Harry showed up at the corner of Texas Highway 1863 and Bulverde Road in a small bakery which had a coffee bar. A little early, he went in and ordered a cup of coffee and a doughnut. He took his cup outside and plopped down in a wooden, low-back chair. Amazed the chair didn’t collapse; he ate his doughnut and took in the view. This particular block and part of the block across the street was typical old time rural Texas. He felt transported to a rural, small town setting in the late thirties early forties, or earlier.
The buildings, the one he was at, and the four others in the row next to it, had seen better days. They were covered with thin, weather beaten clapboard and he estimated the last time any of them had seen any paint, Truman or Eisenhower would have been President. Of the five buildings, the bakery was the only one currently occupied. The others in the block sported broken windows and faded signs advertising an Art Shop, a cafe, and something else which he couldn’t decipher from his vantage point. They testified to forlorn hopes, broken dreams and hard-lived lives.
Across the street a small sign of modernity existed in the form of a combination food mart and gas station called “Sweet’s” and he could see some old timers sitting in chairs next to the window while someone, Harry guessed it was Sweet himself, brought them a hand-made sandwich. Kind of old fashioned. He allowed himself a bit of fantasy and imagined it wasn’t Sweet but Sweet, Jr. or Sweet the third, carrying on the family business.
To the left of gas station food mart, there were other older buildings, some occupied and some empty. Harry knew that back behind this veneer of rural Texas were residential neighborhoods of sizable bedroom communities divided into neighborhoods which served the greater San Antonio metropolitan area. He knew that the homes in those were modern and middle class. But sitting here looking at these building holding out against the march of civilization, he felt a sense of forgotten history. Behind this building stood the Bulverde Post Office, housed in a building so flimsy looking that one wondered if the next heavy rain would float it off. Painted white, he noted that underneath, the paint, the wood appeared aged. Yet it had a nice asphalt parking lot.
Further down his left across the street, he saw a caliche drive and a sign pointing to another ramshackle structure which indicated the building was a restaurant called “Mike’s In The Village”. Sam had told him that once he solved this case, he was going to take him there for dinner. He noted that while the sign appeared to be as aged as the buildings surrounding it, someone had actually painted it as recently as five or so years ago and then treated it to look ancient. Harry was surprised when Sam told him it was a gourmet restaurant and that one needed reservations if one wanted a seat on most nights. Maybe those middle class people in the surrounding neighborhoods patronized the place.
Typical rural Texas. Only a block long at the most but it had a feel to it. Some places just refuse to die.
Surprising himself with those observations, he reminded himself he wasn’t there to take in the view or to contemplate a gourmet meal he might have someday. He sat there waiting for a pilot to take him on a flight in the local area. Harry had noticed the strip on his left as he drove in. A single North-South strip with three hangars lined up on its West side and a field to the East.
The big Bulverde Airpark!
A typical strip for those weekend flyers who flew Visual Flight Rules, or VFR, and the pilots announced their takeoffs and landing on a preset frequency to avoid any air to air mishaps. Even though he had flown commercial since his retirement from the Air Force, he had felt a spasm of regret driving by, especially when he saw the Cessna 172 sitting in front of one of the hangars.
He had taken the initiative to get his Private Pilot’s License when he was in the United States Air Force Academy Preparatory School so he could convince the Air Force to place him in the fighter pilot career track once he graduated from the Academy. It worked out well. While in the Academy, he learned the Air Force had a screening program for those seeking to enter the pilot career track. So he got a big plus when he applied for the screening program and informed the officials he already had an FAA Pilots License. The Academy entered him in the Initial Flight Screening program where they sent aspiring pilots. Since he already had his private pilot’s license, he established high scores in that program.
That’s in the past, he told himself for the millionth time.
He continued to let the old buildings lull him, enjoying the feel of times gone by.
A black Suburban turned right off of Cougar Bend and headed his way. It pulled up and a man stepped down out of the truck. He walked over and as he walked, Harry noticed he had a habit of pulling on his belt near the front loops next to his belt buckle. The movement served to draw Harry’s attention to his belt buckle which Harry recognized as a replica of an Army Aviation badge.
Ralph had an easy manner and a quick smile. Harry liked him from the first moment they met. He stood about five feet six inches, trim physique, grey hair and a clipped grey mustache. Harry guessed he was somewhere north of sixty but that was hard to tell.
Two days earlier, after making arrangements for Sam to come by the gas station in New Braunfels and pick up his Mustang, he dropped by Sam’s to get the postmortem on the engine. While there, he gave Sam an update on the case.
He explained to Sam the Comal County Magistrate had failed to issue the search warrant which Harry needed to reach a resolution. He planned to accompany the Comal County Sheriff’s Lieutenant when they executed the warrant.
He told Sam he had everything figured out. When Sam pressed him for details, he begged off. He was very confident he knew exactly what happened but he needed gather one more piece of information and then confront the family. He explained he planned to rent a light plane with a pilot and do some aerial surveillance to gather some additional information to present to the magistrate. Sam said he could help.
Sam made a phone call and here he was, talking to Ralph. After explaining to Ralph what he was after, he went to the rental car and brought out the maps. They spent several minutes going over the maps Harry had brought with him.
They spent a few minutes getting to know each other. Harry learned Ralph had spent 23 years as an Army Aviator flying both helicopters and fixed wing utility aircraft and then retired to become a fixed wing commercial pilot. He had logged over 6500 hours in the Merlin Metroliner and then accumulated over 500 hours flying twin and single engine light aircraft such as the Cessna 172 they were flying today. He was proud of the fact that he had over 17,000 flight hours.
Harry would have been proud too. He knew he could never garner more flying hours since he the government had permanently grounded him from ever flying again.
Then they loaded up in Ralph’s Suburban and drove past the post office and parked behind the hangars. It turned out the 172 he saw at the front of the hangar was the one they would be using.
He helped Ralph with the preflight of the Cessna and they took off.
Flying VFR, he watched for other air traffic as they flew north over Highway 281 and then veered east when they reached the Guadalupe River. There were several residential areas which offered riverside plots and homesteads near the river. Harry was interested in one particular house located about three blocks off the water in a development called River Acres.
They made a pass at 2000 feet and Harry located the dwelling he wanted so they commenced to make several more passes. Ralph flew two passes at 1500 feet with a 30 degree right bank so he could snap some photos.
Then, they made two more passes at 1000 feet and a final pass at 500 feet while he snapped as many high resolution digital photos as he could.
When they leveled off, Ralph turned and said, “We’ve got about 30 minutes of fuel left if you want to take a turn.”
“Would be nice but I don’t have a ticket. FAA won't license me.”
“Sam mentioned something about that. You were some hotshot fighter pilot and shot down some fighters in peacetime?”
“Well, that might be true, but you know what they say, if I told you about it, I would have to kill you. I will say that if it happened, it sure as hell didn’t feel like peacetime.”
“Ha! All that aside, young fella, I can see the hunger in your eyes. All I’m saying is we can go back and land or I can goof off a little and you could satisfy some of that hunger.”
Harry smiled, “Have you ever done any aerobatics in a 172?”
“Most people say it can’t be done. You know as well as me. Not enough power and the structure might not take it.”
“Well I appreciate the offer but if I took the controls, I’d have to show you why I almost got thrown out of the Academy Initial Flight Screening program.”
“You know as well as I do that this plane is not rated for aerobatic flight. Unless you time your maneuvers just right you could rip the wings off. The plane simply is not built to withstand the g-loads beyond a certain point. But, what the heck, let’s see what you got, young fella."
“Before I get started you have to tell me how old you are. I don’t want to give you a heart attack.”
Ralph’s eyes flashed.
“Harry, I turned 80 two months ago and don’t you worry about my heart. Okay, just remember the Colin Powell Pottery Barn rule."
If you break it you buy it.
Harry took the controls, climbed to 7,500 feet and flew a due north heading. As soon as he took the control wheel, that feeling returned. The same thing he felt the first time the Instructor Pilot had taken him up and let him have the controls.. It was a feeling like no other he had ever felt and every time he touched the controls of an airplane, it returned. It was as if he had grown a new set of legs and arms because all he had to do was feel and any plane he flew responded like an extension of himself. It was true with the Cessna 172 he flew when he received his FAA Pilots License and the Diamond DA20-C1 aircraft he flew in the Academy Initial Flight Screening. The T-1s, T-38, and the AT-38s he flew in his Undergraduate Flight Training program evoked the same feeling. Then when he started flying the F-15 Eagle, the Air Force’s air superiority fighter, this feeling of congruency with the airplane blossomed and he really felt like he was an eagle.
Now, the feeling flooded into him so strong it almost overwhelmed him. He felt it so strongly that had he been walking, this tide of emotion would have bowled him over. He got it under control and relished in the delight of flying again.
It’s been so long.
On the way to altitude, he executed a few turns to acclimate himself to the plane. It took a few banks and turns for him to learn the airplane and discover any peculiarities about this particular airframe. It didn’t take him but a minute or two to reach a point where he felt that he knew this plane inside out. He had arrived at the place where he felt this aircraft was truly a part of him. He then performed a slow roll in which he kept the airplane at 7,500 feet while he rolled the airplane 360 degrees slowly around its longitudinal axis while maintaining level flight by cross-controlling the elevator and rudder inputs. He combined this action by also including a hesitation roll by stopping momentarily at the four cardinal points during the roll. Once he had become even more attuned to the feel of the airplane, he proceeded to fly a well executed barrel roll, like he had done while on one of his Initial Flight Screening flights. In performing the maneuver he demonstrated a sense of the aircraft rather than some learned skill and he was able to back off just before any adverse damage from g-loads could occur. He had almost washed out of the program because even though he had been flying solo, an Instructor Pilot flying in the area had observed him.
He has always felt the need to push every plane he flew to the limit. His mentor in the air force, Bulldog, had seen it and encouraged it until Harry could fly an F-15 fighter jet to the very limits of its capability. Bulldog had also taught him that even though he flew the same type of airplane, every plane was different and every sortie was different. He had drummed into his consciousness that every time he took the controls, he had to know the plane he flew like he knew the back of his hand. That fact enabled Harry to succeed in a life and death situation over the Iraqi-Iranian border. He knew the capability of every plane he flew; just as now, he knew the capabilities of this Cessna 172. He knew that if he had to, he could make this plane sing.
Ten minutes later, he finished and looked over.
"It's your airplane", released his hands from the controls and Ralph took over.
"That's some flying, young fellow. I'm impressed."
"You have a good feel about the plane. I've only seen it in a very few people. It's like you know just how far you can take her. Sam said you were an Eagle driver. Said you got the Air Force Cross. Must have been some flying there?"
"I was lucky. Besides I think there was some politics involved. I used a new procedure to get me out of a tight situation. I'm sure my fellow jocks would disagree about my tactics."
"What do you mean?"
" Can't really go into details. It's classified. But it involved using data links to ensure my air to air missiles flew to the target okay. You know that my fellow jocks would never admit to using help in an air to air situation."
"Hell, Harry, in the Army these days, I'm not sure they would know how to fly without data links. ‘Specially in our rotary wing birds."
"Think you'll ever get back on status?"
"Doesn't look it. Trying to focus on my new career."
"We'll, from my point of view, it's the Air Force's loss."
"We still got a few minutes; you wanna try a barrel roll?"
"You know, don't mind if I do."
Ralph replicated all of Harry’s maneuvers and added two of his own. His aerobatics complete, gas low, Ralph flew the plane back to the Bulverde strip. On the approach, he noticed Harry looking at him a little strangely. After they landed, Harry helped him refueled the plane and they pushed it into the hanger.
Harry couldn’t help but ask.
“You’ve done that before, haven’t you?”
“Sorry, Harry, that’s classified. If I tell you, someone might have to come and kill you.”
He smiled, “But I will say, once bulletproof, always bulletproof.”
Harry offered to pay for the gas but Ralph told him Sam had already taken care of it.
When they parted and Harry offered his thanks, Ralph grinned and said, "the pleasure was all mine."
Bev won’t believe me when I tell her I did aerobatics in a Cessna 172 again. First time in 30 years. Damn, I’m still bulletproof.
You can also find more Harry Miles' adventures in Harry's War on Amazon or wherever digital books are sold.