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My dad was an aircraft mechanic in the Navy. He met a man who trained pilots when he was stationed at Dallas and they became great friends. This man took my dad up for flying lessons and to this day, it’s one of my dad’s fondest memories.
I was stationed at Naval Air Facility Detroit, Michigan for three years when I received orders to report to Naval Air Station Dallas, Texas, where I met my eventual commander, friend and flight instructor, Keith Hibbit.
Getting to that duty station is a story in and of itself. It all starts with trying to get a new assignment/duty station that appealed to me. That process involved making a lot of calls to my detailer in New Orleans, Louisiana. OK, so after all those calls I settled on a set of orders ordering me to NAS Dallas. Not quite what I wanted but better than stuck in California. There was no way I was going to the Cereal State — you know, the land of fruits, flakes and nuts!
Going to Dallas from Detroit was an adventure all by itself, an actual vacation. We went to a car museum in Illinois, or maybe it was Indiana, stopped by and saw Jessie James’ hideout in Meramec Caverns and a wax museum there as well. We stayed in a state park with a bunch of raccoons. Now, that was interesting.
Evidently they were used to campers dropping all kind of tidbits of food and they are such scavengers. We had a cat with us which was left out on a tether. That seemed better than leaving him penned up all night. There was a commotion so I shined the flashlight out to see what was the commotion and there’s the cat nose to nose with a raccoon. So what’s to do except to go out to get the cat and his cat carrier. Unfortunately I spilled cat food right outside the tent door. Then the fun really began. The raccoons were rubbing against the side of the tent where my son was leaning against. Pretty hilarious when I look back on it but a mess that night.
I got to Texas and I immediately checked in with the Command Master Chief upon my arrival to begin the check-in process. Come to find out, they had no idea I had been stationed there. I wonder who messed up. They told me they would sort it out and would call in the next day or so. What should have taken a day, took a month. Over the course of a month, steadily checking with the base manpower chief, they still had no idea where to put me. They sent me down to the hazardous waste division because the Petty Officer in Charge was retiring soon. They said if I didn’t like it then I could ask for a different assignment.
The guy in charge over there was a complete jerk. He probably didn’t like himself, much less anyone else. So, I found myself again in front of the Master Chief.
“I just can’t work with the Chief Petty officer,” I told him.
He sent me down to check out the trucks at the motor pool. This was a job, I might add, that was usually performed by an enlisted man of a much lower rank than I was at the time. Over the next few weeks, I made trip after trip to the Master Chief’s office, nearly begging the man to get me a permanent job. he finally tells me to go interview for a job at the hazardous material warehouse.
“The First Class Petty Officer at Hazardous Materials is retiring soon,” Master Chief said. “Go see Lieutenant Hibbet and he will interview you for the job.”
“Chief, what are you talking about?” I asked. “Since when do we interview for a job on a naval installation?”
It was a surprise that I was going to be able to choose the job I wanted but I didn’t argue about it. This was the weirdest base I’d ever been stationed at. Since when does a sailor interview for a job? He usually does the duty assigned to him. I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the assignment, having already tried it and hated it. I was pleasantly surprised to find that Lieutenant Keith Hibbet was about as nice as the other guy was mean. So began a lifelong friendship.
And he said the same thing.
“Interview?” he asked.
So I met Lieutenant Hibbet and instantly liked the guy. I got the job as supervisor of the place. Here’s where the flying lessons in the Stearman story starts.
It wasn’t long that Lt. Hibbet and I got to talking about everything and he found out what I was capable of and I found out that he had a Stearman Bi-plane. One thing led to another and it got to where I was going out to the hanger south of Fort Worth pretty regularly to work on the plane. There was a time I pulled the wiring harness and put it on the hanger deck to rewire it for radios and an intercom system. There were plenty of other things that I did to that plane and am proud to say because of those things made it possible for Lt. Hibbet to win awards at the Oshkosh Airshow. I have one of the plaques to treasure and as proof that he did indeed win there.
I’d like to point out it was a pretty good arrangement. I would come into work and Lt. Hibbet would say, “I’ve got things under control here today. How about you go out to the hanger and work on my plane?”
I’d never refuse because it was interesting and fun.
From all the work I did, I got free flying lessons. And so the real fun began.
We’d go out after work or on days off, whenever we could. I was learning to FLY! How cool was that! The first thing that one has to do is to learn about the airplane. That was pretty simple. I was already familiar with various Navy planes. I knew what the various surfaces were called and what they did. I was familiar with a cockpit and the instruments inside so the next thing was learning to actually handle the plane first in taxiing. That ought to be straight forward but was anything but.
You see, a plane with conventional landing gear doesn’t taxi straight down the runway but rather makes like a snake making long serpentine or long s’s down the taxiway. Well that’s not that hard at slow speed but slow speed isn’t good for the engine. The plugs load up and it goes to popping and cracking so you have to open the throttle a bit more than one is wont to do when learning this maneuver. There is a thing called a ground loop that can occur while taxiing. It happens when the airplane gets away from the pilot in control who loses control. That happened to me. Taxiing at a fast idle I lost control at a particularly bad place. A culvert crossing under the taxiway and I nearly turned that plane upside down. During a ground loop situation a lot can happen in a hurry. Fortunately no damage to anything but my pride and that didn’t get hurt too bad.
Taking off was another thing. As I said, this was a plane with conventional landing gear arrangement. What that means is that the plane has a tail-wheel instead of a nose-wheel which means the plane steers using the rudder pedals. It also means while taking off, the plane starts down the runway with a nose up attitude and as it gains speed you have to push the stick forward to bring the tail up which brings the plane to a more level position. Now the problem is this: One knows that there is no nose wheel to keep the plane from going over on its nose if the stick is pushed too far and so one is a bit timid about pushing that stick forward. Turned out not to be such a big deal after I had done it a few times.
To be continued…