Air-Minded: Nostalgia

I came across a neat photo of a former home:

Company town, military style

That, right there, is where I spent the first four years of my flying career: Vance Air Force Base in Enid, Oklahoma. I was there for a year of pilot training, followed by three more as an instructor pilot, teaching new lieutenants to fly. That was in the mid 1970s; this photo’s far more recent. The training aircraft, for one thing, have changed. In my time students spent the first six months learning to fly the T-37 Tweet, the second six learning to fly the supersonic T-38 Talon. Well, we’re still flying those 60-year-old Talons — the closest jet in the photo, the two-tone gray job, is one — but the other trainers you see are a T-1 Jayhawk and two T-6 Texan IIs.

Still, I’d recognize that base no matter what. The three parallel north/south runways, the ramp and hangars, the parade grounds and athletic fields, base housing, BX & commissary, offices, classrooms, simulator facilities. Most of the buildings in my day were white-painted wood structures dating from World War II; it looks like many have been replaced. And look at that ramp, with those big white aircraft shelters!  Our jets sat out in the open, row after row of them, exposed to sun, wind, rain, snow, and the occasional tornado.

Out between the runways, I think I can glimpse the RSUs — runway supervisory units — where I spent a fair amount of time as an instructor. These were semi-buried structures, small control tower-like greenhouses the only part sticking up above ground, manned by qualified instructor pilots whenever student training was in progress, checking every landing aircraft with binoculars to make sure the studs had remembered to put their wheels down. We had radios to call them if they forgot, flare guns to fire into the air if they ignored the radio call.

The grassy spaces between runways hold at least one creek and an abundance of wildlife, a virtual nature preserve where humans and hunters are not allowed. Nesting birds were and no doubt still are a problem, but I don’t recall a single animal strike, and there were a lot of four-legged critters out there. Once, driving out to man an RSU with another instructor pilot, tower radioed a request: would we move a turtle off one of the runways? It turned out to be a gigantic snapping turtle. My buddy grabbed a set of wheel chocks from the bed of the pickup — two yellow blocks of wood connected by a four-foot length of rope — and tossed one block onto the concrete in front of the snapper, which bit into it and wouldn’t let go. Holding the other block, he hoisted it off the ground and dangled it into the back of the truck. We drove across the grass to the creek between the two outer runways and left the turtle there, still clamped onto the chock. He was welcome to it!

Unique to Vance AFB when I was assigned there: civilian contractors, not uniformed airmen, maintained and repaired our aircraft. The beauty part of that was that they all lived in Enid and didn’t get reassigned every three years, as military personnel do. The result: they knew their shit. I believe this is still the case at Vance today, but other training bases may have adopted the practice as well.

I had a theory back then that the Air Force chose locations like Enid for training bases to minimize off-duty distractions. The theory couldn’t stand up to scrutiny, however; while most pilot training bases likewise called small towns home, one, Williams Field, was in Phoenix, Arizona, which even then was a rockin’ town. And though Willie’s gone and forgotten now, some lucky student pilots today train at Randolph AFB in San Antonio, Texas, another fun city with plenty of things to do.

But you know what, Donna and I really did come to love Enid, 3.2 beer and all, our first home in the Air Force. Our daughter Polly, an authentic Okie, is testament to that!

back to the Air-Minded Index

3 thoughts on “Air-Minded: Nostalgia

  • I was stationed at Ft Sill, Oklahoma, for six months from late 1970 into early 1971 for counter battery artillery training. It still featured those fire-trap two-story WWII barracks that were designed to last a year or two.
    What sticks with me is the freezing cold winters, blazing summers and the prairie wind that never stopped. I just assumed the military built bases in places so extremely miserable to toughen up the weak recruits. What the Army called ‘valuable training’- anything uncomfortable, tiring, boring, dangerous, humiliating or silly.
    Me and my buddy Raymond Kenny Crain would escape OK every weekend pass and drive to Denton near Dallas for action. He knew some uninhibited North Texas State nursing students and I got to tag along as wingman.
    They once took us to Parkland Hospital, where president Kennedy was pronounced dead, to give us a tour of the cadaver room. Now that’s a hot date. They kept pointing out how the poor guy died, poking at liver and lights. But I just noticed his tats and constructed his life story from them. Guess I’m not clinical enough for the medical field, good thing I got into computer nerdism.
    Weird that the North American Texan (aka AT-6, SNJ-6, AT-16 [Lend-Lease to USSR], Harvard, Yale) has the same T-6 designation as the new Beechcraft (Raytheon, Pilatus) Texan II. Confusing. I believe the original Texan was very seldom referred to by its official name, not sure about the Texan II.
    Tod recently posted…Univox Hi-Flyer Piccolo Bass Project: Mid-term ReportMy Profile

  • Tod, I don’t know anyone in the UPT biz these days, but I think they just call it the T-6. Certainly not the Texan, or the Texan II. When I was an instructor at Vance, we had students fly approaches to Ft. Sill to show them how easy it is to glom onto the wrong runway when there’s more than one: Ft Sill was to the left, as I recall; the Lawton airport, with its own north/south runway, was offset just a couple of miles to the right. There are a lot of places with setups like that, and it’s an easy mistake to make.

  • Also: single instructors at Vance would keep an eye on the nurse training schedule at Sheppard AFB and try to stop over there on their students’ weekend cross-country flight. All USAF nurses trained there (probably still do) and they’d graduate a class every month or so. Friday night at the Sheppard O’Club on graduation day was the place to be if you wanted to meet some very enthusiastic nurses! Not saying I ever did it (he lied).

Leave a Reply

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge