Friday, July 7, 2006

2006 AYA Air Race...Did Someone Say "Secret Service"?

2006 AYA Air Race...Did Someone Say "Secret Service"?

I think a lot of folks heard Ron Levy mention the Secret Service at the Fredericksburg AYA convention and/or saw a reference here on the 'Gang, and wondered what that was all about. It's a great tale.

Andy Elliott set up a nice fast race course: from Fredericksburg, out 36 miles to Kestrel, with the finish 29 miles out to Johnson City Airport. The reason that the race did not terminate back at T82 was a clever resolution of a difficult logistics problem, that being how to have 15-18 airplanes overfly the field at a low altitude to score a finish while simultaneously recovering them for landing. Plus, the 15-mile leg back to Fredericksburg gave the racers ample time to pull back and cool the rockets and coordinating flow back into the pattern (and removing the need for the Air Boss Team to get involved.) Great job, Andy!

So, how does the Secret Service fit in here? Well, you may recognize the name of the finish-line  airport, Johnson City. "Johnson" as in "Lyndon Baines Johnson", as in the private airfield of one Lady Bird Johnson, someone still alive and kicking and under the protection of that particular government agency. The same private airfield with a nice big home at the south end of the field, the home that held the moniker of "The Texas White House" for a few years back in the 60's.

I think you see the picture developing.

What motivated our esteemed Air Race Director to consider that airport as a waypoint for the event, let alone for a high-speed, low-altitude finish pass is beyond me, but I suspect it had something to do with some kind of adult beverage. Regardless, I'm told he contacted the family's airport/ranch management to get permission, and no doubt to his surprise it was granted! Waypoint volunteer Dan Schmitz had to jump through a series of hoops including background checks and getting special approvals and instructions in order to land there; when we heard during the pre-race briefing that Dan needed waypoint assistance at a private airport that only about 5-6 people in the entire world had permission to land on, Geoff Hickey and I were all over that! We jumped into Dan's Cheetah and off we went to 0TE7, Johnson City Airport.

As we approached the airport, all was quiet (as you'd expect.) Dan made the requisite pattern calls – seemed kinda strange to do that at a place no one uses much – but he made a greaser of a landing on that 6000-foot downward-sloping runway; he taxied back and shut down. As you can imagine, the place was abandoned. There is a small T-hanger on the end of the runway with various farm implements and a small tractor scattered about; there was some type of barns 100 yards or so away but the place was otherwise totally empty and ghostly quiet except for the cows and horses. So, we milled around, waiting for airplanes to arrive.

About a half hour later I thought I heard an airplane; we stopped to listen and soon saw a diesel-powered pickup truck driving up the runway over the mid-field horizon. Understanding we were at a private field of a former President of the United States and the current property of his Wife Of A Former President of the United States, Goeff and I looked at each other as the truck slowly approached, heading right towards us. I felt around my pockets and realized I had forgotten my ID! I turned to Dan and asked, "Now, you're sure you got permission to be here, right Dan?" Dan nodded enthusiastically. "Did you tell them you would be bringing passengers...?" Dan didn't nod so enthusiastically...

The truck stopped about 20 feet away; both Geoff and I turned to Dan and said, "You're up, buddy!" Dan crept forward to talk to the obviously-unimpressed man inside the truck; we heard "...having problems...?" and "...private property..." and "...not supposed to be here..."; things like that. We saw Dan scrambling for his kneeboard, looking for information (does the Secret Service give out hall passes?) and making unconvincing attempts to assure the guy we weren't Undesireables...

During one of the convention dinner presentations Ron Levy thanked Geoff and me for talking the Secret Service out of shooting down his airplane. Thanks Ron, but I can assure you that Geoff and I were, at this moment, much more interested in looking for ditches to dive into and/or avenues of escape as opposed to the well-being of a bunch of inbound airplanes. I'd'a been sorry and all if y'all got shot down, but trust me: it's Dan the Man you need to be huggin', not Geoff and me...

Anyway, after a few minutes of this bantering back and forth with Dan (sure seemed like half an hour) the guy visibly relaxed and we knew that Dan had come through! Geoff and I abandoned our plans of escape and tentatively approached the truck. Turns out the guy was a pilot; in fact he was Barney Hulett, Vietnam pilot, later part of the helicopter unit in the 60's that served the White House, then later as LBJ's personal pilot after LBJ left the presidency. I recognized his name and stated so and he lightened up even more; he even gave me an autographed copy of his book about his experiences ("Twenty Bosses"). When we explained to him what we were doing, and that we were about to get 15 or so airplanes passing down the runway at high speed, his eyes lit up.

Our conversation was soon broken by the initial radio calls of the lead racers, and we scurried to the end of the runway. Mr. Hulett joined us as the airplanes passed by full-tilt at near-ground-level, more than a couple of them low enough to touch had we the desire to reach up. It didn't take long before it was all over and Mr. Hulett retired to his truck while offering Dan some quick tips for departure. Soon thereafter – delayed only by my having to jump out of the airplane again to retrieve my almost-forgotten hat and convention badge – we departed the LBJ ranch and were back in Fredericksburg. Where Dan made another greaser of a landing. Show off.

But that's not the end of the story.

Seems that as soon as airplanes began flying over Mrs. Former President of the United States' home at 0TE7 (she was not in residence that day) some Secret Service agents stationed at the ranch began to wonder just WITF all the ruckus was down at the normally-private and -peaceful runway. They called San Antonio Approach, who referred them to the Fredericksburg FBO, who then referred them to Charlie Adams. As I understand it, someone approached Charlie with a note that the Secret Service wanted to talk to him (I could just see his initial reaction: "what did Roscoe do now??"). Fortunately for our supposed-interlopers on the ground at 0TE7, Charlie was able to convince said agents that an invasion was NOT in progress and that everyone involved had permission to be there. Also fortunately for our supposed-interlopers, we didn't know about it, 'cause Geoff and I would have had to re-visit our escape plans (we probably would have taken Dan with us that time.)

In the end, all went well and everyone had a fun adventure and escaped bodily harm. Although, I really have to wonder if there aren't, deep down in the computer systems in Washington DC, rifle scope digital photographs of Greg (and Dan!) relieving themselves on the side of LBJ's T-hanger at 0TE7...