: the early route structure of my little airline.)
Side note: A short bit of history.
Way back in the stone ages (say, the 1970s) the little commuter airlines had a damn good thing going. At my line, we flew to a few large cities, but our bread and butter routes were the little backwater towns of America. Raise your hand if you’ve ever heard of El Dorado, Arkansas? Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri? How about Jackson, Tennessee? Harrison or Jonesboro, Arkansas? (I don’t see ANY hands in the air…lol.) Well, neither had I…at least until I signed on to fly for Skyways in the Fall of 1979. We had the small-town commercial passenger business locked up pretty tight, not a total monopoly mind you, but pretty close. We enplaned lots of nice, small-town folks to shuttle them off to a “real” city like Tulsa, Memphis, Little Rock or Dallas, so they could catch a “real” airplane (like the ones that said Boeing on the control yoke) to continue their journey. We didn’t ally ourselves with the major airlines, but flew in direct competition against them. Very different from what you see these days. For example, tomorrows “Delta” flight out of Eugene, Oregon to Salt Lake City, is not flown by Delta Airlines, it’s flown by a “Delta Connection” line that is contracted to fly to the smaller towns for the big brother headquartered in Atlanta. In this case, it’s probably a company by the name of SkyWest Airlines. It’s a great little airline, with superb agents, flight attendants and pilots. In fact, I’ve ridden on their cockpit jumpseat a few times, have always been impressed by their employees, and many of the new hires I flew with at “big brother” Delta the last few years of my career were hired from SkyWest. But again, back in the dark ages post deregulation, ticket prices were low, the airlines (big and small) flew darn near everywhere, and the little aerial circus I worked for was going “mano e mano” with the big boys in some of our markets. One of those happened to be the Little Rock to Dallas/Ft. Worth market, and that’s where we pick up our hero Steve again in the yarn.
They arrived from their morning launch from Nashville on time and unscathed. Next on the hit parade was a flight down to the sun baked plains of north Texas and the Dallas-Ft. Worth Metroplex (or as we called it when I was growing up in Ft. Worth…the “Metro-mess”). The one saving grace for this next mission, was that Steve and his erstwhile captain were not bound for the huge conflagration of runways, taxiways, ramps and terminals known as DFW, nope, they were headed toward that “other” busy airline destination…Dallas’s Love Field. This little jewel of an airport sits southeast of the “Texas-tall” skyscrapers of downtown Dallas, and after the birth of DFW (and the closure of the Greater Southwest Airport), was relegated to become two equally important things. One was a very busy general aviation center for everything from small Cessnas to large business jets; and the other, was to shine as the epicenter of that famous “Love Airline”. You know the one that originally painted their planes with a mixture of red, orange and (for lack of a better description) baby-diaper-contents brown. Its name is, of course, Southwest Airlines, and it’s the father (and most successful) of all “low cost” airlines. They invented the concept back in the early 1970s, flooding the skies between three Texas cities with their little Boeing 737s. Their dirt-cheap fares, and friendly stewardesses in “hot pants” was a huge hit, and they haven’t looked back since.
(The dawn of low-cost air travel, circa 1972. A Boeing 737-200 in the red/orange/baby-poop yellow livery, two “suits” and those famous “hot pants” and white knee boots. The concept was a hit from the beginning.)
So, as Steve and Captain Tom prepared to depart from Little Rock for Dallas, they noticed something that was not at all unheard of in those days. Their entire passenger load consisted of but a single passenger. Again, this was back in the days before that incestuous thing we call “code sharing” with another airline (Delta/SkyWest, etc.), so on several routes, we would launch for a destination in our little “weed-whacker” turbo-prop machine behind a “real” airline bound for the same destination. Those United (or Delta or American or TWA) Boeing 727s, replete with standing room cabins, comfortable seats, toilets and stewardesses…we had none of that…would be our direct competition on those routes. Our little aerial-tube had seats that were designed by the Marquis de Sade, no bathroom facilities, no flight attendants (with a max of only 19 customers we were not required by the FAA to have any), and unless one was shorter than, say, Tom Cruise (5’6”), you were forced to walk down the aisle doing your best “hunchback of Notre Dame” impression. Comfort was NOT our calling card…in fact, I’m not sure why ANYONE would choose us over the big jet airlines (I’m guessing lower fares). We flew many times with a handful of passengers, every now and again with a single “dare-devil”, and occasionally, we were totally empty (more on that later).
So off they climbed, Steve and his erstwhile commander Tom, into the clear morning sky, winging their way toward Dallas with their lone occupant in the passenger cabin. We know that from my earlier description of him, Steve was “that guy”, and …well Tom was definitely NOT that guy. In fact, Tom was the opposite of “that guy”. Picture the guy at the party that, well, actually Tom would not have gone to the party (to tell the truth, I’m not sure he would’ve been invited…lol). The little exposure that I actually had with Tom, left me with the following impression; he was a “nice enough” dude, but was as dry as a mouthful of the Sahara Desert, boring as a lecture on interest rates, and his proclivities were so damned straight arrow that an exclamation of “heck” or “darn” might illicit a scouring recrimination. I’m sure that a cold beer had never touched those lips, and equally sure that if a pretty girl smiled his way, he’d squirm like the proverbial “cat on a hot tin roof”. The First Officers even had a nickname for him…” the Boy Scout” (my apologies to all the BSA types out there). With all that said, every now and then in a pilot’s career, the person sitting next to you is your opposite …it just happens. It’s really not too much of an issue on the flightdeck, and one can learn to be socially “creative” on the layovers, so it’s not like you’re required to become “best-ies”. Given all of that, I would guess that he and Steve did not have the most scintillating conversations on the Metroliner flight deck. Again, just a guess on my part.
(Two of Skyways Metroliners on the ramp at Little Rock.)
Speaking of the Metro flight deck, it had lots of one thing, and none of something else. It was awash in the noise from the screaming Garrett TPE 331 engines hanging barely 10 feet aft of your seat, and we all wore the ubiquitous green David Clarke “noise cancelling” headsets, which helped a little. At my Northwest Orient Airlines job interview in 1983, one of the hurdles to pass was a 2-day medical flight exam through the hallowed halls of the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota (that’s a subject for an entire Logbook yarn…it had to be experienced to be believed…lol). During my testing at the Audio Department, the white lab-coated doctor lady looked at my chart with a small grimace. She had noticed a pronounced dip at a certain decibel range, and looked at me and asked… “Garrett engines?” My answer, “Yep”. She chuckled and said that all pilots of the Metro had the very same dip at the very same frequency…lovely. So, we spent hours/days/months wearing these green headset monsters in the cockpits, and at the end of the day, we all had a big, sweaty flat spot across the top of our heads. We termed it “helmet head”, and we wore it proudly… albeit less than attractively.
(The object of my audio frequency “dip”…The howling Garrett TPE331 engine as seen from my seat.)
The one thing our Skyways “Metro” flight decks did not have was automation. We had no Flight Directors on the ADIs (attitude direction indication…some call it the “artificial horizon”). These little magic indicators help a pilot by giving him/her a “target” as it were to use when flying the machine solely by the instruments. It makes things like conducting an instrument approach much easier by providing you with a yellow cross (or “V bars”) on the attitude indicator telling you where you need to point the machine and you just “fly” the little airplane symbol on the instrument into the cross-hairs (or “the “V bars”) and it makes a difficult thing much easier. Keeping a steady, concentrated instrument scan going after being in the air for 10 hours (including a dozen takeoffs and landings) can be a challenge. A Flight Director can become your best friend on the midnight instrument approach into a rain-swept airport in “Po-Dunk, Arkansas”. So, no Flight Director system…check.
It also didn’t have another wonderful thing…an autopilot. We “hand flew” the airplane all day, every day. (I know, I know, you friggen pilots have it soooooo easy that you just “push a button” and the plane fly’s itself…actually, it’s not quite that easy.) Whereby the big jets ALL have sophisticated autoflight systems (try hand flying the Boeing 767 for 14 hours from Seattle to Beijing…can’t be done), many of the smaller machines “back in the day” required you to hang on to the yoke and actually fly the thing 100% of the time. I recall many a day, cruising along at 15 to 16000’, with a jumbo Cola between my legs while I wolfed down a ketchup and mustard bathed hot dog from some “choke and puke” food stand at a backwater airport. Our schedules were pretty air-tight and we routinely flew long days with no breaks for an actual meal. Usually, the most you would get is a :30 break about ½ way through your day, so you became quite adept at flying the machine and stuffing your face at the same time.
(A typical flight deck of the SA226TC Metroliner. The little brown/blue instruments on either side are the ADIs or Attitude Indicators.)
One of the by-products of hand flying the machine constantly, is that you became quite good at noticing when the plane is doing something other than what you were asking it to do. We became experts at trimming the machine to hold the altitude we wanted, and whenever one of the passengers would move around in the cabin, we could tell it simply by how the machine was responding to the weight shifting. Again, no bathrooms, no galleys, no stewardesses, so the ONLY time they moved was when someone was coming forward to talk to us (we had a curtain between the cockpit and cabin…imagine that nowadays…right?). The person flying the ship could feel the nose wanting to drop as a passenger came forward, within a few seconds they would open the curtain, the pilot not flying the plane would move an earphone off of one ear, shout “Can I help you?”, and the passenger would launch into whatever question, comment, or tirade was on their agenda at that moment.
(N501SS on the company ramp in Fayetteville, Arkansas…It was one of our oldest Metros, and I saw many an hour in the clouds is this machine.)
Back to Steve’s flight. Tom was piloting the machine, straight and level at 16000’, on a vector for the navigation station that defined the arrival corridor from the northeast into the Dallas terminal airspace. They were roughly at the midpoint of the flight when Tom started to feel the nose beginning to get heavy and he applied the appropriate amount of nose up trim. He looked at Steve and mentioned through the “hot mike” inter-phone system that the lone passenger was coming toward the cockpit. Steve shifted in his seat, moved the earphone off of his left ear and waited for the curtain to open…when it did, he was NOT prepared for what awaited him (his comment to me as he relayed the story). Upon pulling the cockpit curtain open, there stood a young lady, completely naked (or as we Texans say it…”buck ass nekked!”), covered in baby-oil, and smoking a joint! She loudly exclaimed, “Anyone want to come in the back and share some of this (holding up the weed), and then share some of “this” (gesturing to her nakedness)?”
According to Steve, a giant smile spread across his face, and he began the process of unbuckling himself from the First Officer’s seat. Again, from the man himself, he was definitely NOT interested in the weed, but his sense of duty drove him to seriously ponder the idea of helping this young lady check yet another box on her “bucket list” of life. To quote him, “Hey, if she had some sort of wish to become a card-carrying member of the “Mile High Club”, who was I to deprive her of that?” It was not to be, for roughly the same moment that Steve began the maneuver to release his seat belt and/or harness, Captain (“Boy Scout”) Tom turned to see what was happening over his right shoulder. It seems that “shocked and surprised” doesn’t begin to describe his reaction to the proceedings. Steve relayed that at the realization that his little aerial world of law and order was about to resemble a scene from Sodom and Gomorrah, Captain Tom essentially came un-glued!
(Skyways Metro inflight. The guy in the left seat is a friend by the name of Gil M.)
Immediately ripping the headset from his now enraged brow, Tom angrily pointed a recriminating index finger at the young aerial strumpet and exclaimed at the top of his lungs, “Young lady, you put your clothes back on, put out that illegal instrument, and we WILL have the authorities waiting on you when we land!” (His choice of “illegal instrument” still gives me a giggle) When I asked Steve what her reaction to such a fire-branded scolding was, he (shaking his head) said rather forlornly, “Well, her eyes got really large, and she looked shocked, and mortified. She started to cry and ran toward the back of the airplane!” Tom pulled the curtain closed, then turned his wrath upon Steve. He ordered him to buckle himself back into the First Officer’s seat and begin the process of tilting the scales of justice toward a harsh reality in this young lady’s life. Steve meekly (still hard to picture this huge dude meekly doing anything) did as he was told, and on they flew toward Love Field.
I’m sorry to say that the story of “Mile High Steve” ends there. For whatever reason, I never heard the rest of the tale, and I don’t remember the circumstances surrounding his retelling of this yarn to yours truly, so hence, I can’t with total honesty say why I never heard how it all turned out. Within a fairly short period of time, I was to be snatched up in the big hiring wave of the early 1980’s at the major airlines, and our paths never crossed following that. I did hear that he too had left the small airline for the “big leagues”, and the last I heard of his journey, he was occupying the captain’s seat of a Boeing 747 for one of the large freight companies. Funny thing, since they don’t carry passengers, I feel pretty certain that his morning over northeast Texas with Captain (Boy Scout) Tom, was probably the last time he was confronted on the flight deck by a naked girl and her “illegal instrument”.
(Boeing makes THE most beautiful flying machines in the world.)
(Dear friend Steve)
My next tale of a Steve begins in college circa 1977. I was a full year ahead of Steve B. in the aviation program, and he was rooming with a young man that would soon become one of my flying students. He and I were casual acquaintances until we realized that our childhoods were strangely identical. He too was a military “brat”, and the offspring of an aviator. He too had spent the majority of his early years either living overseas or moving from one military base to the next. He too had grown up in and around flying machines, and felt the tug of the clouds at an early age.
Our differences were both significant and trivial; his father flew jet bombers for the Air Force, and my Dad flew helicopters for the Army. He spent several of his “formative years” in the green, steamy Philippines, and I spent those same years in the post-card world of southern Germany. We found the differences in our shared upbringings vastly overshadowed by the similarities of our lives as the child of a military pilot. A major one, of course, being that our fathers seemed to be perpetually gone. They were either deployed, in the throes of some sort of training, or TDY [Temporary Duty] to some exotic place that our young minds could barely register.
In both of our lives, the true boss of the home was our Mother. She was “large and in charge”, and although she often resembled the carnival juggler (bowling ball, egg and running chainsaw…we’ve all seen the show); she somehow made it work. She ruled the household with the iron will of a monarch, and pretty much single-handedly raised the brood of children (in my case 5 of us, and his case 2). She was all things to all people; she metered out stern discipline, and gentle love, in equal amounts, and somehow kept a marriage together with a man that was almost never there. I know from conversations with Steve, that the phrase, “my Dad is gone” was quite common, but the year both of our fathers went to war was something very different. They spent over a year in the war-torn skies of Vietnam (one at 25,000’ and the other at tree-top level), and returned to their loving families in one piece (and mostly unchanged). My bond with Steve was initially formed from our shared past, and grew stronger with our shared likes (airplanes, history and sports). Within a short period of time, we became fast friends.
When I met Steve’s Mom and Dad, it was like I’d known them all my life…for in a strange way I had. Just like my father, Steve’s dad was tall, strong, and met you with the hand-shake of a bear. He was lightning quick with a laugh, and seemed to have a never-ending repertoire of flying stories. His tales were fantastic in nature, and mesmerizing in delivery, and I instantly took a liking to him. It was like being in the same room with a combination of Errol Flynn and Steve Canyon (more google homework for the younger crowd). Steve’s mother was very much the other side of the coin. Like my own dear mother, she was soft-spoken, prone to maternal kindness and exuded a quiet strength born of loving a man that she shared with the sky. It was obvious that she loved him with all her heart, and that deep well of love spilled down toward Steve and his younger brother Dan. They were a family strongly bonded in the shared knowledge that their next destination (read Air Force base), their next town, their next school, their next set of friends, quite literally their next everything would be changing (and probably sooner rather than later). They were a tightly-knit tribe (like my family) for it was (and is) how a military family survives. With that said, they warmly welcomed me into their home with open arms.
(“Hero” Steve Canyon of 1960’s TV fame. He’s standing in front of an F-100 Super Sabre.)
After college, Steve and I went our separate ways professionally. I continued in the world of flight instruction, then off to do the “night freight” gig (see blog entry “Night Warriors…or My Life as a Freight Dog” https://bubba757.com/2019/01/06/night-warriorsor-my-life-as-a-freight-dog/ ), four years in the regional airlines, and eventually ended up with a set of wings engraved with the logo of a proud, world-renowned, airline. Steve heard the siren call of a different tune, and chose to stay in the world of smaller machines, for the bright lights of exotic destinations, and the thrill of piloting the “heavy iron” mattered not to him. He worked at the regional airline where I was employed for a few years, and that was truly a special time in my life. We flew many flights together (myself as the Captain, and he as the First Officer), hung out together on our days off, played tons of golf/tennis etc, tipped one (or a million) beers together and generally did what good friends do. He became like a brother to me, for he watched my first marriage crumble, he helped me through the death of a beloved sibling, and was one of my most important “go to” people in a decade of my life that needed that brand of friendship and support.
(Yours truly and Steve on a golf course in Winnepeg circa 1987.)
The following is but one of MANY adventures we shared in a cockpit during our time at the regional airline…
By day 3 of the trip, Steve and I were bone tired. The date was the 13th of September 1981, and although this day looked to be easy duty, the previous 2 days were anything but. In the last 48 hours, we had flown a total of 14 legs. The following is a list of the flights we had accomplished during the last couple of days. The first day had us “enjoying” a pre-dawn launch from Fayetteville (Arkansas, our home domicile) bound for the “first oil capital of the world”, Tulsa, Oklahoma. From there it got a bit dizzying; Tulsa to Ft. Smith, Ft. Smith to Little Rock, Little Rock to Memphis, Memphis to Springfield, Springfield to Kansas City, Kansas City to Springfield, and a scant 14 hours later we called it a day back in the “Blues Capital” of Memphis. The second day of this extravaganza was “easy” compared to the previous outing, for on this day we flew but a mere 6 legs. These destinations read like another travel log of the deep South: Memphis to Little Rock, Little Rock to El Dorado (AR), El Dorado to Shreveport, Shreveport to El Dorado, El Dorado to Little Rock, and (once again) we ended the day witnessing a gorgeous sunset on the banks of the “Big Muddy” itself (back in Memphis).
(Memphis’ world-famous Beale Street.)
So, as I turned off the alarm on the morning of Day 3, I noticed two things: the sunrise was just beginning to lighten the hotel room window, and Steve was already showered, dressed and ready to rock and roll. I had no idea what propelled him out of bed so quickly, but then I didn’t much care…today was the last day of trip, and the sooner we got started the sooner we’d be home. Back then, the small airliner universe was in a constant state of financial anxiety, and one of the ways we scrimped on the almighty dollar was to share hotel rooms (or motel as the case may be). This was a non-issue for most of our crews, but occasionally you had a “roomie” that snored like a lumberjack, or couldn’t sleep unless the TV was blaring, etc., and it could make for a short night…which was inevitably followed by a long day. Thank God we were (mostly) in our 20s, physically fit, and pulling a marathon day in the cockpit almost always fell into the “FUN” category. Now (four decades removed from this type of flying), the thought of a 14-leg day in the wind, rain, thunderstorms, snow and ice…or even a sunny day…makes me dizzy and feeling the need for a nap.
The day started with a bit of twist, for on this sleepy Sunday morning, the airline changed our aerial mount. It wasn’t unusual for all airlines to massage their flying schedules on the weekends, for the passenger loads on Saturdays and Sundays were commonly far less than during the work week. They routinely would simply not operate certain flights on those days, and very often, they would substitute a smaller machine on the “thin” routes. This was to be our fate this day, for when we arrived at the boarding gate for our first flight to Nashville, instead of finding a 19-seat Metroliner in the chocks, we were greeted by an old friend.
She was one of the lines more time-worn, miles-weary, “ridden hard and put up wet”, Beechcraft Model 99s. She was smaller than the Metro, held about three-fourths the passenger load, and was essentially the “airline version” of the civilian Beechcraft King Air. Our airline owned but a few of them and they were used for “light duty” runs, like our early Sunday launch from Memphis to Nashville. The machine had a sterling reputation as both rugged and reliable, for the two powerful Pratt and Whitney PT6A-27 turboprop engines were mated to a very impressive airfoil. The Beech 99 was the scene of my very first “airline” Captains Checkout, and I considered it a true joy to fly. Both Steve and I had logged countless hours aloft in N5SS, and we both shared an affection for her. Such feelings were borne of days spent aviating in the most unforgiving weather that Mother Nature could dish out. We both had flown this little red and white marvel in the granite harsh world of thunderstorms and lightning, howling wind takeoffs and landings, and twilight storms of snow and ice. She had taken the worst that the elements could throw at us, and she always delivered all on board safely to our loved ones.
(The beautiful machine we loved…Skyways N5SS…Beechcraft Model 99.)
Our flight to Nashville was completely unremarkable, with the exception of another heart stopping sunrise. It was both gorgeous in its presentation and blinding in its severity…lol. One other thing, we were essentially an empty vessel for the hour-long trip, for Steve and I equaled our passenger count. A mere pair of “brave daredevils” decided to tempt fate and accompany us on that early launch, but again, that was not much of a surprise on a Sunday morning. Then things changed, for when we checked in with the gate agent in Nashville, we were told that our count in the cabin for our next leg to Little Rock would be two less than on the first flight! What? We were going to be empty? “Yes Virginia, were we going to fly this beautiful little 7000 lb airplane roughly 350 miles across the heartland of America ALL BY OURSELVES. Could we do it? Of course, we could. Could we do it without doing something stupid? No, probably not.”
First a word about my dear friend Steve. He’s nuts. No, not nuts in crazy type nuts, but he’s far more comfortable flying at 50’ above terra firma than at 20,000’. In fact, he was so comfortable flying next to the ground that his nickname in college became “Buzz” …as in buzzing things in an airplane by flying over them REALLY low (and I mean very NOT high). His first job after college was flying in the very niche world of what’s called the “pipeline patrol”. It’s so niche, that very few pilots have actually heard of it. You essentially fly a very small aircraft, literally hundreds of miles across the country at an altitude of well under 100’, simply following the various oil pipelines looking for leaks (I would guess that nowadays that job is either done with sensors or drones). It’s a job that is grossly underpaid, very dangerous, avoided by 99.9 % of the pilot population, and it was right up Steve (Buzz’s) alley…he loved it.
To demonstrate his love for flying low, I offer the following tale. Early one Sunday morning at college, I was the lone airport office worker when the telephone rang. On the other end of the line was a VERY irate farmer yelling something about a small blue and white airplane flying low over his pastures and “aerially herding” his cattle around! He was ranting and raving about how he was going to get his shotgun and shoot that damned little airplane, and that he knew it was from the college and I’d better do something about it! I assured him it would stop, hung up the phone and immediately looked to see which airplane had been assigned to which student for an early morning mission. Yep, you guessed it! There was but a lone Southeastern Oklahoma State University machine in the air that morning, and the aircraft commander was none other than the Buzz himself. Fortunately for him, I called him on the radio, informed him that he was busted, and that he should RTB (return to base) immediately before anyone of significance showed up. He landed, and when I met him at the gas pump, he climbed out of the little Cessna with a HUGE grin on his face! Oh, and the Cessna needed a bit of attention before we could return it to duty for the college. It seems it had lots of grass, and cornstalks hanging from the landing gear! Me; “Wait, weren’t you supposed to be practicing your airwork…you know the stuff we do at 3000’…like Chandelles and Lazy8s?” Him: “Yep.” We quickly removed the evidence, parked it back on the flight line, and laughed about it for days (and still do).
One other thing about Steve, he’s undeniably the most natural pilot I’ve ever met. I have always believed that I was born for the sky, be it my father’s influence, my upbringing in and around flying machines, or just a fluke of nature. From the moment I first touched the controls of an airplane, it somehow just felt…well…natural. As far as I know, my 3.8 hours of total flight time remains a record at Meacham Field in Ft. Worth for fewest hours from first flight to first “solo” flight. In retrospect, it was an amazingly stupid thing for my flight instructor (John D.) to do, and I’ve penned about the meltdown my Dad experienced when learning of such. The fact remains however, that although I was a bit nervous, I was totally confident that I could do it and do it well (and do it safely). With that said, Steve’s ability to pilot a flying machine (“through the eye of a needle in the midst of a hurricane” comes to mind) puts yours truly in the “ham-fisted, rank-amateur” category. Again, a more natural pilot I’ve never seen…he somehow connects with an airplane like a virtuoso pianist connects with the ivories. Think of Michael Jordan on a breakaway slam dunk…same thing, only Steve is about 2 feet shorter and can’t play basketball.
Now, a few years later, walking across the sun baked ramp in Nashville, I glanced at Steve and said, “Strap in to the left seat, I’ll do the walk-around”. Again, at this time in his pilot life, Steve was employed as a First Officer on the Metroliner and Beech 99, and regardless the fact that he held an FAA Airline Transport Pilots license (and had several thousand hours of flight time), he was not legal to fly in the Captains seat when we were conducting a revenue flight. This was not that, for we would be simply re-positioning the machine to Little Rock, and not operating as an “airline” flight. We would not be using our company call-sign with ATC, and the rules governing our flight would actually be from a different chapter of the FARs (Federal Aviation Regulations). So, in the legal realm, him flying the Beech 99 from the Captains seat was not an issue, he had lots of flight time in the First Officer’s seat (and later in his career, would fly the King Air for a Tennessee millionaire), so I had no reservations about having him switch seats and take command of the machine. He smiled, gladly accepted and bounded up the boarding stairs into the aircraft.
(Typical cockpit of the Beechcraft Model 99.)
We fired up the plane, taxied to runway 21R and launched into a clear, late morning sky over the “Volunteer State”. We had decided to not use the ATC system for our flight (other than the control towers at the beginning and end of the journey), so about 5 minutes after we lifted-off, I signed off with Nashville tower, switched to a “common” VHF frequency, and we took up a southwesterly heading. It didn’t take long (I didn’t think it would) for my dear friend Steve to do what my dear friend Steve loves to do. Over the din of the engines, he innocently said over the headphones, “Why don’t we take it down a bit?” Uh, oh…was First Officer Steve morphing into “Buzz, the Lord of the (Low) Level Flys”? I looked up from the map I was using to plot a rough pilotage course toward Little Rock, and realized that he had smoothly, imperceptibly, descended us out of our initial cruise altitude of 6500’…we were passing through 1500’ and slowly headed lower.
[A note about the term “pilotage”. It refers to a form of visual navigation whereby you compare your intended course to what you’re witnessing out the windshield. If your intended course takes you just north of a small town with 3 roads through it…you locate it visually out the windshield…and simply adjust your heading to pass north of said town. If your course takes you over a lake shaped like Abraham Lincoln’s head…just aim for Abe’s face and you’re on course. It’s the simplest form of navigation, and as long as you can peer out the windshield; you’re golden. Our problem became one of altitude and visibility. Simply put, pilotage is fairly easy from several thousand feet in the air, it’s an entirely different thing down at the heights that Buzz was inching us toward.]
O.K., so now we’re at 500’ above the ground and going lower. Fine, but as the defacto navigator for this mission, I was going to have to really up my game. As we descended through 400’… Me:” OK, Buzz, over the next tree line, you’ll see a water tower… pass south of that tower…your heading should be roughly 230 degrees”. At 300’…things are starting to get really “interesting” …at about 250 miles per hour, houses, roads, cars, cows, etc., are passing by with the speed of a bullet. At 200’…Me:” OK Buzz, see the small lake? Come right 15 degrees and just nip the north shore…watch out for that sailboat! Over the next tree line, keep the railroad track on our left.” At 100’ now… (and now he has my COMPLETE, un-divided attention!) …
Things are happening very fast now, and as I glance over at Buzz, he appears to be taking a stroll in the park. Relaxed, totally in control, a look of concentration across his brow, but the smile across his lips tells of a man in his element. The smoothness of his inputs on the yoke were a thing of beauty. He was making positive corrections in heading and altitude going around obstacles, and over (or under) things like power lines, stands of trees, etc., but our ride was most certainly not sharp, jerking or abrupt. About thirty minutes into the flight, I was checking our position on the map, and I felt the nose rise slightly to gain a cushion of altitude. I looked over and noticed him fumbling in his kit bag, and what he produced can only be described as “pure Buzz”. Having no idea where it came from, he pulled out a (no kidding) white headband with a…wait for it…Japanese red ball in the middle! Did he keep in his kit bag “just in case” he got to ferry a machine, and the right time, right place came along? Knowing him…yeah, probably. Either way, as he tied it around his head, I shook mine and howled with laughter.
(Headband of the Japanese air forces in World War II.)
Roughly halfway through this “daring mission under the enemy’s radar” I knew we were quickly approaching that huge brown river that cuts through everyone’s life in this part of the world. Yep, that two thousand-mile watery snake that has given life and liberty for hundreds of years…the Mighty Mississippi. We would be over it before we knew it, and I had to navigate our low-level aerospace vehicle across it far enough north of the city of Memphis so that we would not interfere with its ground and/or airborne traffic. “Sensi Buzz” was now firmly in his happy place, and we were (again) screaming along at 100’ above Mother Earth at about four miles a minute. With this head wrapped in a weird “divine wind” banner, Steve was sporting a huge smile, flying my supplied headings (and reminders to NOT run into things) with consummate skill, and was having the time of his life!
I was having fun too, just not his kind of fun. Every pilot likes to occasionally fly low and “buzz” things, but this was a type of flying that I’d only briefly dabbled in, not yearned for like my friend Steve. Again, I was having fun, but it was more of the “I’m trapped on a roller coaster and my screams are coming out silent” type of fun. From me: “OK Buzz, over the next tree line, we’re at the Mississippi, watch for river barges.” He pulled the nose up as we passed the near shoreline bank of trees, and I felt his firm push on the starboard rudder pedal, allowing the right wing to dip to lose altitude. He leveled the wings again as the river zoomed by below us (I never remembered it being this wide or this muddy…but then again, I’d never seen it from 100’!)! A few G-forces as we nose up again to crest the far bank tree line… and that’s when it happened.
The long nose of N5SS was about 15 degrees up as we climbed to keep the trees from ruining our day, and we suddenly found ourselves perpendicular to a long, straight red dirt road. Glancing to his left, Buzz spied something a few miles down said dirt road, and immediately recognized the object of his reconnaissance. He maintained our nose up attitude to gain altitude and lose airspeed (not what I expected to happen after river passage), all the while intently keeping his attention outside the cockpit window. His left foot deftly pushed on the port rudder pedal, and we performed a picture perfect “Chandelle” maneuver (“Yes Virginia, this was indeed the very same maneuver he was SUPPOSED to be practicing back in college at 3000’ when he was down at 50’ hearding bovines.”). The nose smoothly whipped to the left, started to drop, and our airspeed began to quickly rise. I was now firmly peering down the road attempting to decipher what the hell he was doing when I spotted the object of his attention. It was a person walking down the road. He looked to be a young boy, and he was slowly ambling along the dirt road headed away from us. He had a fishing pole in one hand and worm bucket in the other, was barefoot, adorned in jean overalls, and was sporting a thatched weave “fishing hat”. I swear he was something right out of a Norman Rockwell painting from 50 years past! I knew what was about to happen, and I knew the perfect person was about to pull it off.
(This is exactly what the kid was wearing…I swear…lol.)
Buzz pointed the nose down the road, and since we were still a mile or so from this young angler, he had not yet realized that a 3 1/2 ton, red and white, jet-prop screaming, compilation of metal and homo sapiens, was bearing down on his very location. Knowing Steve like I did, I knew there was no malice involved in this event, for he simply planned to give this young man an impromptu (albeit, very up close) airshow. That’s not exactly what happened, for when young “Timmy” heard something behind him, then turned and located the inbound “bogey”, his reaction was far more terrified than impressed. He began to run slowly at first, then his pace noticeably quickened. Shortly after that, it took on an a distinctly “Pamplona” air, and you’d swear he was the tail-end-Charlie dude in the “running of the bulls”! At this point, he was running for all he was worth, looking over his shoulder, and had divested himself of any and all items that might slow him down! He dropped his fishing pole early in the run, and had tossed the worm bucket a little farther down the road. By now, his young eyes had widened to match the giant river barely ½ mile to his east, he was intently following our inbound strafing run, and I can only imagine the brand of “rebel yell” that was spewing from his mouth! As we passed a mere 50’ over his (now bare) head, he looked up and I cannot begin to imagine what must’ve gone through his mind as he witnessed a guy (sporting a WWII Japanese headband) give him a nod and an informal salute! We flashed by him, and an instant later Buzz pulled us up into another perfect chandelle (only this one to the right…maybe he DID spend a moment or two practicing them back in college), and off we hurled toward the southwestern horizon.
As we sped off on our course toward Little Rock, again a scant few meters above the fields of north east Arkansas, we both began to giggle. This turned to laughter and that (of course) turned to uproarious hilarity. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for our new little friend “Timmy”, for I easily imagined this poor waif running as fast as his little feet would propel him. He would speed down the gravel path toward home all the while wondering what the hell just happened! Upon bursting through the front door of the trailer, I imagined a dutiful parent getting an ear-full of the fantastical event that had just transpired. Some unbelievable ship from the heavens, literally dropped out of nowhere and singled him out for its heinous attack. It had him “dead to rights”, zeroed in on its gunsights, and somehow, he had foiled their attempt to destroy this solitary human! It roared over his head, missing him by mere inches and sped off toward the sky at the speed of light! I imagined said parent, face full of chagrin, launching into a loud admonishment of how little boys should NOT make up crazy stories about space ships and aliens, and no matter the wet spot on his crotch, he would be punished for telling an obvious monumental un-truth! Poor little Timmy…lost his fishing pole, lost his worm bucket, and his credibility… all in a 30 second waking-nightmare! I’m guessing that the next steamy morning he finds himself ambling down a lonely, red-dirt road, he may just spend a bit more time looking over his shoulder.
(I’m guessing “Timmy” may have seen something like this bearing down on him…at least in his re-telling of the event!)
Within thirty minutes, the Pratt and Whitney’s propeller blades slowed to a stop and we stepped on to the hot, concrete tarmac at the Little Rock airport. The ramp crew seemed perplexed by our arrival, and upon inquiring as to who the heck we were, and where the heck we came from, we offered that we were the ferry flight from Nashville. They seemed confused and exclaimed that we were not expected for another half an hour, so we mumbled some lame excuses as to the absence of headwinds at 6000’, and ATC being generous with their routings, and a bunch of other stuff that didn’t actually make any sense to them (or us). They shrugged and wandered off to work an inbound flight, while Steve and I headed toward the Skyways Operations Office. After the hot, sweaty two-hour flight, the thought of air conditioning and an ice-cold drink seemed a bit like heaven. Several hours (and several legs) later, as the sun moved below the horizon, we found ourselves back at our home base of Fayetteville, logging time on a bar stool and reliving the events of the day. After a beer (or two), there was a sidelong glance, which turned to a wry smile, which turned to a giggle, which turned to laughter, which turned to…well…you know.
(Steve by his EAT [European Air Transport] “Eat-mobile” car that was provided for him during his two-year stay flying in Brussels. We would meet up on my layovers in Frankfurt or Amsterdam. A few “adventures” ensued…yarns for another time I’m afraid. Lol.)
As the wipers rhythmically sweep the windshield of the rental car, my blurred vision is a mixture of cold, blowing sleet compounded by tears of sadness. The drive north into Oklahoma 48 hours ago (from DFW) was made in warm, windy, 70-degree air, but later that night, a late January cold front raced through the small village of Stroud. Within a few hours, the sky became leaden, the temperature dropped 40 degrees, and squalls of sleet painted the world to match my mood. As I pull into the rental facility to return the vehicle before my flight home to Minneapolis, I’m fighting the slush slickened roads, and the ache within my soul. The last two days have been a blur of heartfelt laughter and heart wrenching sadness.
At the church, the eulogy from my lips was a blur of my most beautiful words, and if pressed, I’m not sure I could recall any of it. It has been a very long, very painful year. The diagnosis, the horrible waves of medical procedures and surgeries, the pain of his wife Mary (and two young daughters) in the midst of this nightmare, and a few days ago, our last “of this world” conversation. He was having a good…no, a great day. He had enjoyed a full breakfast (his first meal in months), was feeling like a million bucks, and later in the day, he took my call. The morphine randomly intervened, it would take hold of the conversation and turn it fuzzy and a bit difficult, but within a few minutes the medicine would fade, perceptiveness would return, and we would pick up where we had left off. We would laugh, talk of our days in college, our hours in the clouds, and our time playing the golf courses of the world. As we talked, we recalled our entire 30-year history, and yes, we giggled about the time we chased the kid down the dirt road…me with tears of joy and sadness flowing from my eyes. The humor was doing battle with the pain, and it was losing miserably… for my heart was breaking. I closed the last conversation with my dear friend with the following words…” I love you Buzz.” His last words to me…” I love you too man.” I hung up the phone, and knew our next meeting would be on a bright sunny day, on a beautiful golf course in the clouds of salvation.
Within a few hours, my friend… would be… gone …
(The Buzz-man himself in the cockpit of a millionaire’s King Air. Picture this smiling mug, wearing a red-dotted headband, under a green headset…and all of it at 100’ above the ground doing 4 miles a minute! The man was….is….a legend.)
My friend, Steven Randolph Baker, was taken from this world too soon. The good Lord gave him 48 years, and I had the privilege and joy to be his friend for three fourths of that. He has been gone for over a dozen years now, and I miss him greatly. Maybe I’m half crazy, but I still “talk” to him at various times in my life. We rap about the things we would speak of when his soul was united with his bodily person. He was (and is) one of my closest friends and one of my dearest brothers of the sky.
Oh, and he was the greatest Steve I will ever know…
“Sleep easy my friend. All of your flights are now low and fast over the fields of eternity…smile your smile…and fly with wings of health and happiness.
We’ll meet again someday.”
…I love you man.
‘till next time,