On The Wings Of Steel Angels


TThe alarm on my phone goes off. I have no sleep to blink or rub from my eyes because it’s only been two hours since laying down. The time is 1:15am on a Saturday morning and while I’m filled with anticipation for the coming day, it feels as if 50lb weights are strapped to each of my limbs. I stumble downstairs, having slept on the sofa upstairs to spare my wife the annoyance of being awakened so early by an alarm, and start getting ready for the 4 1/2 hour drive ahead of me.

I curse whoever came up with the brilliant idea of putting Halloween on the day before MY big event. I had the plan all laid out. I was going to bed by 9:00pm to get at least four hours of sleep before waking up at fifteen past stupid. But when you have little kids, for some reason their joy takes precedence over your need to remain awake to prevent death on the road in the middle of the night. As it was, my children were having such a great time passing out candy to roughly 1 billion trick or treaters in our neighborhood, I didn’t get to bed until 10:30pm. Then true to form I couldn’t stop thinking about what needed to be done or packed or not forgotten in a few hours.

With everything loaded, I cracked open my rocket fuel (Rockstar energy drink, fruit punch flavored, yummy) and pulled out of the driveway. Time: 1:30am. First stop, San Antonio. You see, I don’t do things like this alone. I make sure someone is there to suffer with me. And keep me awake so we don’t “pass” in a fiery inferno of twisted metal, plastic and photography equipment. Strangely enough, there was good music on the radio that early so the drive to the Sea World area wasn’t so unpleasant. At approximately 2:00am I pulled into my fellow idiot’s driveway, let’s call him Frank. As planned, Frank was ready to go at 2:00am; he loaded his equipment and we were off.

Where you may ask? Houston. To what end? An air show. Stop laughing and let me explain.

Frank and I are huge aviation fans. My dad flew B-52 bombers for the Air Force and I grew up around his love of aircraft. Obviously it rubbed off. I had (actually still have) books and toys and posters and t-shirts with planes on them. I built scale models and went to air shows at Randolph and Lackland in San Antonio. It’s been a lifelong obsession of all things aviation. Frank’s background was similar. Even though we’re much older, we still turn into little kids when we see or get around airplanes, and for years San Antonio air shows have been as reliable as the sun rising in the morning. Until two years ago.

Frank and I had been planning on attending that year’s air show for months. We had been before but this time was going to be different. This time around it was going to be just us. No wives. No kids. Just a couple of professionally amateur photographer plane nuts renting some photo gear that was waaay above our pay grades and spending the day at our wonderland. Then roughly a month before the show, the sequester was put into effect.

You know that thing that was so horrible everyone thought the powers that be would never let it happen? Well, it happened. And as a result, it grounded all “non-essential” military flying which included the flight demo teams, Blue Angels and Thunderbirds. And since half of the air show is other military aircraft, it put the skids on the whole event.

I was devastated. Truly crushed. Tell a child Santa isn’t real. Or that their dog died. That’s how I felt. But this trip was going to be our vindication. So what if San Antonio, a city with two of the largest Air Force training facilities (Randolph is a primary stopping point for pilot training and one of the places my dad trained at in the 70s), wasn’t allowed an air show? So what if the show was in Houston and we had to buy tickets (San Antonio shows were always free)? We didn’t care. We were going.

Maybe it was because we were excited about what was going to happen that day. Maybe it was because it was the wee hours of the morning. Whatever the reason, the drive, which I had made just two weeks prior but in the daytime, flew by. Before we knew it was 5:30am and we were driving through Katy and only 30 minutes from where the show was being held. So close we could almost smell the jet fuel.

After navigating the stupidity that is the highway system in Houston, we arrived at our destination. Almost. Since it was 6:00am and I had been driving since 1:30am and only on two and a half hours of sleep, I wasn’t really using common sense or reading the context clues. I saw a gate that said Ellington Field with a line of cars going through. That must be where I go. I see military guards looking at IDs of the cars in front of me. Context clue ignored. Didn’t seem that out of the ordinary. I mean, there were military aircraft at the show and that particular field is part military part civilian. As I pulled up to the guards I handed my driver’s license to the MP who was probably 10 years younger than me. He took the ID and stopped.

You know that look on someone’s face when they smell something a little weird and can’t figure out where it came from? That’s the look on this kid’s face. “What are you doing here?” “Going to the air show.” “Do you have any documentation?” “I have the tickets.” “Sir you’re in the wrong place.” Oh. Ummm. Stupid damn GPS and zero sleep. One MP, the one who asked for documentation was not so friendly. I can’t blame him. I was wasting his time and holding up the growing line of cars trying to get through the gate that were really supposed to be there. The other MP, the one with my ID instructed me to make a U turn and get my ID on the other side of the station. He then kindly told us where to go. No, it wasn’t hell. We set off in the direction where he said we would find signs. There were no signs.

Twenty minutes of driving, stopping, asking for more directions, stopping, thinking we found the spot, then thinking better, we FINALLY made it to the parking area. We were jazzed. Hopped out of the car and… holy jeez it’s cold!! Cold and windy. After a great 15 second debate, we agreed it was best to sit in the car and try to nap until the gates opened. We were only two hours early. Why not? Frank was snoring in 5 minutes. I was still hopped up on my rocket fuel and couldn’t keep my eyes closed.

After getting spooked by some tow trucks that showed up close to us we decided to find yet another parking spot, grabbed all our gear and went to stand in line out in the cold.

When the gates finally opened we bolted to get our spot along the fence line for prime, unobstructed airplane viewing awesomeness. Actually, I bolted. Frank drives like an old woman and walks like one too. We found our spot, laid claim, and set up our gear. Then we waited.

Time flows at the same pace no matter what is happening. It’s our circumstance and perception that causes it to speed up or slow down. And when you’re wearing shorts and a light pull over fleece jacket, facing into wind with a chill of about 45 degrees… time practically stands still.

To pass the time, per our original plan, one of us stayed at our spot along the fence, while the other ran around like a kid in a candy store taking photos of the static displays. For those who aren’t familiar with air show speak, those are the planes on display that do not actually fly during the show. When it was my turn to go play, there was really only one plane I was after and I wasn’t sure what was going to happen when I got there.

I mentioned earlier my dad flew B-52s, and there happened to be one on display at the show. I’m always excited to see one in person, but this time was different. On January 1 of this year my dad passed away. Even though he had been in and out of the hospital for most of 2013, for me it was unexpected. Seeing the plane that had brought us together and been the source of so many memories was going to be tough.

As I approached the beautiful behemoth, I was filled with the feeling of seeing a loved one after a long absence. There was no sadness. Only a friendly, familiar warmth as I approach and ran my hand along the gray riveted metal that makes up one of the engines. I walked around slowly, making sure to look not only through the camera viewfinder but with my own eyes unobstructed by glass and plastic. I notice details I had never seen before. A ladder up to the cockpit shows me a view I had also not seen before. The co-pilot’s seat. That’s where dad would have sat. I realized how small the space is. With a plane that big, it’s easy to think the crew has tons of room to move around during a flight, plenty of room to get up a move around and get the blood flowing. I guess that explains why he once told a story of almost getting frost bite on his toes during a mission through Canada and Alaska.

I climbed into the seat, slowly put my hands on the yoke, and just stared at the marvel of it all. Countless dials and switches. Levers and lights and buttons. I held on firmly and just looked at my hands. This is what my dad’s hands looked like while holding a virtually identical yoke. Yes, I’m a grown man sitting in a B-52, and at the same time, I was a little kid at that moment. So many stories came back to me, and more emotion than I care to admit. Maybe that’s why I came to the air show to begin with; it brought me a little closer to my dad. This was HIS plane, and sitting in this tiny co-pilot’s seat was about as close to him as I could be on this cold Saturday morning.

I walked back down the steps, making room for all the kids clamoring to get a view inside the huge jet, and did a final walk around before turning to head back to my chair along the fence before the show and the flying officially starts.

The day officially starts and the planes begin to fly. WWII warbirds, acrobatic planes that make you glad you’re the one with both feet on the ground, a fly-by of a P-51 Mustang and a German ME-262 (the first jet airplane to enter any military service), some Vietnam era jets and then the grand finale: The Navy Blue Angels.

If you have never seen this group perform you’re missing out. The skill that is demonstrated in precision handling jets traveling at 400mph is incredible. The military uses these groups, Blue Angels and Thunderbirds, as recruiting tools. Who wouldn’t want to sign up after seeing fighter jets fly 18” apart while going REALLY fast? And that speed makes for a fun challenge when taking photos. Between the two of us, Frank and I probably took about 2,000 images just in the 20 minutes the Blue Angels were flying. Thank goodness for digital cameras.

After the smoke and crowds had cleared we made our way back to the car. It was now roughly 6:00pm and we were beat. It’s easy to say photographers have an easy, glamorous job. But you try it and see how easy it is to carry 20lbs of camera equipment all day while trying to take good photos. Not as easy as it may look. AND we still had to drive back home.

Frank and I got the adventure we wanted. As admitted aeronautic nuts, we were more than satisfied to leave with memory cards full of images and the smell of jet fuel all over the interior of the car. San Antonio might get an air show in the future, or maybe not. It doesn’t really matter, I suppose. We’ll be there, wherever it is we must go. We’ll go for the planes, and for the images that they’ll give us. For me, I’ll go for the exhilaration of the show itself, but I’ll also run my hands along the controls of a B-52 while I sit in the co-pilot’s seat.

And I’ll simply smile.