Monday, February 1, 2016

Rebirth


He was as good as dead, I thought. He would never come back.

I rarely saw him in the years after the crash, but when I did he appeared ever more gaunt, emaciated and frail. The brief visits I had with him—which usually were happenstance encounters in our small city—only fetched a few civil comments. “How are you doing?” “Fine. You?” “Gotta go.”

Skip (not his real name) wasn’t fine. I figured his death was near.

He had seen it happen from his plane. Another plane carrying his fianc├ęs son smashed into the ground fast and hard. He saw the fireball and the tumbling debris. He made his last landing, jumped out and rushed to her. She had not seen it go down, although it happened right next to the airport. He told her. She ran toward the burning heap. He and others restrained her. No good could possibly come from what she might see.

The investigation team came and went. The wreckage was hauled off. The funerals were held. He followed through on his vow and they were married. The ex-fighter pilot who lived in his hangar disappeared. His plane sat dormant. It was as if he went down that day, himself.

Bitter months passed. Lawsuits were filed. Some of the pilots occasionally saw Skip working in his wife's restaurant. He would always nod, attempt a smile and say all was well. We would always ask when he is coming back to rejoin us. He would look over his shoulder to see if she was around, then shrug and say, “Someday, maybe. We’ll see.” It was always a weak, evasive answer. Back at the airfield we told each other, he wasn’t coming back, ever. 

One story came to me from a friend who had visited Skip in the back parking lot of the restaurant. They talked about the crash and about Skip coming back. The hardened combat veteran wept like a child. He was a broken man. He wasn't coming back.

Then one day, Chuck (not his real name), got permission to fix up Skip’s plane and fly it. Skip came out only to check Chuck out—and to do it on a weekday when no one else was around, then he disappeared back into his dark world. It was a brief glimmer of hope, but it faded quickly. We would not see him again.

At the hangar bull sessions and the Christmas parties, we spoke of him as if remembering a fallen comrade, constantly using the past tense. Tidbits of information flowed in from people and a picture emerged. He had become her slave, some said. She was a business woman and a restaurateur. He poured his own money into her enterprises, they said. He loaded and unloaded trucks for her, waited tables, and bar-tended. The Fighter Weapons School graduate and ex-NASA International Space Station technician had become a gofer in a mundane job he wasn’t cut out for. But he stayed because he figured it was his fault she lost her son.

It was he, who introduced the boy to flying, and the boy had become so absorbed into the airport culture, he couldn’t get enough of it. He especially loved flying in the old warbirds.The boy idolized Skip. Yes, he figured he was responsible for the boy’s death. His recompense would be his permanent services to his wife and a turning of his back to the world he was born to live in. No. he wasn’t coming back. Ever.

With the swiftness of a tornado—as it seemed to me—things changed. Chuck called me, excited. Skip wanted to fly; He was coming to the airfield. In disbelief I drove out to watch, but stayed out of sight. It happened. He climbed in the rear cockpit and they took off. Later, Chuck described the flight.

Although his medical had long expired and he had not
The mission
touched an airplane in nearly three years, Skip wanted to take the controls. His wish was granted. He flew directly toward their house. He rolled in on it like a gun-run in his Phantom days, pulling out only a couple hundred feet above the house. Chuck sat uncomfortably in the front cockpit but allowed Skip to continue. Again and again they roared over the house’s rooftop shaking the it with the thunder of the big radial engine. Chuck knew this was no ordinary show-off flight; this was an angry act of retribution. Finally Skip gave up the controls and asked to be flown back to the airport.

We were all stunned to learn of this mission of intimidation. It portended severe dissension in Skip’s house. Something was happening. He was rebelling. Then more rumors flowed my way. Divorce was in the air. Skip had moved back into the hangar. But would he fly again? We huddled in our hangars and speculated. Then came last Saturday.
The weather was splendid for a mid-winter flight to a nearby airport for breakfast. Chuck’s call rocked me. Skip wanted to go.

Many planes showed up at the destination where breakfast was being served by the Experimental Aircraft Association local chapter. The ramp was packed with colorful aircraft. Groups of pilots wandered, toothpicks from the breakfast hangar wobbling in their mouths, holding coffee cups as they paused to examine planes and meet old friends. Cackles rolled across the apron as friends re-united and spewed delightful plane prattle.

I was careful not to welcome Skip back too enthusiastically, lest he become self-conscious of his notoriety. Almost everyone there knew of him and his sad circumstances. Noticing that he looked much healthier, I pretended that he had never been away.

I quickly saw there would be no transition period for Skip’s re-emergence. He joined-in immediately with war stories, laughs and bantering. “Wow, look at that!” I heard him yell at a stunning experimental. “I love that sound!” he shouted when a Cessna's near supersonic prop popped with a machine-gun staccato. I watched him as he roved the apron, shaking hands and slapping backs.

No, Skip didn’t need a break-in period to get back into the streaming destiny his life began with.

It doesn’t happen that way when you’re reborn. 

The boom mic hides an enormous grin. That's me hanging out there off his wing, grinning.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Bub

Thanks, Dave W, for your suggestion. Here it is:


Do you remember that 1960s American TV sitcom named “My Three Sons”? You probably don’t. Here’s a clip: My Three Sons.
William Frawley played the role of “Bub.” Frawley was better known as “Fred” in “I Love Lucy.” (Surely you are familiar with that one—with all its re-runs.)

Somehow in the annals of history, my dad, Hayes Watson Cockrell, collected the moniker “Bub” from that TV series.I don't think he was happy with it, but he didn't complain.

He served aboard the USS Alsea (ATF-97) in WW2 as an electrician’s mate. But before he went to sea he served a few months as a clerk in the pilot records office at Pensacola Naval Air Station. There the commander took a liking to him and invited him to go on flights in SNJ trainers. Bub once told me they referred to the SNJs as
SNJ
Stuka Nuka Javas.” One day the CO asked my dad if he would like to enroll in the Naval Aviation Cadet Program. He declined. In later years I asked him why he passed up that opportunity. He just shrugged and said he wasn’t sure of it.

His service aboard ship was mostly uneventful except for watching torpedo wakes go by headed for larger targets than the Alsea. His most repeated story was of timing shells going overhead from battleships to the Normandy coast at D-Day.

After the war he married Helen and enrolled in electrical engineering. But when I came along he dropped out. After two aborted attempts to be a law enforcement officer he settled into a vocation that the Navy taught him—electrician, at which he was very successful. Motivated by his interest in airplanes that had captured him at Pensacola he used the GI Bill to learn to fly.

When I turned  six he deemed me airworthy and took me down the Black Warrior River in a Piper Super Cub with the wheels only few feet off the water. (He was far from a perfect man and so was his judgement at times.) Of course I loved every second of it. Later he became a pilot with the Civil Air Patrol (CAP) and flew many search missions for lost aircraft. His involvement in CAP was my impetus to becoming a CAP cadet, which launched my career as a military and airline pilot.

Bub wasn’t there when I first soloed at the age of 16. I don’t remember why, but suspect my instructor simply didn’t notify him that it was going tom happen. Later that day I joined up with him at the river for some fishing, and I don’t even remember what he said about my solo flight. I think he just considered it something that was simply destined to happen.

I remember him once telling me that his flight instructor went on to become the chief pilot at Southern Airways, which eventually merged with Republic and then Delta. One day he crossed paths with his old instructor and they caught up. The instructor told Bub he would be glad to set him up with a pilot candidate interview at Southern. 

“Did you?” I asked.

He just shook his head and sighed. He said he wasn’t sure about it.

Eventually he dropped out of flying as his family grew. Yet to the day of his losing consciousness I think he considered himself still a pilot. In the U.S. a pilot’s license never expires unless it is revoked. Only the medical certificate and the logbook currency expires.

He was a bit disappointed that I went to the USAF instead of the Navy, which he stayed with as a reservist for another 30 years as a Chief Petty Officer. But he always saluted me.

I respected his work ethic and devotion to family and country, but I resolved not to make his mistakes. I seized opportunity when it presented itself and when it didn’t, I knocked its door in. I was the success he imagined he never achieved. His other kids did well too.

And in that respect he was a victorious achiever. 

CPO H.W. Cockrell, USN "Seabees", 1975


 
My boat's name


Monday, June 8, 2015

Mongoose VI, the End


Apologies, readers—those who are left. My dad's health took a bad turn a few months ago, and I have had little motivation or time to write. He passed last month.

AirVenture 2014 is old news now and I won't dwell on it much. After the recovery of the mass formation I joined the ranks of the spectators and hung out with my old Air Force friends. I bade Mongoose so-long. He had to get back to work.

The highlight of the week was the Thunderbird performance. I never grow tired of it. They played “God Bless America” during the bomb burst maneuver and I damn near went to tears. (It’s hard to believe the nauseatingly politically correct USAF would allow that.)

The next morning Mike and I mounted up and joined up with Lefty and BJ, both CJ-6 pilots, and set course for home. We enjoyed another round of great cross-country weather for the run down south. Lefty broke off at Nashville and as BJ led us to Windward Pointe Airpark I started to get antsy again. You’ll need to read “Flyin’ Miss Daisy” to understand what I was up against. Windward was a short grass air strip with a dog leg in it. It was narrow and had a host of obstacles at its ends and along its sides. My departure out of it the prior week in the heavy Nanchang had given me the jitters. Now I had to land on it.

I remembered that first and only landing I had made there a few weeks before. I had dragged in over the high tension wires and the cut the power, hoping not too soon, and dropped the Chang onto the grass, seeing the guy-wire on the right flash by, hearing my back seat instructor—BJ—yell, “Watch the fire plug on the left!” which I never saw, then braking to a stop right before the narrow part where the trees come within a few feet of your wing tips. I felt lucky, not skilled, and did not look forward to doing it again.

But I had to—Windward was Alabama Girl’s home base. I wasn’t about to end this fantastic journey by depositing Mike’s Nanchang at the municipal airport.

Yet things looked different as I turned in on the runway. I saw the orange balls on the wires. I spotted the guy-wires and the fire plug. I checked my airspeed and approach angle. Everything looked good. I even felt comfortable. This was going to work out okay. Suddenly I realized why it felt better than before. It was Mongoose, again!

On the way up to Oshkosh Mongoose had looked over at me, pressed his mic button and said, “You look like you’re sitting too low in that cockpit. Raise your seat.”

The Yak-52 that I had been accustomed to did not have an adjustable seat. It simply didn’t occur to me that the Nanchang—a very similar aircraft—would have one. I did as he suggested and suddenly it was like flying in another plane, one where I could actually see the world.

I glided in over the wires, and landed between the guy-line and the fire plug and rolled to a satisfying stop. My break-out trip into retirement was a resounding success.

I owed Mongoose for another save.


I flew Alabama Girl in an airshow in my home town in March. Some of the other pilots
in the show went with me to visit my dad in his nursing home. The old WWII Navy vet insisted
on saluting each one of us.  

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Mongoose Part V



The long holding pattern over Lake Winnebago turned into an hour, and still there was no word from OSH tower as to when we would be allowed to land. Guys began to complain about running low on fuel. Mongoose ordered a fuel check. Each of the 12 aircraft reported how much time he had left till “Bingo.”


Saturday, February 21, 2015

Mongoose, Part IV



I realize that writing a story in installments, as I’m doing, loses readers when I wait so long between posts. Apologies and promises to be more prompt. Here’s the continuation of Mongoose.


Friday, January 23, 2015

Mongoose Part III


Mongoose and I breakfasted at the college cafeteria, which was full of pilots and airshow attendees, then caught the shuttle to the field. I had an hour to kill before the briefing so I called some old buddies who I knew were there. Five guys from my pilot training class at Vance AFB (Class 73-06) were there somewhere among the growing crowd of tens of thousands of people.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Mongoose, Part II



Note: It’s been too long since I wrote the first of this “Mongoose” series. My dad is very sick and the desire to write is throttled back these days. But here’s the second installment.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mongoose



Mike and I rode Alabama Girl north in the general direction of Oshkosh, suffering a slight quartering headwind and churning through skies as clear as a glass of sunshine. We were bound for Bloomington, Indiana to meet up with another CJ-6 owned and flown by a friend of ours whose call-sign was Mongoose. 

Mongoose is a “lead or get the hell out of the way” type of guy who mostly doesn’t wait for you to get out of the way. His ego cuts a swath so wide the moon holds to let him by. His persistence sometimes casts him into caustic skirmishes with similar swaggering characters, of which there were many where we were going. Having known him for 25 years, served with him in wartime, sparred with him in dogfights, and listened for hours on end to his ideas, his aspirations and his dreams, I know enough to stay aside and watch with amusement as he dictates his resolve on old friends and unsuspecting strangers alike. There are those who call him a prima donna, but Mongoose consistently cashes the checks his ego writes. Prima donnas can’t do that. And that is why I have remained his friend for so long.

I was headed for my first solo landing in the ‘Chang (you’ll recall from the last post that, while Mike—the guy in my back pit owned the plane—he was not yet a pilot). The
This guy does not appear
 to be missing the B-767
Bloomington tower cleared us for a straight-in to runway 35, a nice long one. About two miles out, just as I was about to reach for the gear handle, I heard an airport truck tell the tower he was on the runway to pick up a piece of debris. The tower controller immediately cancelled my landing clearance and in the same breath asked if I could accept runway 24, which was almost perpendicular to 35 and lay on my side of the airport—very close to my position. Additionally, it was short, about 3500 feet.

A careful pilot, or one whose bladder was not full, would have told the tower “unable” and executed a missed approach. I was neither that day. I accepted the clearance to 24 and immediately turned onto a left downwind. By then we were very close (laterally) to the runway and I began canvassing my memory on the accidents I had read about. CJ-6s were notoriously unforgiving of pilots over-shooting final approach and correcting with excessive bank and top rudder. I sensed a learning opportunity for Mike and began telling him about the trap being set for us and how we must be diligent to avoid it. This lecture lasted to the base turn where I suddenly realized the gear was still up. Damn! One “teachable moment” (don’t you hate that phrase?) created another. I put the gear down, looked over the landing checklist and monitored the close-in final turn carefully. A head wind helped avoid an overshoot.

We got down safely and the tower man thanked us profusely. I taxied to the pumps and shut down. We had plenty of gas, but a top-off wouldn’t hurt, especially knowing where we were headed—the world’s busiest airport for one week of the year, and this was that week. After lunch I completed flight planning for the run up to Oshkosh, preparing to lead the flight of two, if necessary, or go single-ship if the Mongoose didn’t show up.   

An hour later he landed, annoyed that we had beaten him there, yet smugly satisfied that he had executed the role of respected, debonair late-comer. Even before jumping down from his wing he informed me of his plan to lead the flight into OSH. It was okay with me. He would now do the most work; I would be the humble happy wingman. Mongoose’s plan was to stay low both to minimize headwinds and stay out of the way of O’Hare arrival and departure traffic. We took off and headed northeast. He checked us in with ATC for flight following with the usual call: “Red Star Flight, Check.”

I responded as required: “Red Star Two.”

The controller, apparently unaccustomed to formation protocol, blocked my response, thinking Mongoose’s call was for him: “Aircraft calling Indianapolis Approach, say again.”

Because Mongoose is an astute—damn near perfect formation leader—he made the check-in call again to insure I was on the frequency. Again the controller blocked me, asking who was calling him and for what.

Mongoose said, “Indianapolis, standby-by I’m trying to check my flight in.”

The controller was obviously agitated: “Aircraft on Indianapolis frequency go to another. You are interfering.”

I could see the ire turning Mongoose’s helmet red. His voice volume went up:  “Indianapolis, I am trying to check my flight in on your frequency and then I will ask you for radar service!”

The controller, still not getting it, retorted, “Okay, but if you need to tell your wingman to keep quiet.”

I knew a lecture was coming from Mongoose: “Having the flight check-in is perfectly normal and necessary, now are you going to give us flight following to Oshkosh or not?”

The controller, not about to relinquish the high ground, denied the request. Mongoose switched us to air-to-air frequency and we didn’t talk to another radar facility from that point.

The countryside across Illinois and southern Wisconsin was
Flying loose on Mongoose's wing with Mike and I in the mirror
uncommonly beautiful in the lowering sun. Barns, silos and wind turbines cast long shadows across brilliantly colorful fields of corn and wheat. It was wonderful flying. You could get about as low as you dared; the only threats were birds and towers. Mongoose had state-of-the-art electronics in his cockpit to alert him for obstacles, and he was an awesome master at spotting both birds and nearby aircraft. He could do it even when he was on the wing.

As we neared OSH, tired but happily anticipating parking our birds in the warbird area, meeting old buddies and have a grand dinner, we saw an ominous cloud formation in front. Mongoose, being the perfectionist he is, already knew there was a rain shower in the area of the airport—in fact the only thundercloud in the whole lower 48 states that afternoon sat over the busiest airport. Our perfect weather run-up from the Deep South was to terminate with—with what?

Fon du Lac had just passed under our bellies. It was stuffed with airplanes that had either not wanted to challenge that thunderstorm, or simply planned to land there and take a bus to the big show, as many pilots preferred. That opportunity was behind us now, but still choosable, and maybe preferable to the cloud ahead. The closer we got the darker that thing got. It was right over OSH. Mongoose had IFR capability in his plane but Alabama Girl did not. He waggled his wings—the signal for me to close it up tightly. I moved in. Mongoose contacted the OSH tower and got permission to land on 36L. We couldn’t see it for the rain shaft. The turbulence increased, but I held tight. Mongoose bore straight for the monster. “Two take spacing!” he called. I dropped back, but not far. I needed to keep him in sight. I saw his gear go out. I threw ours out. At about a mile out we saw the numbers: 36L. The center-line stripes raced at us. BAM! I drove Mike’s Chang onto the runway, checked-up with brakes and closed up behind Mongoose.

It was then, with the stress off, that I suddenly realized there were no other aircraft on the OSH tower frequency. We were the only ones! I laughed. Mike said, "No other idiots would attempt this!"

We fell in trail behind the “Follow-Me” truck and were met by marshallers parking us on the grass in the warbird corral. We hurriedly exited and closed our canopies because of rain. Mongoose walked up, drenched, grinning like a fool and slapped our shoulders.

“Cheated death again,” Mike shouted.

Mike grabbed his camping gear and separated in search of friends. Mongoose and I headed into town on the airshow shuttle bus for rooms at the college and then on to Kelly’s Bar, the airshow pilot hangout, not knowing that we were about to “cheat death” for real--at Kelly’s.  


video
 Wingng our way to Oshkosh.