Guillermo and I manned up the CT the next morning at a little before eight a.m., started her up, and then taxied out to KMDQ’s runway 18. There were very few clouds and the visibility was great as I took us into the skies and turned us west toward Athens, our first checkpoint on Guillermo’s flight plan. I switched us up to the frequency for Huntsville Approach but didn’t check in since we were staying north of the Class C airspace. Ahead of us, a Boeing 737 was climbing out from Huntsville International airport and turning west, climbing up and away. I gave the airplane over to Guillermo at about two thousand as we headed for forty-five hundred. As we did, I spotted another light plane flying toward us at about a thousand feet below; Approach wasn’t talking to him. I puzzled over what type of airplane it was until I recognized it as a T-34 Mentor, one of my favorite airplanes to fly. I had gotten a fair amount of time in them while in Navy flying clubs in San Diego and Corpus Christi, including one flight with my then-wife into Spaceland airport south of Johnson Space Center (JSC) in Houston. I had met an intern working there who sponsored a tour for us which resulted into me flying a forward cockpit Space Shuttle simulator, a precursor to what I would spend a decade doing about eight years later. (Spaceland would later be called “Houston Gulf airport” when I was working at JSC, and I flew out of it for many years before it was sold and turned into a housing development. It was sold shortly after 9/11; it was a private, public-use airport reportedly owned by a brother of Osama Ben Laden (Salem bin Laden) who had been killed in 1988 while flying an ultralight north of San Antonio.)
The T-34 passed well clear below and slightly to our right and underneath while we continued on to our checkpoint and leveled off at our cruising attitude before turning south-southwest. There was a bit of mist in the air that lowered visibilities a little but I still thought we had around ten miles and not a problem. The ride was smooth as we passed over Wheeler Lake and the outlines of Decatur, pointing the nose toward Walker County-Bevill (KJFX) where we had landed on the way up. Guillermo was tracking a bit west of his course line and wasn’t picking up on it until I pointed it out; we corrected as we got close to JFX and then tracked true as we turned slightly more westward toward Downer (You gotta hope the airport is named after somebody and doesn’t reflect the experience there.). We passed under the Meridian East Military Operations Area (MOA); and though it was active, its floor was at 8000 feet so we were well underneath it. Soon, Aliceville, Alabama, the last town we would see before crossing the western Alabama border, was passing beneath us with Downer’s single runway beyond. After I made the customary traffic alerts (i.e., call sign, position, intentions) on 122.8, we crossed over Downer and headed into the flat, green lands of Mississippi, continuing on a southwest line that took us just north of Meridian. We tracked toward Easom (M23), a small airport just southeast of Newton, Mississippi and west of Meridian, while passing within sight of an untowered auxiliary field belonging to Columbus AFB, a towered Navy Outlying Landing Field (NOLF) to our north, and Naval Air Station (NAS) Meridian and Key Field to our south. Pressing on underneath both Meridian 2 East and West MOA’s, we motored on to Prentiss-Jefferson Davis, our last airport/checkpoint before reaching McComb.
Cumulus clouds were staring to dot the horizon ahead, so we knew were moving toward more moist and less stable conditions. There were scattered clouds at our altitude as we approached McComb, and we navigated around them as we pressed toward the airport. I had Guillermo start our descent when the GPS showed we were hitting our descent profile of 500 feet per minute, and the chop picked up a bit as we descended. About ten miles out, I took the airplane back to give myself time to get the airplane set up the way I liked it for downwind to runway 15. We made our approach and landed with fifteen degrees of flap slightly past the first and only turnoff before the end; I braked us to a near stop before making a radio call and back-taxiing on the runway to the FBO.
The clouds started thickening up, but I still wanted to get above them, so I climbed the CT up to 6500 feet to reach a smoother, cooler ride. But as I got us there, I realized the tops were building rapidly and the bases were slightly descending; that plus a weather report showing broken layers at thirty-three hundred feet over Beaumont made me reverse my plans and head back down. We would make our way underneath to maintain legality under Light Sport rules at 2500 feet.
Making the decision to descend back down.
We spotted some ground fires from what looked like controlled burns we knew were responsible for smoke that was generating the milkiness; the air cleared slightly as we flew across the Mississippi, heading into western Louisiana the NEXRAD weather on the GPS was showing dotted with showers. None of them were on the immediate courseline but some were fairly close, so we decided to watch them for movement and growth but defer any diverts (unless we saw “red” on the NEXRAD) until we could see them out the window. We heard a jet calling as it approached Eunice (4R7) for landing as we were just west passing over St. Landry Parish-Ahart (KOPL) about ten miles away. As we approached Eunice ourselves, we heard the jet’s pilot calling that he was taxiing for takeoff and I responded by announcing we were about to pass over at 2500 feet headed southwest. We watched him taxi out and flew right over him, calling we were overhead and then again when we were a few miles west. He headed south and posed no conflict.
The weather as we approached Lake Charles, LA.
The clouds thinned out as we passed Lake Charles. We monitored the radio for departures out of both Chennault International and Lake Charles Regional, hearing nothing leaving out of the first but there were two out of the second;they seemed to be south of us far enough where we didn’t see them. We continued west, paralleling I-10 toward Beaumont. The lighting of that time of day, our lower altitude, light traffic, and me flying from the right seat let me observe that highway through the city in a way I never had. I saw all the places I knew from my travels along it as I headed to and from Alabama both during family visits and my volunteer work on the Tomcat.
After we passed over Beaumont (KBMT), we turned south-southwest toward Chambers County (T00), our last checkpoint before hitting the Houston area. I made sure I knew where the two thousand foot radio towers were and kept us above them; as we passed over Chambers County, I used the sectional on my iPad to review Houston’s Class B floor configurations to make sure I wouldn’t fly into them while still holding us as high as I dared over Galveston Bay to keep engine out glide capability to its northern shoreline. As we approached the Bay’s northwestern corner, I descended us down to 1700 feet to get under the Class B floor over La Porte and Clear Lake.
Over Chambers County and heading into Galveston Bay
Once we had passed the Kemah restaurant cluster guarding the entrance to Clear Lake, I descended to 1300 feet and turned us west, passing just south of JSC and Webster. Staying south of NASA Road 1 will always keep you out of Ellington’s Class D airspace, so I obeyed that until just east of Polly Ranch and had Pearland in sight. The Pearland ASOS advised us that the winds were favoring runway 14, so I flew us into downwind, slowing to my normal pattern speed of 75 knots, before pulling the throttle back abeam my landing point, dropping the flaps to 15, and then making a successful if a bit firm landing on that runway.
A moment before touch down on Runway 14 at KLVJ
Somehow, it all seemed anti-climactic. There’s no way you can tell when whether you had any impact with the kids at all, especially when you live so far away and probably won’t see them again. All you can do is hope you made a positive…and, if you are lucky, inspirational…impact on some kid you talked to who never realized that aviation (or manned spaceflight) could be theirs…that it wasn’t something just for the rich and famous. There are ways to get there even if you don’t grow up in a household of advantage, and I am an example of that, though I was not subject to the additional difficulties that often arise because of one’s race. My family didn’t have the money to support me learning to fly or going to college, and things did not go well for the only other person in my family who tried to go into aviation. Still, I am grateful I had his example so I knew how not to let adversity drag you down all the way when I stumbled into it during my own aviation pursuits. You gotta keep pressing on and make the lemonade you can. I persevered, and while I didn’t get to where I wanted to go I got to places I would not have anticipated and were, in some ways, better for me as a human being. It led to quite a career, one that made me very happy and showed me just how talented I was. Love at its best…
About six weeks or so after Guillermo and I made this trip, Russell Lewey sent me a very nice card that included a note written by one of the students. She thanked me for traveling so far to teach her about airplanes and told me how much it meant to her to see one up close. That single note says that it was worth doing; and I can tell you I would not hesitate to do it again and again, as long as I have the chance. Whether it is her that presses on into aviation or spaceflight or one of her compatriots, I can’t say. I can only hope.
For there was someone who inspired me, though I am not sure he ever realized it. He wasn’t a pilot or an engineer but an Opelika High School social studies teacher named Andrew Lisman. When all my other classmates just thought I was weird, he always seemed eager to stand me up on Current Events day and explain to the class, with my model spacecrafts in hand, what was going on with any ongoing US manned spaceflight mission. It was the heyday of Apollo, so there were several. They were enough to form my only real validation of my love for flight; and to this day I am extremely grateful for it…and to him. Without it, it’s hard to say whether I might have ever pushed forward to chase my dreams; and they are what led me and still lead me to take flight in whatever way I can.