History & Industry
It was one of those rare, perfect nights, as I left work an hour behind everyone else. On the long walk out to the car, I was engulfed in the most beautiful sunset weather. It was one of those few priceless Kansas evenings, when the air is calm and clear, and the temperature just right.
Folks throughout most of America have seasons when such mellow weather is routine. But in Kansas -- where Arctic fronts collide weekly with Gulf Stream cyclones -- weather so good is a rare and special treat.
One look at the magnificent sunset sky, and I knew where I had to go: to Benton Airport, a nearby country airport, where the boys would be sure to be up and about. I jumped in my car, and zoomed eastward -- stopping halfway, momentarily, to snap this picture -- and then before the sun moved 15 minutes of longitude westward, I was there.
The welcoming, green runway-end lights were just coming on, as I drove past them, and pulled into the gravel drive of Benton's airfield. Parking the car under a drooping elm, I climbed out and started walking towards the FBO shack and hangars.
As darkness began to blanket the field, I strolled upon four guys sitting near a huge biplane. Ron, Sam, and Mike were sitting in in a circle of lawn chairs around their beautifully restored yellow-and-blue Stearman -- glowing softly in the vanishing sunset and the faint light creeping out from the nearby hangar.
Ron was buying out Mike's share, and had just come back down from the lofty blue with his grand antique showpiece, just a little after the other two had toured it through the magnificent sunset calm. I couldn't resist swapping a few words, and eavesdropping on the freewheeling hangar-flying. They were casual and comfortable, and unannoyed by the intrusion.
Another pilot quietly joined them. The chatter soon revealed that these guys were used to much faster flying machines.
One of the fellows, pestered by his friends for some of his better stories, was recounting a far away moonlit night, where astronaut John Young had awed him and a couple of other guys by pointing to the moon, while holding a beer and sighting down the barrel of his forefinger -- casually remarking "I was right there."
I heard the words "Conrad, Crippen and Young" escape my mouth, as I recalled the Apollo crew from somewhere back in the deep recesses of forgotten fascinations. The storyteller tilted his head for a moment, as if to try and recall the names, himself. "Crippen, yeah... and yeah, I think Conrad. Uh-huh."
To my delighted surprise, they offered me a beer and fetched me a chair. I declined the beer, but they followed up with a can of pop. As I sat and sipped the "bubbly," and swapped pleasantries with real pilots, I was swept into the moment, as if among old colleagues. We spoke almost the same language -- they from tons of real flying experience, me from an ounce of real flying experience, and a ton of reading and imagining and hanging around flying experience.
I punctuated their discussions and stories with a few select questions, which seemed to animate the conversation all the more. And great stories and wildly funny thoughts came tumbling forth from the gathering like excited springtime water gushing over the rocks of a mountain stream. A couple of the guys, as it developed, were ex-military, and now flying for a local bizjet manufacturer. Another was of unknown background, but obvious experience. And another was a young doctor. All had more flying experience this year than I had in my entire life.
In the faint twilight, an occasional Cessna 150 or 172 would come whirring softly down the runway a few yards away, and the guys would swap guesses as to who it was, along with the inside scoops and latest flying stories about the suspected occupants. In one such moment, as they were looking west, I looked up -- just as a brilliant meteorite punctuated the gathering night sky with a searing white exclamation point. I didn't realize until I got home how fitting it was.
The big, Nordic-looking storyteller, who'd been with moonwalker Young, got up to contribute his beer to the bushes. When he was out of earshot, his fellow flight-suiter leaned over to me and softly confided that "he's an astronaut, you know. Been up three times!"
"Of course," one of the guys chuckled, barely concealing his envy, "he doesn't fly the thing, so he's not a real astronaut." A round of chuckles made it clear that they all found the joke on themselves, as all clearly envied him his most-lofty status among pilots.
Yet, as he returned, the big blond spoke only of flying military birds, bizjets and small jetliners. The only hints of astronaut life in his conversation were a handful of stories about lots of liesure time in a T-38, the Air Force's sexy supersonic trainer jet -- in which NASA also trains astronauts. Nothing at all about having spent more time in space than almost anyone alive. And no one else breathed a word about it.