Smokey 28

The most routine trip in the sky dispenses adventure of high order. The world seems horizontal and dull when perceived through flight-intensified senses: How can you keep them, down on the ground, once they have been aloft?

Imagine enduring even the most delicious meal, the most sophisticated conversation, the most acclaimed theatrical production -- eagerly waiting for the finale, for it signals the moment when you can go flying again.

In my case, it all stopped in June, 1971.

Not one day would pass without my longing to go aloft. In idle moments, my thoughts return again and again to past adventures in the sky, stirring joyous memories of perfect flight.

There was that trip over the Rockies with my family in Two-Four Fox to visit friends in Boulder, Colorado. From an hour away, widely scattered cumulus appeared to form a solid wall along the ridges. Not so. Those magnificent, puffy clouds were far enough apart to permit a gentle, serpentine course above the peaks.  Falling away below our wings, steep slopes are streaked with snow, which persists even in summer, shaded in north-side crags and draws.

We landed at Colorado Springs for lunch after what by the highest standards would be classified as a perfect flight. Colorado Springs Municipal is a huge complex with three runways laid out in a triangle. I had picked it because the Airport Guide said "Rest. adj." Unheeded was another notation, "Ctn. Mil. Jets."

The four of us, enjoying the afterglow of the morning's flight, ate our sandwiches in a congenial coffee shop at the south end of the airport. Only 65 nautical miles lay between us and our destination, Jeffco Airport in Denver.

We stepped outside, and the thunder of distant aircraft reached our ears. No planes could be seen in the sky that might account for the sound. Oh, but there, at the northern extreme of the airport, two miles away, a steadily darkening cloud was forming on the ground. My son reminded me that Colorado Springs is the site of the U.S. Air Force Academy. Perhaps they were conducting some tests. We buckled in and I started our engine.

"Colorado Springs Ground Control, this is Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot at the south transient line. Taxi for take-off."

"Smokey 22, taxi to Runway Three-Five behind Smokey 21. Tanker 15, taxi to Runway Three-Zero behind Tanker 14. Smokey 23, follow Smokey 22. Tanker 16, give way to Tanker 15..."

The ground controller's transmission continued in this strange litany but did not acknowledge my call. When there was a short break, I keyed the mike and repeated our request. Again, no reply.

With a shrug, I taxied the plane out of its parking place and turned toward the runway. Across our path were a string of jet fighters rolling along the taxiway in single file. They must be the "smokies," I thought. Beyond them, on the far side of the field, we could see a row of bulbous aircraft, probably the "tankers."

"Looks like somebody's putting on a war," I chuckled.

"They're going up to practice mid-air refueling," advised my twelve-year-old son from the back seat.

Sitting there in our little Skylane, my family and I had a front row view of the passing parade. Only trouble is, our friends would be waiting for us at Jeffco Airport. So we moved up to an intersection in the taxiway and waited for the roaring smokies to go by.

When I graduated from junior college in the early fifties, I spent hours poring over the brochures sent to me by every military aviation program there was. I wore thick glasses, though, and could not meet the "uncorrected vision" requirements for piloting. It was not without envy that I watched these lucky sons-of-bitches pass in front of our airplane. Over the cabin speaker, we could hear Ground Control still rattling off numbers.

Each fighter had its canopy pulled back. My eleven-year-old daughter, taking her turn in the front seat, waved through the windshield as they passed. One jet pilot noticed and waved back. Victoria signalled in the manner of a hitch-hiker. He applied his brakes, causing the oleo strut in his nose gear to dip. The jet behind him did the same and so on back through the line, like cars on the freeway. Victoria's new friend flipped up the visor on his helmet and grinned. He gallantly gestured for us to proceed onto the taxiway ahead of his jet, which we did.

I took care to stay to the side and well back of the smoldering tail-pipe ahead, but the sounds that surrounded us nevertheless approached the threshold of pain. I switched to the tower frequency.

"Smokey 21, Runway Three-Five, cleared for take-off. Smokey 22, taxi into position and hold. Tanker 14, Runway Three-Zero, cleared for take-off. Tanker 15, taxi into position and hold..."

Eventually, the jet in front of us moved onto the runway and was cleared for take-off. I cleared my throat.

"Colorado Springs Tower, Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot, holding short in number one positon for Runway Three-Five."

There was a long pause. "Two-Four Foxtrot?" The tower operator might have been annoyed or amused. I couldn't tell.

"That's affirmative, sir," I said, winking at Victoria. "Two-Four Fox is ready for take-off."

"All right then, Mr. Two-Four Fox," said the controller with a sigh. "You are cleared for take-off. No delay please. Smokey 28, cleared into position behind the Skylane."

"Hang on," I said to my little family. I brought the power up briskly and whipped the plane onto the runway. "We're going to show these guys what real flying is like." I executed a short-field take-off, our wheels leaving before they had spun a dozen times. At 50 feet above the runway, I pushed the nose down into a less radical climb attitude and raised the flaps.

"Two-Four Fox," said the tower. "Speed and altitude permitting, turn right and depart the control zone on a heading of zero-three-zero."

While the controller was still talking, I banked Two-Four Fox. Now doing a hundred miles per hour, we buzzed the row of tankers at a hundred feet. Hoo-hah!

"Thanks for your cooperation, Two-Four Fox. Smokey 28, cleared for take-off. Smokey 29, into position and hold."

"Thank you," I said into the mike. "And my daughter thanks Smokey 28."

A different voice come over the speaker. "You're welcome, ma'am."

Victoria watched her friend's fighter scream along the runway and arch into the sky. Later, she held the control wheel and smiled at me while I polished my glasses.

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