Wednesday, April 11, 2007
(actually from Kenosha)
About 4 years ago, I met an 11-year old young man from Chicago who wants to be a naval aviator. I met him at a Young Eagles rally at Meigs Field (boy, there's a whole other story), when I flew him and his mom. Turns out he's wanted to fly since he as 4.
Since he was a neighbor of ours, we flew over our neighborhood--we lived in the Rogers Park neighborhood of Chicago at the time. Afterwards, I offered his mom to mentor him if he still wanted to become a pilot. Over the past several years, my friend Josh and I have had a number of exciting flight-related experiences together. (See picture of us looking kind of dorky in a Blue Angels cockpit at Oshkosh, left.) It looks likely he'll start his training this year, as he's now 15, and can solo when he's 16.
Anyway, during the planning of this trip, it occurred to me that Josh might like to see what a looonng cross-country is like. It required missing a day of school, but his mom said OK, and he and I departed Kenosha, WI on Sunday, April 8.
The trip was to be a Tuskegee Airmen retrospective.
Our first stop was planned for Freeman Field, in Seymour, IN, site of the famed "Freeman Field Mutiny" (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Freeman_Field_Mutiny), an event that eventually helped lead to today's integrated U.S. military. As a result of my involvement with Friends of Meigs Field in Chicago, I've gotten to know quite a number of original Tuskegee Airmen, including men who were part of the mutiny at the southern Indiana airfield when they were denied entry to the "instructors-only" (read: white-only) officers' club.
We left for the airport after Easter church service, and departed Kenosha in mid-afternoon in near-freezing temps. About halfway to Seymour, we discovered that the heater was blowing cold air. We got to Freeman Field about 6:30 P.M., only to find it deserted and locked up. We're told there's a nice museum of the airport's military history, but we can only vouch for what we could see from the locked door. We refilled at the self-serve pump, ate (very) cold chicken (it had been sitting under the heater vent), shivered for a photo and jumped in again to take off for Chattanooga.
Because of the cold temps, we decided not to follow our original IFR plan and instead stayed low(er) where the air wasn't quite so frigid. Even so, our fingers and toes barely made it to CHA.
The next morning, we took off and headed VFR for Tuskegee, AL, where--thanks to Bennie McRae (http://www.bjmjr.net/ww2/taaf.htm) we had been put in touch with the current owners of the formerly abandoned Tuskegee Army Air Field. (Note: There is a National Park historical site being developed at Moton Field, the municipal airport for Tuskegee, but it was originally only an outlying practice field for the Airmen, who were based at the Army Air Field, aka Sharpe Field.)
Thanks to Mr. McRae, we were able to contact Mr. Guice Slawson, whose family now owns the property as part of their lumber business. Thankfully, Mr. Slawson and others in his family understand aviation, and have preserved the reconstructed single runway that prior owners had constructed on the site of the old runway 14-32 when they had hoped to develop it as a hunting preserve. The airport (AL73) is again shown on sectional charts, though it is listed as private, requiring advance permission to land.
We arrived over the field around noon on Monday, circled a couple of times, and made a low pass to check runway conditions. We then landed to the northwest, and taxied up to a black pickup, from which emerged a friendly and welcoming southern gentleman, Mr. Guice (Guy) Slawson.
Guy turns out to be not only pro-aviation--a pilot, actually--but a former naval aviator himself, who gave Josh some excellent advice about pursuing careers flying jets for the Navy. Guy used to fly A-6's (still in service today as E-6B's, I believe) and has over 300 carrier traps.
Guy graciously drove us around the grounds of the old airfield, most of which is now overgrown. Only two buildings with intact walls still exist; what he believes are the old post office and the water plant. Chimneys still stand where other buildings stood, but none of the hangars, admin buildings, or barracks exist, and even the streets--complete with curbs--are fading under the sand and debris.
It was a particular thrill to stand in the center of the traffic circle, where likely stood the base flagpole and where "Reveille" and "Taps" likely sounded every day the field was in use by the Army.
At the end of the tour, Guy showed us the hunting lodge the prior owners had built--now used for family gatherings--complete with a 15-foot stuffed alligator.
By the end of the tour, we were running short on time--Josh had to make an 8:30 commercial flight from Tampa back to Chicago. We made a quick stop at nearby Moton Field, originally penciled in as a fuel stop, but no 100LL is available. Nevertheless, it again was a thrill to land on the same runway the original Tuskegee Airmen used for practice.
After that, it was "throttle to the firewall". A quick-turn stop in Eufala, AL (pr. "you folla?") for fuel preceded a pretty wet and choppy IFR flight into Tampa International. We made it by 7:30, and the crack staff at Tampa Jet Center ("voted best in FL" the sign says), drove us all the way around the field to the American Airlines gate, where Josh made his flight with about 15 minutes to spare.
When I returned to the plane for the last leg to Winter Haven, I was in for a rude surprise. All of a sudden the nav lights/instrument lights circuit breaker started tripping, indicating a short of some kind. Rudimentary debugging didn't help, so it was off to the airport Hilton for an unscheduled overnight. (Incidentally, TACAir in Chattanooga has a much better corporate rate at the local Hampton Inn than Tampa Jet has at the Hilton. And the Hilton dings you another $10 for internet access.)
The next morning looked great at TPA, but IFR at Winter Haven (GIF), so I filed instruments and was off. Enroute, a Saberliner in front of me had to make the missed approach a couple of times before he got in. I got real life holding practice (a rarity in my experience) over Lakeland VOR, but eventually got cleared in and made it, first shot. (Probably 'cause my cruise speed's way lower than the Saberliner...you couldn't see the airport 'til you were nearly on top of it.)
Upon arrival, I was directed to the office in the back and met up with Mr. Paul Furnée (Lake expert and fellow computer geek) for my intro into Lake water flying.
But that's the subject of Phase II: Getting My Water Wings
PS -- Paul showed me how to push the overheat reset switch on the heater, and now it works fine. If you own a Lake and don't know how to do this, either get someone to show you, or don't fly north in the winter!
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