Aerial adventures

Me

ONE SWELL THING about multiple marriages is that you get a recess between wives.

My recess between Wife #1 and Wife #2 was five years, and it was a great recess out there on the playground of naked women.

On the other hand, the recess between Wife #2 and Wife #3 was a spell of much misery and lasted seven years. Recesses can vary in tone.

One of the many happy things I did in the first recess was learn how to fly small planes.

A favorite activity during that time was landing a Cessna 172 at the New Orleans Municipal Airport right next to Lake Pontchartrain after an hour or so of fun flying over the swamps of south Louisiana or maybe a jaunt over to cornpone Mississippi.

During steaming summers, I would park the plane, hop aboard my 1977, black, Harley-Davidson Sportster, and haul butt about a mile south on Downman Road to a sprawling clapboard tavern that kept the air-conditioning in the neighborhood of 35 degrees year-round, or so it seemed, and it was sweet.

I was often alone and wearing cutoff jeans and a T-shirt that said San Juan. The best things about that bar, the name of which escapes me, aside from the air-conditioning, were boiled crawdads and chill Dixie Beer.

Not being rich enough to have my own plane, I joined a flying club, which basically was a bunch of folks who banded together to maintain a few small planes, and each of us paid a fee per hour to take one up. It’s how poor people fly, but in time even that system got too rich for me. By the late ’70s, I was a retired flyboy.

Much of my life back then was haphazard. My first flying lesson took place on July 23, 1974, with a lanky, hillbilly instructor named George Gunn. He was an inch taller than I am, and I’m 6’3″, so it was quite a squeeze in the cockpit of the tiny Cessna 150 training plane.

hija
A flying companion, my daughter.

I first soloed on June 28, 1976, which was quite a spell later. I must have been paying more attention to Dixie beer and crawdads than I was to flying lessons with Gunn.

The last time I took a plane up was November 9, 1978. I still have my logbook. Later, I went up in a hot-air balloon, parachuted once and put in some training hours in gliders.

There were only two times I ventured far from the skies over South Louisiana and Mississippi. Once was a Christmas when Wife #2 and I flew to Southwest Georgia to visit my parents and sister out in the boonies.

Due to a menacing weather forecast, we left early to return to New Orleans on Christmas Eve morning.

We were forced down, hair-raisingly, in rain and buffeting winds at the airport at Dothan, Alabama, where we spent the night in a motel, not much of a Christmas, trust me.

The second venture was down to the border where I flew with two friends to visit the sins in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. This flight too presented problems. First, I neglected to adjust the altimeter to the higher altitude of the airport in Laredo, Texas. As I entered the pattern to land, a birdie whispered that I was quite low. I didn’t understand why until after I landed and a light bulb ignited over my head. Whoops!

* * * *

Radio out, overshooting runway

Flying back to New Orleans from Laredo the next day, the plane’s radio went out. I could hear transmissions directed at me, but nobody could hear my response. But before that happened, we were forced to land at Galveston, Texas, due to bad weather, again. I did not have the proper license to fly in bad weather.

I was a fair-weather pilot.

Two of us spent the night in a motel, but the other companion decided to return to New Orleans in a bus. He said he was in a hurry, but I believe he’d just lost his nerve, the panty-waist.

Early the next morning, we took off again, one man lighter, and it was over Southwest Louisiana that the radio went out. Some airports allow landings without a radio. Some do not. New Orleans is one where you cannot.

Just north of Lake Pontchartrain is a small airport in the piney woods. I needed to land there to phone the New Orleans control tower to let them know to expect me. That’s one solution to not having a radio.

Here’s how I landed at that airport in the tall piney woods: badly. Due to those tall trees, you must come in rather steeply and level out at the last moment. Alas, it was a very windy day. To offset that added peril, I came in faster than usual and landed farther down the runway than I would have done in a perfect world.

When the tires finally screeched down, halfway down the short runway, my passenger and I watched as the trees at the other end got nearer and nearer with alarming rapidity. I braked like nobody’s business.

The concrete runway ran out.

And we were still barreling along — through high weeds. But we stopped short of the trees.

We taxied to a hangar where I phoned the other airport. An hour later we landed in New Orleans uneventfully. I believe that flight was my last. I decided to stick to motorcycles, crawdads and Dixie Beer.

And I did that with a vengeance.