THE DALHART INCIDENT
Flying the wide span of west Texas plains can shake your confidence. Not from the endless empty square miles of land (embellished only by the odd cattle tank and small shed – where are people?) but from the fast, frightening growth of towering cumulonimbus storm clouds, popping up like colossal cauliflowers. Their energy plainly threatens your future. One can tear you apart. The horrendous updraft draws you in, sucks you up, breaks you up and spits parts out the top. We remember iconic test pilot Scott Crossfield, pilot of the X-15, and his shocking demise in a ripping thunderstorm over Georgia. When the storm passed, parts were found scattered over a ten mile area.
Clammy palms come with visions of torn wings and spiraling fuselage, images that ooze into your mind as you reroute yourself to dodge them. FSS had said, “Possibility of scattered showers.” Right. Weave between? They’re well-spaced. Rule of thumb: “Give a 20-mile berth.” Well, they’re probably forty miles apart. But swiftly expanding.
Dalhart is now nearby. We flight-planned for it, we’ll make it. We had called FSS to extend our flight plan. Unplanned off-track wandering had added time.
We touched down in the scruffy terrain of a yet mostly unimproved west Texas desert community. One runway was weedy and unused. Thing is, pilots generally take the strip facing into the wind. The other, not favoring the prevailing wind, was neglected and overgrown.
Dalhart’s surrounding landscape since has filled with queer-looking platters of green… see those? The result of circular irrigation. We are bemused. Back in the day of our adventure when flying west for a niece’s San Diego wedding, it was still very rough country. Only a few of those whimsical round fields.
We had a welcoming committee. The airport manager and a curious side-kick came out with raised eyebrows and scolding words.
“Flight Service has called looking for you – you are an hour and a half overdue!” Typical Flight Service. A lazy government worker had taken his time passing along my flight plan extension. The service was so infamously inefficient that pilots rarely used it. They didn’t get much traffic at Dalhart – the odd rancher and whatnot. We stirred them up, brightening their day. Only a few other planes, bleaching on the periphery.
So – dinner and an overnight. We’d be off before dawn with much distance yet to cover. Eschewing iffy enchiladas, we had steak. Why not? It was Texas. Should be safe. But later in bed, I felt my gorge rise, and I miserably off-loaded it. So much for strange places. Hal battled his back. Not smart.
Next morning in the dark predawn, we taxied cautiously towards a possible runway – the weedy one, it turned out, our taxi light giving faint guidance. In rolling for takeoff the propeller mowed a path, hurtling bits of loco weed or whatever past our windows. Putting on flaps for a quick boost up into ground effect, we left the weeds and climbed into the pale dawn, heading towards the Sangre de Cristo mountains. They were a glorious sunrise red. Hal felt lousy and didn’t care.
As we passed westward over more dry flat lands, the sun came up. He made use of a de facto H.E.R.E. bag – the pilot’s cockpit Human Element Range Extender – in this instance, a ziplock bag lined with a paper towel. That helped a little. It went out the window onto a rattlesnake-infested land. Probably wasn’t the first. Maybe it’s still there, decomposing in the tumbleweeds. Maybe scorpions like plastic.
Soon we were looking for the nearest airstrip for the rumbling bowels. Turned out Sandia was right there, off the nose. “Sandia,” to me, meant mysterious Air Force activities, hearkening back to my A.F. brat youth. Deferential comments like, “He’s off to Sandia.”
Never mind that. We landed, rolled onto a taxiway – and found a fly-in community. A woman came out onto her porch and called offering help. It was still very early, before most people were up and about. I bellowed my husband’s problem, she swept wide the door, and he trotted over. The “trots.” So embarrassing.
However, the issue wasn’t there resolved. Poor guy cowered in bed for all the wedding festivities. He got “atta boys” and kudos for the try, though. That, and for the wedding check.
Did you know that sandia means watermelon? Sniff.
So much for the cryptic reference to secret Air Force R and D activities.