Fooling around in airplanes

Published 11:21 am Saturday, June 29, 2013

by James D. Howell

New Orleans is a long way from the aftermath of the Cuban confrontation, and things have settled into a routine, of sorts. We have to maintain proficiency in our aircraft skills, but the anti submarine part of our mission has slipped to the back burner. We’ve had a couple of short deployments to actively work with other active fleet units at Cherry Point, N.C., and Norfolk, Va.

The Cherry Point work is in the winter and flying involves wearing an exposure suit along with our regular flight equipment. The suit is for survival in cold waters for an extended time period. The suit is sealed at the neck and both wrists; the opening through which the suit is donned has a multiple fold Velcro fastening. It has boots built in. Getting into and out of the thing easily is a task never learned. Maybe there just isn’t a way. Even fitting into the close quarters of the aircraft while wearing the suit is a challenge. We congratulate ourselves that the need for its purpose doesn’t occur.

Spring brings out fishermen in Louisiana. In truth, they’ve never stayed completely in. My father- in -law plans to fish at his favorite spot beneath a railroad bridge across Bayou des Allemand, along Highway 90, just west of New Orleans. I tell him that I’m scheduled to fly the next day and he might see me come by to say hello. He’ll know it when he sees me. The following day, we take off from the Naval Air Station and head west to fulfill my request. My father in law isn’t too hard to find and we swoop up the bayou at an absolutely illegal altitude. I dip a wing as we approach and my father in law waves back. We circle once at a little higher altitude and head off for sightseeing in the great swamp area.

This region of Louisiana is characterized by vast, flat, swampy, forbidding terrain. Since the earliest of times, people live on and conduct their businesses on either side of slow flowing bayous. Plantations and farms used the waterways for transportation of crops to market and the property lines are still well defined perpendicular to the water’s edge. Areas outside those boundaries are given over to wildness, untamed and untameable.

This is Cajun country. During the eighteenth century (mostly) dispossessed Acadians from eastern Canada and France found their way to this region. The most famous action was “the Great Expulsion” from Canada around mid century. The word Acadian was corrupted into Cajun over time.

This is also “Evangeline” country, made so by Longfellow’s epic poem Evangeline. The popularity of Evangeline seemed to magically change a work of fiction into reality, and the title graces a large number of places and products in this region. There’s Evangeline Parish, Evangeline bread, Evangeline memorial buildings, roads, waysides and hundreds of other uses. Towns in this historically French neighborhood have beautiful names, like: Thibodaux, Belle Rose, Baton Rouge, Iberville, Lafourche, and Vacherie.

Speech patterns in this area are a mixture of classical French, regional classical French, and local patois. It’s a soft, phonetic, beautiful language, understood little by outsiders. Riverboat and commercial ship pilots often use the language for verbal communications with other pilots in the rivers, canals, and waterways of Louisiana.

A short distance from the bayou banks the landmass disappears and mile after mile of swamps, islands, and trees hanging with Spanish moss hide whatever and whoever needs to be hidden. I remark to my cohort that I know there are areas here where man has never set foot. Oil company explorations have cut paths and dredged canals through large sections, but the greater part of the swamps remain untouched.

Here and there, flung out in a random pattern are weatherworn shacks, with small boat docks. Some are inhabited full time and some serve as weekend or vacation getaways for fishing or hunting.

Sometimes we visit the training center at New Iberia (we call it New Siberia). It’s an uncrowded airport with a long wide runway, excellent for instrument approaches and landing practice. I think the airport and associated training center is the result of pork barrel politics. It’s used by the navy for just a few years; the logistics of operating a remote training base creates too much burden to continue. Somewhere in the budgeting process, support funds disappear and the training center at New Iberia is deactivated.

Our squadron maintains active, official patrols in gulf waters, but the “fooling around” part is fun and really does increase proficiency.

That’s what we tell ourselves, anyway.