Notes Off the Napkin: A Different Air Force

Notes-Off-the-Napkin-logo1By Andrew Frame

We interrupt this magazine for an essay on aviation. We will return to your normal radio and production text in a moment.

I used to have a fear of heights. Nowadays, I understand it isn’t the altitude I’m afraid of, it’s the death part... you know when one hundred fifty kilo’s of me traveling at one hundred twenty knots has immediate decelerative contact with the ground.

The fact my flight instructor, Rhonda, trusts my pre-flight of the aircraft worries me. I want maintenance records, X-rays, sonograms, sworn affidavits, and a complete metallurgical analysis of the fuselage. Then, and only then... I might step out to the flight line and actually begin something resembling pre-flight.

My friends Peter and Steve are pilots. Steve flies fixed wing, an airplane. Peter flies rotary wing, a helicopter. (“Flying” a helicopter is a misnomer. Helicopters don’t fly. They beat the air into submission. All while trying to kill you.)

The Bride and I are still student pilots. It’s an expensive hobby (as all of ours seem to be), so we don’t get to go up too often, and it’s one my life insurance company has made financially clear they would rather I abandon.

Our part of the world, the Florida Everglades, has arguably the best mosquito control program in the world. I read somewhere that other MC managers come here to see how we do it. Newbies to the area find out when a large propeller driven aircraft buzzes their house in a smoke-belching dawn strafing run. To a person, everyone will tell you they honest-to-God thought the plane was on its way to making a crater.

Rain means mosquito babies. Anything capable of holding water for a few days is a nursery. The “winged debbils” live up to their reputation as Florida’s State Bird -- this morning alone, I swatted away one with a wingspan of at least an inch, maybe an inch and a half. And the smaller black-mosquitoes are so thick, you feel them bump into you as you walk along. They rest somewhat during the day, but at dusk, you can actually hear them thunk into windows. The adults lay their eggs in moist soil, then wait for the rain. Some wet weather, and an uncountable number of insects hatch within days of each other.

Mosquito Control is at the former Buckingham Army Air Field, one of several in the area used by the Government for pilot training during the first half of the 20th century. In addition to the small fleet of C-47’s that can cover 100 acres in four minutes, they fly a C-117D Super Goose, thup-thup-thupping olive-drab Hueys, and even JetRangers.

It’s quite a sight to see two, three, even five C-47’s in formation, a few hundred feet off the ground, blowing through the morning fog; or a lone Huey, doors open, belly tank slung, pulling a plus-G turning bank to reseed a troublesome breeding spot with poison.

It’s quite a sound to have them buzz your house.

In the suburban countryside, we can see the stars, and out here Mosquito Control was flying one night.

It’s around 11pm. For some reason, the sound didn’t register at first. It grew closer and closer in seven minute intervals until the thunder rolled -- a C-47 roaring over, at five hundred feet, Pratt & Whitney radials playing their siren song. I ran out the front door, straight into a facefull of black marsh mosquitoes -- and only catch the wingtip beacons retreating in the trees.

The first pass, I missed. Darn shame too, because he was right down my street. The wind must have been blowing from the east — I never heard him coming. I waited seven minutes -- the return cycle time -- and waited for low rumble. I jumped out of my chair, vaulted over the dog, and dove out the side door by the garage while slapping the porch light off.

Just in time.

A barely definable shape above in the darkness, reflecting street lights off the aluminum fuselage and wings, roared past. One hundred fifty knots at five hundred feet. A rack of blue-white targeting lights under the fuselage pointed forward, hitting reflective tape and paint required to be on objects over three hundred feet tall. Reflections that show up like green daylight in the pilots night-vision goggles.

Radials roaring, beacons blinking, nav lights blazing, and just enough fog in the air and Fenthion coming out of the dispersant nozzle to give it a cool, surreal look.

And then... it was gone. Total time: about fifteen seconds.

They made a couple more passes, moving east across the grid, each hum of the engines getting progressively distant.

Our community is in the final approach for the nearby international airport, so we get jets flying over at all kinds of low altitudes and at all kinds of hours when the weather changes and the wind starts blowing from the south or west. My Bride is fond of the smooth shrill call of a jet turbine. I long for the throaty rumble of reciprocation. She wants to fly a Gulfstream. I’ll take a Stearman.

At our former home, we lived near a General Aviation airport, also a former training facility for the Army Air Corps. From our house we could hear everything from corporate jets to little four-banger trainers. I’ve been on the flight line watching a Flying Fortress taxi and lift into the sky.

So, when Mosquito Control has the big guns in the air, and I’m nearby, it makes a great end to a day.

We now return you to your regularly scheduled magazine.

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