Looking to the Future

Published 12:36 pm Wednesday, July 17, 2013

by Archie Howell

Our time on active duty is drawing to a close and it’s time to start thinking about what will come after. I’m looking at prospects in aviation rather than tires, but the real world is going through an economic shrinking process and airlines are laying off, not hiring. I like the idea of eating in the future for me and my family, so I apply for and am granted an indefinite extension on active duty. The sigh of relief is crowded out by the next logical question: Where am I going?

Orders assign me to the training center at Pensacola, Florida, specifically to Training Squadron Six at Whiting Field, Milton, Florida. Whiting Field is actually two airfields, north and south. My squadron is on the north side and trains pilots for multi-engine aircraft and basic instruments. The aircraft is a Beechcraft twin engine assemblage called the SNB in official navy terms. It has a few other names assigned by those who have flown it for the 25 years or so since its acceptance into the military arsenal.

The venerable aircraft has served on virtually every continent on earth, has iterations that include floats, skis, gunnery turrets, bombardier and camera pods for photo reconnaissance, and an assortment of transport configurations. Its characteristic twin engines and vertical stabilizers are easily recognized from a distance. It has tolerated novice and very experienced pilots alike with a certain air of indifference.

My squadron’s mission is to train student pilots in multi-engine work and basic instruments. The syllabus includes a full familiarization with the aircraft, including takeoff and landing. In the past, some instrument syllabuses did not include this part. My job is to train to a level of competence in those operations. Other instructors will take over for the instrument work.

The “Twin Beech” is not the easiest of aircraft to learn to fly and my experiences are a mixed bag of competent smoothness interrupted by harrowing ineptness. I’m thankful for the ruggedness of this basic airframe; it is tested to limits that I would not have imagined just a short time ago. I endure.

A short time after joining the squadron, I’m invited to join the maintenance department, and I accept with enthusiasm. I miss working directly with crews, and my flying duties will be as a maintenance test pilot. I quickly learn to take off, fly to a working area, completely shut down and restart each engine in turn, check emergency landing gear extensions, complete a lengthy checklist, and be back on the ground in about a half hour.

I learn to love the idiosyncrasies and reliability of the aircraft. I use its grass field capability more than a few times over the year or so I spend in maintenance.

Much latitude is given to maintenance pilots. A cross-country trip to Franklin, Virginia is just one of the perks; a phone call to my family makes the necessary arrangements. The sun is low in the morning sky when a fellow pilot and I depart the training areas, refuel at the Greenville-Spartanburg airport and arrive at the Franklin Municipal Airport. A call to my family brings transportation from the airport and we arrive at the farm in time for supper. We visit, spend the night, and leave the next morning. It’s a pleasant break from work and my fellow pilot enjoys the change in scenery and hospitality.

In late January 1963, my father dies. A couple of fellow pilots volunteer to fly a cross-country trip to deliver me to Franklin for his funeral and a few days of the aftermath. Such courtesies are commonplace among the military family. A kind person at the Franklin airport gives me a ride to the farm. My father is buried at Mt Carmel church at Walters, in a plot across Windsor road, alongside my brother. It’s a sad occasion.

My father had a long period of illness in his life, double pneumonia and pleurisy. Doctors at the Medical College Hospital at Richmond attempted to save him with some new, experimental drugs commonly called steroids. He was released for home care and required daytime nursing for an extended period. Much to the surprise of many, my father regained a modicum of good health and was active for some fourteen years following the ordeal. Many remarked that the care and support of his many friends provided a motivation to recover.

A family member delivers me to the Naval Air Station Norfolk, to catch a ride back to Pensacola. It doesn’t take long; military flights are open to any military personnel that can be accommodated. My military family cares.

JAMES D. “ARCHIE” HOWELL is a Southampton County native and 1955 graduate of Franklin High School. He can be reached at archiepix@kingwoodcable.com.