This is how I became the Tennessee Flyboy. I was born a few weeks after World War II ended. My dad had served in the Army Air Corps during the war as a mechanic and aerial gunner on B-24 Liberators. His brother was a B-24 pilot. Naturally, we were an air-minded family. We were also a farm family, which meant we spent a great deal of our time out of doors. Even if we were in the house and heard an airplane go over, we’d run out to see what kind it was. One of my earliest memories is of an airshow we went to at McKellar Field outside of Jackson. I can still see the yellow Piper Cub picking up a guy from the top of a car. We’d count how many airplanes we saw each day.
I can’t remember the exact time when I decided that when I grew up, I was going to fly. When I was in eighth grade, an Air Force radar bomb scoring team set up shop in the Milan Army Ammunition Plant complex a few miles from our house. For about six weeks, we had B-47s and B-52s with an occasional B-36 flying low over our house, starting at 9:00 PM and continuing until mid-morning. They were low, at no more than 500 feet above the ground and were probably as low as 300, mostly at night. The road in front of our house must have been a checkpoint on their flight plan because as soon as they reached it, the pilots would shove up the power and begin the spectacular climbing turn I later learned was called the LABS nuclear delivery method. They weren’t carrying nukes; plotters In the railroad care calculated each crew’s accuracy from the radar plots. A little over a decade later, I’d be working with those very same teams, only we were dropping real bombs, big ones. (www.sammcgowan.com/bomber.html.) There is one thing for certain; by the time Strategic Air Command finished the operation and moved the train, I had decided for certain that I was going to fly airplanes when I grew up.
My first airplane flight was in a Piper Tri-Pacer from the Humboldt, TN airport. My aunt Mary Nell took me and my younger brother to the airport one Sunday afternoon. The pilot, Mickey Spears, let me fly. I took us straight to my grandparent’s farm then to our farm about five miles away. I took one more flight from Humboldt, this time in a Cessna 170. My next flight was in a Braniff Convair 240 when I left Memphis for Air Force basic training at Lackland AFB outside of San Antonio. Yet even though I had joined the Air Force, it wasn’t until almost four years later that I took my first flying lesson. By that time, I was already a flyboy. In the summer of 1964 I cross-trained from aircraft maintenance to the aircraft loadmaster career field and went on flying status as a crewmember on C-130 transports. http://www.sammcgowan.com/military.html One Saturday afternoon, two of my buddies and I got in a Skoshi cab at the main gate at Naha Air Base, Okinawa where we were stationed and rode some twelve miles to Yomitan Airfield, where the Kadena Aero Club was based to start flying lessons.
I wish I could say that my introduction to flying was a pleasant experience. It wasn’t. My first instructor was a screamer. He was a DOD civilian who had some kind of job there on the island. He had me do a spin on my very first lesson. We were flying a yellow Piper J-3 Cub, which is soloed from the rear seat. I flew the airplane from the back seat and the instructor was in front. It was hard to see over him. I was only able to fly every seventeen days or so because most of my duties were in Southeast Asia. We’d be sent to Cam Ranh Bay or Bangkok for sixteen days so I’d schedule a lesson for one of the three days of free time I was entitled to after each stint of temporary duty. I took about three lessons in the Cub then switched to an Aeronca Champ. I also switched instructors. My new one was a young Army Specialist Fourth Class. The difference between him and my first instructor was like night and day. The Champ was different too. Champs are soloed from the front seat so I now sat in front with the instruments right in front of me. I desperately wanted to solo before I left Okinawa but I was having a little trouble with landings. In July I left Naha for a new assignment at Robins AFB, Georgia where I would be flying on C-141s.
While I was home on leave, I went to the nearest airport between Milan and Trenton, Tennessee and took a few lessons. Once again, I was in a different type of airplane, a Cessna 150, a fairly new one. I took four or five lessons but still hadn’t soloed when I left home to drive to my assignment at Warner Robins. I was happy to learn when I got there that the base had an aero club. At the time, it was at Wilson Field just outside of Macon. The club had a variety of airplanes but the primary trainers were Cessna 150s. However, they were older than the ones at Gibson County. My new instructor was Van Thaxton, a civilian who worked on the base. Van was a good instructor. One day we were practicing takeoffs and landings. After one landing he told me to pull off and let him out. Then he sent me off on my first solo flight. Van told me to make two touch and goes and a landing, but the nose wheel started shimmying after my first landing so I made a full stop and taxied to the ramp. It wasn’t a big deal. All I needed to do was ease back on the yoke and take the weight of the nose wheel but Van and the club manager, a retired major, said I made the right decision. Regardless, I had made my first solo flight. For some reason, no one thought to cut off my shirt tail and hang it on the wall. Personally, I wasn’t upset that they didn’t. I was wearing one of the Thai silk shirts I had made up a couple of years before when I was TDY to Ubon, Thailand. I went up with Van again, probably the next day, and he soloed me again. He endorsed my student license and my log book for unsupervised solo.
For the next year, I continued working on my private pilot’s license. It took me longer than most because of my schedule. I was flying as a crewmember on C-141s and was rarely at home for more than three or four days at a time. We were required to have on hour of free time for every three hours we spent away from home station, up to a maximum of 72 hours. If I was out long enough to get the full three days, I usually hopped in my Cougar and hit the road for West Tennessee. When I flew solo, I practiced the private pilot maneuvers. Sometimes Van flew with me. I had been at Robins for exactly a year when I got word that I was going back overseas, this time to Clark Field in the Philippines. Moreover, I was supposed to be at Sewart AFB, Tennessee in two weeks for C-130 training. I was told that because I had previous C-130 experience, Military Airlift Command was requesting a waiver of the school because so many loadmasters had just received orders that a shortage was developing. I was getting ready to leave that night on leave to go to West Tennessee for my sister’s wedding. My NCOIC told me to go on home and he’d let me know if I needed to come back early.
I had already passed the FAA written test. I took it and my logbook with me. I went to Milan and told Lawrence Browning, who ran the airport, that I wanted to take the practical test. Lawrence was busy with crop dusting so he put me with Mike Jones, a local boy who worked at ITT and was a CFI. Now, I had already completed all of the requirements to take the practical test but the FAA required that I have a recommendation from an instructor. Looking back, I can see that Mike should have flown with me one time then set me up for the flight check. He probably needed the money or wanted the flight time because he insisted on flying with me at least three times. Finally, he set me up for a flight check with an FAA examiner from Paris, Tennessee, about fifty miles away. I’ve forgotten the man’s name. On the appointed day, I got in Lawrence’s Cessna 150 and flew to Paris where the examiner was waiting at the airport. He asked me a few questions and had me lay out a flight plan to Dyersburg. When I was ready, we got in the airplane and started out on the flight. A few minutes into the flight, we passed over a town. I looked down at my map and said it was my first checkpoint. He said, okay, let’s break off and do some air work. He had me do a stall and a turn and then said to head back to the airport. I thought I had done something wrong but when we got on the ground, he asked for my student pilot license and began writing out a temporary private pilot certificate. A few minutes later, I was in the airplane with a brand new license in my wallet. When I got to the end of the runway, I noticed that the directional gyro was off by ten degrees. I looked at my map and realized that the cluster of buildings I thought was my checkpoint was actually a little south of my route. Oh well, I had the ticket in my pocket!
As it turned out, MAC got the extension and I stayed at Robins until November instead of leaving in two weeks. Van wasn’t happy that I had taken the flight check while I was on leave but I felt I had no choice. CFI’s get credit for students they recommend who pass the flight check so he lost credit for mine (Mike Jones got it.) By this time, the aero club had moved from Wilson Field to the Air Force Base. I took at least one of my buddies for a ride. Stony Burk caught the flying bug and eventually became a pilot himself. We both had orders to Clark and went to the same squadron. I left Warner Robins the night before Thanksgiving. In early February, 1969, I arrived at Clark and a new chapter of my life as a flyboy.
(For the full story of my flying career, read my book Two Years in the Sky – http://www.sammcgowan.com/twoyears.html)