Saturday, May 5, 2012

Time Aloft

I suppose it was inevitable. I grew up in a Navy town with a major naval base complete with its own airfield, two more large naval air stations and numerous small “outlying fields” dotting the landscape all around the city. Two of the naval air stations were on my side of town, Cecil Field, the largest master fighter jet base on the east coast at the time and Naval Air Station, Jacksonville, locally called Mainside Naval Air Station which was at the time the home of the famous VP-7 patrol squadron that protected the Fleet and the US seaboard from submarine attack.

Left Lockheed P2-V Neptune The skies above my home and school were filled with Lockheed P2V Neptune aircraft departing and arriving from Mainside. We lived under the pattern near the point where these unique aircraft made their turns from downwind to base in the prevailing easterly sea breezes that covered the area. I loved to look up into the sky as one lumbered overhead, messing up television reception for miles around. I marveled that with the bulbous nose, the wingtip tanks, and the long pointed tail the plane could even fly, but it cut a swashbuckling arc through the sky on its way to missions in the clear tropical air that spanned between towering cumulus clouds that were about to bring relief in the mid summer afternoons.

Left Lockheed P-3 Orion Around the time I left Jacksonville to start college and my own naval career, the P2-V was replaced by the Lockheed P-3 Orion which was a much bigger aircraft and sported four, not two engines. Although, the P-3 was a monstrous presence in the sky, somehow it lacked the panache and style of the P-2. The pilots that flew both liked the stability and relative comfort of the larger aircraft, but I can tell they missed the excitement of flying the smaller aircraft.

A couple of years later, during my second class “cruise” as a Midshipman in the Naval Reserve, I had the chance to take control of an honest to goodness naval patrol aircraft. It was a S2-F which unlike the land based patrol craft, had the capability of carrier borne operations. I was in Corpus Christi, Texas for three weeks of Naval Aviation Indoctrination and by time I left for Little Creek Virginia to learn how to invade beaches in landing craft, I had the chance, under the watchful eyes of instructors, to not only fly the S2-F but also get hours of flight time in the Beechcraft T-34 and the Grumman F9-F Cougar jet fighter. I was bitten by the bug and I had a developed a second dream of becoming a naval aviator, my first, being a DJ on a top 40 radio station. Fate had me realizing my first dream but not my second.

Left Grumman F9-F Cougar But aviation was not done with me quite yet. In early 1969, I began taking flying lessons in slick, modern Piper Cherokees at the Columbia Airport. I could do that because I was working the evening show at WCOS at the time. Life was good, flying the skies in the day and entertaining the kids at night on the radip. In just a couple of months, I had spent my required 40 hours of student time, performed my solo local and cross country flights to the nearby Greenwood, Charlotte and Savannah airports. Sure enough, on final approach to Savannah, I looked up and saw one of those P-3s out of Jacksonville fly past.

Left Piper Cherokee A few years later, I flew a friend to Daytona Beach in a borrowed Beechcraft Bonanza. My father and brother met me there and I flew them back to Jacksonville’s Herlong field. As I approached the St. John ’s River from the south, Jacksonville approach, handed me off to Mainside RAPCON. They cleared me around the eastern edge of the pattern, and then had me join the Orions in their procession north of the sparkling white asphalt runway. I realized that now I was part of the symphony in the sky of my youth, passing over my boyhood home, joining the stream of naval airmen passing overhead on my way. The circle was complete! Oh MY!

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