On Sunday, August 9, 1964, four summer graduates of Texas Technological College in Lubbock, came up with an irrational notion. Why not fly to a small town east of San Angelo, Texas, and have dinner at the world famous Lowake Steakhouse? The only pilot available turned out to be me.
As a college sophomore, on cold December 9, 1962, I took my first ride as a familiarization flight in a Cessna 172, and the hook was set. Since I lived at home and really didn’t need the money for school, I took out a $600 student loan to pay for my lessons. After not barfing, I started in earnest five days later in the mighty Cessna 150, 5556 Echo. This marathon ended two years later on another cold day, Monday, January 13, 1964, when I passed my fight test with a hefty 42 hours, 20 of which were solo.
With the esteemed credentials of Private Pilot, having flown a whopping 13.5 hours in retractable Comanches and reaching an impressive total time of 75 hours, who could be more qualified to take three trusting fraternity brothers on a two-hour flight to eat steaks? Never mind the late afternoon departure, vague navigation plans, and the primitive dirt airstrip at the steakhouse.
We were giddy, with classes over, grades determined, and graduation only two weeks away. We assembled at the Piper West-Tex FBO where I worked part time, for our preflight briefing. I told my frat brothers I was the boss of them until we got safely home. There would be no Playboy magazines, no smoking, no alcohol and no talking unless I said so. I would later regret not prohibiting the passing of noxious gases. Lecture over, we liberated the white-and-blue Cherokee, PA-28 and tugged it to the tarmac. Hangar doors now closed, my unsuspecting passengers watched in awe as I checked the oil, the fuel tanks, stall warning horn, and other items they didn’t comprehend, especially the part of them volunteering their weights. Satisfied they tallied less than the useful load of the Cherokee, they were 100% approved to load up.
Settled in our assigned seats, I snapped on my trusty kneeboard penciled with frequencies, ETAs of towns along the way, and the folded Lubbock Sectional in the door pouch. I called ground control then the tower for clearances, then departed on the usual southerly runway 17, aiming for San Angelo. Not wanting to get too high, I settled on 5,500 feet and off we zoomed. The brothers were well behaved, with only an occasional “when are we getting there?” I forgot to tell them singing or whistling was not allowed, but it wasn’t too awful.
I flew the Lubbock VOR down V62 on a heading of 114. After about an hour and a half, I found the San Angelo VOR and determined we were in the vicinity, but I can’t lie: I had no clue as to our exact position. San Angelo passed off our right wing with eight eyes squinting left and right for the Lowake Steak sign. Following the main east/west highway, I went lower anticipating a sighting.
One of the brothers sniffed my uncertainty on our whereabouts. His suggestion of dipping down and reading the city limits sign of a small town just off our nose seemed like a good idea. Actually it was brilliant, probably first used by cropdusters after a few beers. So, down we went. Someone in the back yelled, “It’s Veribest, Jim, it’s Veribest.” That established, I pulled up, added some power and started an easy turn to the left and northwest… and eyeball to eyeball with several sagging telephone wires. The bright one in the back seat said to watch out for the wires, after I was already safely above them. The incident was a little disquieting, and after thinking about the caper, I realized how easily we all could have been headlines on the next morning’s Avalanche Journal. It was sobering and remains so even today.
We finally located the steakhouse and its cotton field runway. Whoever made the small strip likely borrowed a D-7D caterpillar and scraped a 30-foot wide and 1800 foot long swath and that was that. We touched down and taxied back to park among cotton bolls that would be ready for picking in only a few weeks.
Safely parked and ID out, we were approved to drink beer and order 32-ounce Porterhouses. Abstaining, I pondered the wisdom of the safari, in the presence of three innocents who were having a good time. After the very fine dinner, we found our dusty Cherokee and hopped back in after a flashlight-assisted preflight. Only then did I notice the runway lights were generator driven 100-watt light bulbs placed 20 feet apart.
Despite the meal-added weight, we lifted off without incident, climbing to 4,500 feet as we watched the twinkling lights of small towns my navigator/converts in the back were able to identify. About halfway to Lubbock, one of the dudes said to hurry, as he had a serious need for the bathroom. After shaming the brother, I remembered their sharing a quart glass of ice water on the way to Lowake’s.
“How about your ice water jug?”
“It still has water in it.”
“About half full.”
“All the better. Pass it around and get it near empty and use that!”
The giggling and shuffling would have been fun to see, but I was busy keeping the airplane trimmed. Sooner than I had anticipated, a nice tailwind blew us right back to a left downwind to runway 17 and an uneventful landing. After we said our goodbyes, I refueled the Cherokee, then carefully checked the wheel fairings for telltale cotton. After putting the Cherokee back into the hangar, I was done.
Looking back, I would have done a better job of interviewing the pilot that encouraged me to make that trip, distilling from his experience finer details of the dirt runway, landmarks, etc. For sure I would have done a more thorough job of pre-planning the navigation, such as flying to a radial and DME from the San Angelo VOR for the appropriate heading to Lowake’s. I would have reminded the guys to take that final bathroom break, and would have had on board a couple of Little Johns, for last resort situations.
Through the years, I came to realize that the aviation gods, with permission from their boss, allowed us no harm and planted just enough aviation life lessons in me, Jim Perry, to thrive and become part of the rich tapestry of the kids-to-men who did their share to keep America so special. The gods smiled, as on January 27, 1966, my Navy Flight Logbook reflected six successful arrested landings on the aircraft USS Lexington.