Reflections in the Sky
As the floats of the Super Cub kissed the sand along the small peninsula, I watched the gaggle of small children moving our way. Some were scrambling to reach us while others timidly held onto Mom or Dad’s hand as they walked slowly in our direction, unsure if it was okay to approach.
Tim and I had spent the morning training in his beautiful yellow Super Cub on Wipline 2100 amphib floats, practicing various maneuvers and performing a plethora of takeoffs and landings along the Highland Lakes in the Texas Hill Country. We had not seen each other for several years and had sort of lost touch a bit as friends sometimes do. Life gets in the way, you know. Then Tim gave me a call to see if I would be interested in doing some training in a Super Cub on floats. Not just any Super Cub, however. Along with his friend Jim, Tim had recently purchased the immaculate AOPA Sweepstakes airplane that had been restored by Roger and Darrin Meggers at Baker Air Service in Baker, Montana.We began at the Rusty Allen airport in Lago Vista, moving along Lake Travis as we watched the bass boats and personal watercraft carving wakes in the calm water. Never climbing above 500 AGL, we had a great view of the campers, kayakers and hikers along the shores. Most stopped to watch our progress, waving as we passed.
By early afternoon, the sun was casting spangles on the water’s surface, ruffled by a light breeze making for perfect conditions to practice beaching the floatplane. Purely by happenstance we chose a sandy strip below. Circling overhead, Tim checked for any shallow areas or obstacles and determined the wind direction. He set up his pattern, completed the pre-landing checklist and set us gently on the surface. Coming off the step, water rudders down, we idled slowly toward the beach. Down the way I could see several boats pulled up with the families wading, fishing and playing in the water. Most were watching, a few waving to us while a couple of the kids were bouncing with excitement.
As Tim pulled the mixture and the prop swung to a stop, we could hear the excited squeals of the children as they approached. “Hi Mister, can we look at your airplane?” asked the youngster leading the pack. “Certainly, you can. Come on over,” we responded. Mom was shepherding this flock, and she explained the kids had been watching us fly over and were beyond excited when they saw us taxi in. Meanwhile the rest of the crew arrived. Some were jumping up and down, speechless with the thrill of seeing a real floatplane up close. Others, not so sure, hung back, watching the scene unfold. “Would you like to sit on the float?” we asked. In an instant, three of the boldest clambered aboard and posed for photos. Talk about unbridled joy! The looks on the young faces spoke volumes about the power of small airplanes to ignite wonder and awe among kids and adults alike. The serendipity of a chance encounter on this quiet beach seemed somehow more personal, more joyful for both Tim and me. Time for a bit of the backstory.
Tim Casey and I became acquainted at the very beginning of my aviation journey. I was a young college student, struggling to scrape together enough money to feed my aviation addiction while Tim, eight years my senior, was already an experienced aviator. We spent summer days flying Ray Harding’s ratty old yellow Piper J-3 from Bird’s Nest Airport near Manor, Texas. The airport attracted a wildly diverse group that in many ways reflected the spirit of Austin’s counter-cultural vibe. There was a jump school on the place where long-haired youngsters would “hop and pop” to Outlaw Country Music. One day, one of the jumpers ended up facedown, unmoving in the airport pond where he was rescued by Tim and a couple of others. Turns out he was fine, but more than a little impaired by his imbibing activities earlier in the day. This was the same pond ruled by Pok-Pok, the huge white goose who took immense delight in chasing the hippie chicks and their boyfriends who ventured into his kingdom. Pok-Pok would lie in wait until some unsuspecting victim ventured too close. We would usually be alerted by the sudden screams and shrieks, then a flash of the tie-dyed, Birkenstock-clad target scurrying for the safety of the parking lot with a very loud white goose in hot pursuit.
The jump school was run by Mike Mullins, a future FedEx pilot who would later be suspected, indicted, and acquitted of murdering his wife. Mike used an old Cessna 182 for a jump plane and gave me my first paying gig as a new Commercial Pilot. One day, desperate for a warm body in the left seat, he asked if I would like to fly some jumpers. After a very brief and casual explanation of how this should be done, I was turned loose. Soon, I had three willing skydivers aboard and we climbed to 3000 feet. Turning into the wind, following the hand signals from the jumpmaster, I reduced power and watched as the first guy reached for the strut to get into position. Suddenly, he disappeared and after some momentary confusion, the rest followed. I spiraled down to a landing and shut down just in time to see the jumpmaster coming my way. Clearly agitated, he rushed up, got in my face, and asked the key question. “Didn’t anyone tell you to hold the brakes when we exit?” Turns out that failing to do so results in a less than elegant departure as the jumper steps onto the Cessna’s tire to get ready to jump.
Then there was Maurice, a young ex-Air Force pilot who, after losing part of his leg in an airplane explosion and being forced out of the service, would spend summer evenings cutting rolls of toilet paper in a Super Cub. Occasionally he would allow me to ride in the back. I am not sure how well he ever mended up. Last we heard he was in a Mexican jail serving time for flying contraband into Mexico.
Somehow among this motley crew, Tim and I became acquainted. As I struggled to connect hands, feet and brain to the simple flying machine, Tim would patiently provide guidance and counsel. We would cruise over the cotton and milo fields, whiling away the hours, building flight time and occasionally dropping in on one or another of the small central Texas airports for a visit. Along the way, we became friends who had no thought that we were beginning a shared journey that now stretches over 50 years. Tim went on to an aviation career that included ferry flights across the North Atlantic, flying King Airs and jets for business while keeping his connection to small airplanes intact by flying his Super Cub around the state. But in visiting with him, you probably would be hard pressed to learn all of this, as Tim, like many Texans despite the reputation for hyperbole, is often quiet and reserved. It takes a bit of work to get him to share. But as we flew along, I got him to tell me some of his experiences -- including one involving a certain bridge over the Pecos River that I cannot share here despite the statute of limitations having expired.
We visited for a while longer, answering questions and rotating kids and a few adults on and off the floats for photos with the plane. Both Tim and I were reluctant to leave, but we needed to get back to the tasks at hand, so we said our goodbyes and pushed off from the beach. As the floatplane drifted slowly away, the children watched us prepare to depart. We started up and slowly taxied into deeper water. With run-up complete, Tim brought the power up and we climbed onto the step. I glanced back as we passed by the kids. All of them were jumping and waving as we passed. Lifting off, we were soon on our way down the lake for more practice.
Tim and I share the uncomfortable reality that far more of our aviation adventures are behind us than ahead. These days, it is a bit more difficult for both of us to crawl into the cabin of the Super Cub, although Tim, weighing something like 140 pounds soaking wet, is still quite spry. He reminds me of an old cedar fence post that has had the bark stripped away by time and weather, leaving the heartwood greying slowly, yet still holding strong. On our way back to the airport, we swapped stories of friends and family, catching up on events from the past. Tim and his wife Hallie had been married for 49 years, sharing the joys of raising two boys, building a lifetime of memories until that September day five years ago when a visit to the doctor revealed a grim diagnosis. By just after Christmas, Hallie was gone.
“Would you have ever thought, back in 1970, that we would still be doing this flying thing together after all these years?” he asked. “In some ways, it seems impossible that so much time has passed.” I replied. “Yet, when I think about all the hours and all the airplanes and so many experiences I have shared with students, pilots and passengers, the years are filled with great memories.” We talked of pilots we knew, recounting tales of mishaps and adventures, reminded again of what a small community we share and how connected we are to that extended family. Our dreams then (and even now) were to find our place in that family, to discover how we fit in and ultimately to play a small part in sharing the experience with others.
After a couple of hours, we turned the airplane to the east, following the lakes toward home. The wind had died, and the lake’s mirrored surface reflected our image against the evening sky. The slanting light cast deepening shadows into the limestone canyons as the sun continued its journey toward the western horizon. Soon, the light would begin to fade to darkness, and our flight would end. But for now, there was a softness to the air as the thermals eased and the temperature dropped. We were not quite done. Tim dropped the gear and eased the amphib gently onto the asphalt before taxiing to the hangar and shutting down. On my drive home, I thought about the simple joys of this day when two old aviators, reconnected once more, added another chapter to the story I never tire of revisiting.