It would be the longest VFR cross country for me by far, with precious cargo across Tornado Alley in springtime to the “Greatest Spectacle in Sports.” But I was 26; what the hell did I know? It was before the internet, weather channel, online anything. No TFRs or alphabet soup of airspace.
Just AM Weather on PBS at 6:00 am and Flying magazine. And books, lots of books.
I was the assistant manager of my dad’s tire business in Austin, Texas, during June of 1981 and the Pennzoil rep, a Charlie Daniels figure named Bill Jones with whom I loved to talk cars and any other topic that came up, came in for one of his frequent visits. He was fresh from attending the previous month’s Indy 500, beaming from winning the trip from his employer, a huge race and car sponsor.
The subject became the race itself. In May 1981, Al Unser had passed a bunch of cars under a yellow, (obvious on TV) and Mario had been awarded the win but under review.
Holding a three-year, 10-month old Private SEL in my wallet (earned at the nearby 2000 ft, dirt Bird’s Nest Airport 6R4 – now Austin Executive, KEDC), it was a good excuse to say, “Hey let’s go next year.”
My pop had been to Indy two times as an employee of a large tire supplier in 1958 and 1963. I knew he would be game. And the fact he flew 65 missions in WWII in B-26 Marauders helped – he was fearless. And he loved the 500. He couldn’t hear “Back Home Again in Indiana” without out a tear coming to his eye… And he was from Pennsylvania.
It was a done deal that day, come hell or high water.
That night, upon arrival at home to a beautiful wife with two babies, 3 1/2 yrs old and 11 months old, my announced big plans were met with the expected exuberance: none. But absolutely no resistance, God love her.
In the subsequent months, Richard Collins, Robert Buck, Gordon Baxter, George C. Larson, Robert Parke, Len Morgan: if they had written it, I had read it. Each Flying magazine issue was devoured with the curiosity of a teenager with a pilfered Playboy.
I bought WAC charts to save money. It took too many Sectionals to go from Austin to Indy.
The dining room table became FSS as each chart was combed over like a CIA operative over a Russian airfield. There were no secrets in Cuba or Paducah, Kentucky.
One day, long after conceiving the plan and long prior to execution, a doting, smiling, round jolly fellow came into our tire store. I recognized him as Bill Jones’ dad but had never conversed at length with him. My initial greeting was, “Hey Mr. Jones, how are you”? The old devil said, “Not worth a damn, corn went up and I didn’t have a bushel.” He was my kind of guy.
William Jones, Sr. was in his early 60s, as was my father, and he asked if he could accompany his son Bill and us to Indianapolis. It would be his first airplane ride! With arrogant, cocky, youthful exuberance I replied, “Of course, we got room.” The weight and balance chart came into play as the second William Jones was pretty portly. Now, Charlie Daniels, his dad and my pop, all tipping 220. I wasn’t 170 soaking wet.
I had a 182 in mind for speed, load and range. Never had flown one but I wasn’t stupid. I could do it. Ragsdale Aviation was the ticket. They were the big boys on Austin Mueller’s ramp.
The following spring, 1982, prep got serious. Ragsdale was contacted, they had the equipment, start the countdown.
On April 27, waiting patiently in the lobby for the instructor to arrive, two gentlemen entered. One older (gray hair, baggy pants), one younger (tighter, neater, this has to be instructor.) Over sauntered George Dale, baggy pants, gray hair and all, and he could ring you inside and out in a 182 and do it over and over until he knew you wouldn’t kill yourself. To this day, I will ever be in his debt for his signature and the memory of my adventure. George Dale does not exist on Google or LinkedIn, but he does in my logbook.
Now it was flight week. I could not sleep well after studying for 11 months. Thankfully, my precious wife and kids had travelled home to her folks in Alabama for a couple of weeks. All I had to worry about was crossing the country with three other precious souls to the world’s busiest airport that weekend in springtime. I was 26, no problem.
Now it was Friday, May 28, 1982. I had slept on my couch and awoke 6:00 am to thunder and gray skies.
Damn. It’s Round Rock (nowhere) Texas. Austin Mueller and the mandatory FSS visit is 40 miles south.
Got to go. People to meet, places to go, things to do. A country to cross, a race to see and people’s lives in my hands.
The lady at the newly built FSS building was polite and somewhat helpful when I asked for a briefing and gave her my route. As she looked at my route, her brow knitted. She went to another room, and returned shortly, stating, “If you want to get off, you have to leave now.”
We obliged. Loaded, and sitting at the business end of 13R with gray and anovercast hugging 3000 ft, we were off in 20 minutes. N5463N was airborne to Indianapolis. We opened our flight plan with FSS and turned north, chart notebook in lap.
Soon after we received an ominous “center weather advisory” concerning the weather incoming from the southwest. Somewhere in my memory the phrase, “Fly the weather you find” came to mind. If you read enough books, something will stick.
At 3000 MSL, a low level, plane swallowing, and IFR inducing mass of stratocumulus was about to engulf us from the southwest. The rising sun peeked at us from the east under the overcast so I turned the 182 to 090 to avoid the maelstrom. Remember, son, you are VFR. I cussed the notebook-fitting charts I had “customized” by cutting to neatly fit this route and save space. There had to be airports close enough to land to sort this out. I had never counted on flying this far east so early. I was 26, what the hell did I know?
My Pennzoil rep buddy, who knew where every bone was buried in Central Texas, mentioned that the Cameron airport was to our left. I had my pop sitting next to me find it on the map. I looked at runway length and direction, then soon turned downwind. I had to think this through on the ground. Landing was uneventful and provided time to breathe and think. We only stayed on the ground about 15 minutes at most.
After assessing the weather, there was a warm front with low ceilings and rain approaching from southwest to northeast. I wanted to see a radar. We loaded up, taxied and soon departed. After rotating, I released the back pressure a little and the nose suddenly pitched down. What the hell was wrong? A quick peak at the trim wheel revealed the item missed on the checklist prior to takeoff. The closest tower airport was Waco (ACT) so there we went. Turning to north at 2500 MSL, we stayed clear of clouds and landed at Waco.
Inside the terminal, there sat a remote rebroadcast of Waco’s weather radar. There was weather information available and it was clear a more easterly route and then north would be the plan.
After takeoff from Waco, a Rockwell Commander at 8000 feet on our frequency reported severe turbulence just as lightning bolts illuminated our interior. After the thunder claps, I looked at my pop sitting next to me. All he said was, “It’s not flak; we’ll be fine.” The rookie passenger in back was wide eyed but silent. Shortly, 15-20 miles to the east, the ceiling lifted and the weather being reported at Tyler and Longview Texas was 6500 scattered with no mention of precip or lowering ceilings.
An uneventful fuel stop in Little Rock and, soon after, we were marveling at barge traffic on the Mississippi River. Then we split the big smoke stacks on the Ohio River at Paducah, just as the route line on my chart did, and flew on to Evansville, Bloomington and Indianapolis approach. At this point, I was proud of the trip. One quick check on my rookie passenger revealed him sound asleep. Indy Tower gave us 22L with a DC9 on 22R who playfully acknowledged us to tower. The big Goodyear blimp had just arrived (this was the big league I thought), and we taxied to the Gates Learjet FBO where we had a reservation through Monday. Bill had reserved a rental car and soon we were headed to eat.
While holding the door to the restaurant for my rookie passenger, I said, “Mr. Jones, for your first flight you were awfully calm.”
“I took two Valium in Little Rock” he admitted.
But we were on the ground at Indy for what became the greatest finish to any Indy 500 in history. I was very proud to have flown my father to his first Indy 500 since 1963.