Tuesday, June 24, 2014
Flying over the New Mexican Desert, 1973-1975
I got my private pilots license in November of 1973. There was a Navy program, called the Flight Indoctrination Program, that paid for everything if a reservist wanted to go to the aviation pipeline once they finished college.
About twenty minutes out of Albuquerque there was a small airstrip and fixed base operation called "Seven Bar Flying Service." They had the contract for the FIP guys.
The basic trainer was the Cessna 150. Once you had soloed, you could fly the Tomahawk or the Cessna 172.
One of the guys I flew with there was from Albuquerque. His father had been a Navy pilot, and owned an old Lescombe. It's the only tail dragger I ever flew.
On weekends, a bunch of us would go out to the airfield, sign out the aircraft, and then go out to fly over the mesa as a big gaggle. It was lots of fun. The fellow on the left of this picture was a UNM wrestler, got injured, and had to leave the program. The guy on the right eventually went ground, and ended his career as the commanding officer of a Light Armored Assault Vehicle battalion.
New Mexico was a wonderful place to fly. Almost always good weather, vast expanses of desert where you could fly way lower than the legal limitations. I went back out there in 2004, and flew over where the airfield used to be , in a balloon. There was nothing of it left, just row upon row of tract houses.
Flying "civilian" in New Mexico back then was a lot more fun than flying military later on. For one thing, you could do pretty much what you wanted to do while you were up. We used to flour bomb. Take up little bags of flour. Find a place out there where two dirt roads crossed. Pull the throttle back, put the flaps down, and play Stuka dive bomber. The guy in the right seat opened the wing window and threw out the flour bag just before you pulled up. The lower you went, the better your chances for a good hit. Whoever got the closest hit was Hans Ulrich Rudel for the day. It was great fun.
That's me on the left. The fellow in the middle flew A7 Corsair II fighter bombers, then P3 Orion patrol planes. Last I heard some years back, he was flying for Fedex. The fellow on the right is the wrestler who got hurt. I lost track of him, but he was a good man and it was a shame he never made it to active duty.
Everybody likes to have their picture taken by the aircraft. It's a very ancient aviation tradition.
I distinctly remember the day this was taken. The guy in the aircraft next to mine was my college roommate for four years. This day, we went "flat hatting." That's getting up early, taking off as the sun comes up, when the air is smooth, and then just skimming across the mesa a few feet above the deck. I remember this day because he was in the lead, popped up over a little hill, and there were power lines directly ahead of us. Pilots joke about your rear end biting washers out of the seat when things get interesting fast. This was one of those events.
Dog fighting with the Lescomb and a Cessna. They weren't much in the way of aerobatics. Neither plane was designed for that, so it was mostly just chasing each other through the clouds. The Lescombe was more maneuverable, the Cessna was faster. It was fun.
College was a lot of fun. I never could have gone if the Navy hadn't picked up the tab. It was a great deal. They paid for tuition, for room and board, and gave us our reserve pay. On summer breaks we went on training and got full pay. It was a tightly structured unit, with a great commanding officer and First Sergeant. They kept us out of trouble most of the time, and if there were fights with the "freaks" who didn't appreciate our presence on campus, the campus police were sympathetic and the First Sergeant could always fix things. Our First Sergeant was Top Herringer. He died on Okinawa in 1976. He was out running and had a heart attack. What a great man he was, and I doubt there's a one of us from that unit that's still living who doesn't remember him fondly, and with great respect.
I owe a lot to the Navy and Marine Corps. Not all of my experiences were positive, but overall it was very good to me, and the times can't all be good. You have to take a little of the bad along the way. Even then, you learn something from every experience.