Flying Lessons

The Mohawk came in, hanging on a wing, one engine running. It hung vertical in the sky, that single engine not humming, but howling as its turboprop fan beat the air. Above the sky was cloudy and overcast, and a long long strip of black tarmac striped the emerald green grass below. We stood on the edge of the airport by the domed hangers, watching it come in. It was part of the air show.

The only thing is: every day was an air show of some kind. Living next to a military airfield guaranteed it. There were hangers on the ground and craft in the air. Gliders and hangers. Helicopters – all kinds, the fat round Huey UH-1’s, and the lean mean Cobra attack machines with their narrow head’s on profile. The “banana” chopper with its massive twin blade rotors on each end, bent in the middle just like a banana would be. They were Chinooks, I later learned when I got my nomenclature right. Everything is in the nomenclature in the military culture, from the language to the slang. “Fubar” comes from a military source, so does “C.O.” – another word for God, or a demigod if I’ve ever seen one. Add to that “crispy critter” – and know you never want to see one (or smell one, too).

Living on an Army airbase as a kid – especially on a “spy base” where certain planes were kept – offered opportunities not available to every kid – not even the military ones. I know I often wandered the tarmac and hangers along – me and my straight handle barred bike (for it was a German one) touring the facilities and talking to the men who were working on one project or another.

There were benches piled with electronics junk, and I rapidly learned to tell the difference between an oscilloscope and an airplane radar dome. I learned what the electronics looked like, and peered at optical lenses – and the photos scattered about. Often they were photos from our enemy’s land, and the G.I.’s would peer at them and whisper excitedly, showing me tanks, bunkers, and guns. There was a lot of emphasis put on ‘learning the land’ and learning all about them – what they ate, where they fed, where the mess halls were as opposed to those other things: armed emplacement, ‘hidden’ hills nestled in some farmer’s garden. Areas near the border were pointed out and marked as ‘mined’. Huge anti-tank emplacements studded certain areas of the border – huge ‘crosses’ shaped like jacks jinks and balls. Concrete trenches wide enough to swallow a tank whole. Lots of things – over and over again.

I remember staring at contour maps – maps of the land – and hearing that I should learn about them. “Topo” was what they were called. I have a ‘very scary’ memory – why it scares me? I don’t know. All I know is I don’t know how I got there or when I left – it was just a dark room, and from the feel, a cement one. There were some officers standing about; in the center, lit by a single overhead light, a table. On the table stood a map. Later on it would become a model – or perhaps I got so good at visualizing those topos that I could ‘see’ it as one. Mountains and hills rising, valleys, rivers, and the direction of the sun was indicated by the North arrows . . . it seems to me there were some other children there; just two or three, part of a ‘crowd’ I may (or may not) have been in. And the officers were instructing us on how to ‘read’ the maps, know our way around – and what to look for. Gun emplacements in the hills – those were always hard to spot – the paths and cobblestone roads. I place this memory in my ‘recovered’ pile, because I am not certain about what was going on. Just that single ‘snapshot’ and feelings of being . . . I don’t know.

The Mohawk flew past, its trailing wing nearly scraping on the tarmac as the pilot showed off his skills. I was used to seeing gliders pulled up into the sky, but I hadn’t seen much ‘trick flying’. This guy was illustrating how his plane would stay up with one engine gone. How he could fly it “on its side”. As though that might be a useful skill. Given that the belly cams were there – I suppose it was. He could whip through an enemy area and given his cameras, take a picture of everyone and everything there. There was also the electronics “pod” or package which eternally hung off some of the aircraft – for snooping through the airwaves, looking for enemy messages and eavesdropping on some.

Next came the jato rockets. They had strapped some to a Mohawk’s side – four of them if I recall; making for eight of them assisting in takeoff. That bulky old plane seemed to simply lift off the tarmac – jumping forward with a flash and a roar. I don’t think the wheels ever really rolled on the ground. The jato rockets were for short takeoff assists – and this was the shortest one I saw. I don’t think that airplane made more than a hair’s length before it jumped into the sky, jato rockets thundering in a cloud of smoke and flame. That one they made us back off from – standing way off the tarmac, watching it take off. Even then you could feel the heat from the flame. And those powerful turbofans running; the sound the props made – it was awesome. But nothing like the jet planes.

Those were the Phantoms, which rarely came in, for our airfield was too short for them (for the most part). They would swoop down low, thundering over the airport and base – so close you could feel the heat of their engine’s blast as they would sweep past, only a stone’s throw – and a child’s one at that – above the emerald land. Then a moment would pass and you would feel the ‘whoosh!’ of them – the air running behind them, pulling you along. And the sound was so awe-full, so loud – it would leave my young ears ringing for minutes, sometimes hours if there were a lot of them.

Then there were the helicopters, the most common of the crowd. The UH-1 – the ubiquitous “Huey” – which was the mainstay of the Army’s air force, not counting the DC-10’s, C-130’s, et all – most of which could not land our our air base – again, due to their size. However, occasionally one would see one – parachutes out and deploying, or taking off again – using those jato rockets to make it. I remember standing next to the Hueys as they would land or take off. Nothing else sounds like a Huey, that’s for sure! The deep “whomp-whomp” of those blades; the downblast showering you with dirt and pebbles – it’s a sound which still draws me outside when I hear it, though that has become more rare. The Army dumped its Hueys in favor of Apaches, America’s “newest” helicopter – though I saw one fly before I left there. And that was back in 1973 – long before the world had heard word of them. It was a “trial” flight and a demonstration of the machine’s abilities. To me it looked too large, sounded too wrong, and the fact that it could fly upside down failed to impress me – even as a child. I fell more in love with the Huey Cobras – a fast and lean machine built for war.

Living on those bases – it didn’t matter. I felt at home on them in some ways – especially around the hangers, with the smell of oil and grease and exhaust fumes, the constant rattles and roar – the G.I.’s loafing around or working on this or that; the pilots, heavy in their jump suits and gear, those big white helmets with drop down visors on their heads – a place that was always busy – and yet eternally slow paced. They were waiting as I was waiting as America was waiting as the Russians were waiting as everyone was waiting . . . for war. A time that (thankfully) never came.

And I’ll never forget that roar – those thundering machines taking off; landing – standing right there next to a helicopter as it came down; the G.I.’s taking me if not by the hand then by curiosities nose and showing me how things worked, what they were for, and where I would fit in to them should it come down to it, the arts and crafts of war.