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Black Hawks And White Gliders

By Bob Holiday

On day two of the Western Seniors Contest, I found myself low over the Marana airfield turnpoint with rapidly weakening lift and over 50 miles remaining in the task. I decided I would continue to Ed's field and get another 20 points, since I found I could limp along in the light lift. My radio call was answered by another pilot who confirmed my intentions and then suggested a field 2 miles to the west of Ed's. I checked my sectional and found a notation for "Picacho ANG". After experiecing an area of greater sink, I quickly dialed the tower frequency and set up for a straight-in approach. As I was calling on the radio, I realized the large "H" at both ends of each of the four runways meant it was a helicopter field. For a flatlander from Kansas these paved areas looked like heaven compared to the alternative, the rugged desert surroundings.

I used my short field landing routine and the Mosquito rewarded me with plenty of room to spare. As I raised the canopy, I looked around expecting someone to come out, since the door to the tower was open. I walked over to the open door and noticed a large fire truck, also with the doors open. I thought surely someone was home and as I investigated further, I realized I had landed at Picacho Airstage, a training airfield for Army National Guard Blackhawk helicopters, and I was alone at this isolated base.

My first attempt to reach contest headquarters on my cell phone involved having to use my VISA card number (service wouldn't accept my AT&T card) and then I got to listen to the Estrella fax machine because they had forgotten to flip the switch. After that fiasco, and the fact that I had just announced my credit card number to the world, I was just plain disgusted; the beep in my ear cost me $12.05, and I was unable to reach anyone. I decided that the pilot I had talked with earlier would send my crew- an erroneous assumption.

I had seen a road nearby as I was landing and decided to hitchhike to civilization. It was then that I noticed the barbed wire, much longer than the type we use in Kansas; these barbs were enhanced, long and intimidating. After attempting to climb over the gate in the middle, I realized just how high the gate was-scary.

I moved to plan B; I decided to call 911. The people at 911 had no idea where Picacho Airstage was, but agreed to contact the Army National Guard and told me to call back in 5 minutes. After summoning some additional courage, I scaled the gate near the hinges and suddenly felt free. Reading the signs on the other side of the gate, I began to wonder if all those "NO Tresspassing" signs could mean trouble for me and "SAM", my glider; This was obviously a secure government facility, and it was Monday at 5:30 p.m.

Walking to the paved road where there was another gate, unlocked, and more "Keep Out" signs, I made another call to 911. They informed me they were working the phones and hadn't had any luck reaching the appropriate persons, but they promised to keep trying. A few cars passed me as I walked toward town, but they ignored my attempts to thumb a ride; I found out later that there is a prison nearby, and the highway is posted with signs warning against picking up hitch hikers.

As I hiked the few miles to town, I phoned 911 several times and they finally assigned a nice young lady to my case, We talked about soaring and I encouraged her to go to Estrella for a demonstration flight. Unfortunately, there was no new progress to report by the time I had arrived in the town of Picacho. I was beginning to wonder if I would be flying the next day.

I located a pay phone and called the second number on the list for the contest, and they sounded relieved that I was OK. It was at that point that I remembered the tickets for the barbeque chicken dinner were in my pocket, and I was going to miss the FOOD! I talked to Bernie, my crewman, and arranged a meeting point. Next, I called 911 and the young lady sounded excited. She said she was glad that I had called, as she had contacted a man who could unlock the gate. I was to contact her at 911 when "my crew and I were at the gate ready to load up". I imagined some fellow sitting at home, watching TV and playing with his small children, waiting for us to call him.

Bernie and another pilot arrived at 9:45 and as we drove to the site, I called 911 only to be told that I should call a different number if it wasn't an emergency. I suddenly had this vision of my glider being held hostage for days with no chance of flying in the contest, but after pleading with the woman who answered the phone, she put on my "guardian angel". She promised she would call and arrange to have the gate unlocked, and I thanked her profusely.

We arrived at the gate shortly and sat quietly in the darkness waiting for the headlights of what I imagined would be a local who happened to drive a pickup truck and also be in the Guard. After several minutes I noticed red and green lights moving near the sight, and then realized they came out in helicopters instead of a car! We quickly opened the first gate and proceeded to the locked area of the facility. Arriving at the gate, I flashed my headlights repeatedly to let them know I was there. After several minutes of watching the red and green lights, I noticed that one of them had landed right behind my trailer! A voice in the back of mind said, "Put both your hands on the steering wheel NOW!" Suddenly, a nice man in a flight helmet, complete with night vision goggles, appeared wearing a flak jacket and a big smile. He held out the keys and said "I'm here to open the gate". I suddenly felt a combination of relief and happiness.

We drove directly to the glider and made quick work of disassembly, thanks to a spotlight from the Blackhawk, focused on our work...The scene reminded me of some movie script: "The helicopters are flying around in the dark making their beating noises, and the people are scurrying around on the ground beneath their illumination".

Loading completed, we drove toward the entrance where our gate-keeper had already landed in the desert and was at the gate waiting for us to leave. I thanked him again and again, and told him we would be glad to provide some light for him while he was re-locking the gate. He just gave a little smile and pointed toward his night-vision goggles as he said, "I've got these".

I had a picnic of the BBQ chicken dinner Bernie packed for me as we headed back to Estrella. We were all smiles as we laughed about how much that glider retrieve cost us taxpayers!


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Published and maintained by Jerry Boone, Hutchinson, KS