Van's Air Force
Western Canada Wing
From: Austin Tinckler (email@example.com)
Date: 08/14/01-07:22:50 AM Z
Steve Johnson was at the button and giving a last pull on the straps and
with a quick look around, fed in the throttle of his little airplane and
soon felt the push in his back, she was out of the gate, big sound of the
engine, felt his feet doing what they had to do to keep things straight and
without bothering to count the runway lightsŠwhatąs the need ?Šlet her lift
off by herself and climb away from green earth.
Notice I said "she"Šno real reason, just seem to come that way, perhaps
because a "she" can easily become a mistress of sorts, demands a lot of
money, is capricious, has sensuous lines to touch, can be wonderful to be
alone with. Take your pick.
This was a very good time to fly. Late evening, everyone else done for the
day, students at home and schools closed, dinner done with and most folks
plugged in for the night to the great wasteland of TV.
A slight and imperceptible pressure of the wrist to the left and Steve was
in a pretty good bank to Port. Climbing at about 100 and booting out
Eastward, camera in the glove box, a prime opportunity to get altitude and
wing over to Mt. Kodiak, at 13,000 feet.
What a sight! The mountain top was pure white and as perfect a symmetry as
Fujiama, looking pink now with the sun in its descent for the day. A glance
again at the panel, we all do this every few moments or so, all temps in the
green and still climbing, "N" beginning to show in the compass window.
Thirteen thousand is a long way to go to get a great photo, but time spent
at this altitude would be fairly short. Steve didnąt
carry any oxygen, as he had no occasion to fly above ten for the most
Looking left, at the Port wing, he saw the sun and the Bering Sea reflected
on the surface of the wing. A polished bare metal wing which, as a mirror
reflected back the scene below of the sun going down into the sea. As with
most things in life, there seems to be a reason for everything, and being in
a hurry to get the airplane flying, he put off a paint job in favor of
polished metal, and now he was seeing twice the beauty of the sunset in that
shiny surface. Strangely, the brightness didnąt hurt the eyes, though
shades were worn, but the angle of the sun at this latitude lent a warmth
rather than a glare to the dying rays.
It was 10 at night, for here in the Northern latitudes, the Summer sun
stayed up until 11 at night. You could easily read a newspaper outside by
the light of the evening in late June. If we were farther North, the sun
would not set at all. How different from California where the sun goes down
quickly about supper time and darkness descends as you dine.
Steve was 67 now, and enjoying the golden years, courtesy of the Air Force.
He was a farm boy with minimal schooling and a love for all the outdoors
that made him appreciate the openness and solitude of an airfield with acres
of green open space and habitat for the odd member of the wildlife
He had gotten into flying as a candidate for rotary wing instruction in
Texas during the 60s. A great opportunity for anybody who was bitten by the
bug of adventure and didnąt have to pay for it. He questioned the sanity of
trying to fly a fling-wing machine with a mind of its own and wondered if it
was a wise move to crew something in which the wings moved faster than the
fuselage. These contraptions seemed determined to fling the sum of all their
parts in every direction. A flying mixmaster. He succeeded however in
becoming a good humming bird pilot on S58 Sikorskys, which were soon
withdrawn from service. He managed to switch to Douglas Skyraiders,
sometimes called Thuds, and it was kind of a "end of an era" experience.
Regular stick and rudder and a fixed wing, heavy machine soon became second
nature and the big brute was well armed and armored and he suffered not a
scratch during his entire tour in Nam.
Home was like a rebirth after living in a world of danger, combat and loss.
After a few years of priority settling and getting some meaningful
disposable income, he found a group of like minded flying friends at the
He found that it was permissible for a guy to build his own airplane and fly
the damn thing, and after a ride in an experimental RV, decided that this
was as close to the real thing as practicality, money, design, and time
would ever offer.
Hence his being here, now, at 13,000, flying as close to the summit of the
peak as a party of hikers can get to after days of arduous effort, to snap a
few pictures to savor in the dark days of Winter, when the cloud base is
nearly always too close to the deck. Imagine, 10:30 at night and still
daylight and booting along at 160. Just loping really, the engine smooth and
strong and pumping enough heat to keep a guy comfortable in just a light
Then it happened. Seemed like a burp that wouldnąt come at first. This had
happened before, but it got worse and hit with a pain in the chest that was
as a fist grabbing his solar plexus and squeezing all the harder. Oh Man,
what is this? He turned the ship around for home, barely able to breath and
thinking that the most important thing now was to get her down.
Almost 80 miles from home and at 13,000, he pushed down a bit and the speed
built dramatically, but speed was of the essence and automatically, he
scanned ASI and VSI without even thinking about it, even though a read of
his own vital signs was more pressing.
The pain was brutal and the breathing very hard to accomplish, coming in
short gasps and without any rhythm to it. Steve was taking inventory of
what was and what wasnąt and realized that although the pain was brutal, he
had no nausea, no numb arm, no loss of vision, just this awful pain, and he
headed West and down as fast as he dared, and he had but a moment of
awareness that the only friend he had in this crisis when he needed it most,
was this RV savior.
Carrying him homeward at all speed, responding to the bit instantly and as
he bid, and the altimeter unwound as a clock gone mad and in 15 long
minutes, the field was in view--but still a ways to go. Dark shadows were
all that the canvas below beheld, but he was glad to come this far no matter
what, the tower people had gone home before he took off so he would not have
to declare anything, and he was glad of that. If he got out of this, it
would be much better if there was no explaining to do to anybody.
He pretty well knew that there would be no other traffic, and sure enough,
that was the case, so he did a quick scythe-like carrier approach, the type
he loved most and was now most worthwhile and speedy. Prop was flicking by a
blade at a time , he didnąt look at airspeed now, no strength or commitment
to crank out the manual flaps and with a twist if the wrist to the right,
chop the throttle and let her sink, the grass of the North strip rose up to
meet the wheels with a greaser.
So far, so good.
Rollout was like a set of welcoming arms, and the soft undulations of the
grass soon took over the inertia of the wheels and they were stopped. He was
grateful for the small mercy of being seated because he knew that he could
not stand in this state and gasp the short , quick breaths he needed to keep
focused. Then, in just the same manner as the pain developed, it eased away
and was gone.
A push of rudder and a nudge of throttle and the RV turned tail and was
headed for the barn. Headset off, cap thrown aside and mixture lean and all
was quiet save for the slide of the canopy and strap buckles clinking
against the seat pan. Thanks God and the powers that be, he was down, the
airplane was intact, and the crush of the pain was now just a mystery. Was
this the end of his flying ? What the heck was that if it wasnąt heart?
Another type of fear now took the place of desperation and surprise and vise
grip in the chest. It was the realization that pain like that just isnąt
normal. It isnąt like waking up at 3 a.m. with a burn in the stomach and
reaching for a couple of Tums, lying on one elbow while the second in
command breathes quietly, unknowing of his distress. In a week, the problem
was solved, based on previous bouts of acid reflex and a herniated valve
that most people over 40 never know they have.
What Steve had was an Esophageal spasm. Turns out that no solution as to
what triggered it was to be determined. Only that the Esophagus is a very
long and powerful muscle and it can spasm and grip with a pain that is as
severe as a heart seizure. Special antacids and watch on the diet put Steve
right again and better yet, other than an eye on the old BP, no worries
about the flying medical.
The pictures came out so well, that conditions were never quite as beautiful
again when he flew up that way toward the mountain range. The best warranted
a big enlargement that hangs on the den wall above all the flying books, the
stuff that a guy collects, the chair with the permanent sag in the cushion
that gets commandeered by the huge Cougar of a cat that Steve allows to
share now and again. In this good place, this room where memories are
stored, Steve debriefs himself silently, re-living and re-enjoying whatever
recent flight just entered in the log, he fixes his weary gaze on another
big photo on the wall opposite. This one being neither particularly pretty
nor colorful but full of story just the same.
It is of an airplane he never flew, but his dad encountered many times. It
is of a 109, drab in warpaint, swooping down out of the murk, front view,
down and rolling line astern in a group of 3, slashing through a formation
as they hit and dive for the deck and out of range. This 50 year old
snapshot in time grim as ever and still able to make you put yourself there,
fearsome and very dangerous.
And here, on the other wall, are the photos of the 13,000 foot flight, the
sun sinking into summer sea, and alongside it all hangs a portrait of a guy
in flight gear, grinning like a fool beside a Skyraider, brain bucket in one
hand, the other arm draped over a rocket and eyes almost closed from
Austin... ...no my name is not really Steve.
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