chapter 46

Frio Strip

    One summer I borrowed a mixing rig from Dealin' Don and set up a new landing strip over in the eastern part of Frio County.

    The beauty of that new location was that I had laid it out along one end of the smoothest bermuda grass field I ever drove across in a pick-up truck. The farmer who owned that field had scraped it flat the previous winter with a big Case tractor and one of those scrapers used to terrace irrigation ditches. By summertime, the bermuda had formed a nice thick coverage that was like landing an airplane on velvet.

    To top it all off, there was a little farm pond on the northern edge of that nice flat field, and I set up my mixing rig by that pond. I extended a three-quarter inch PVC pipe out to the center of that pond on floats, and equipped it with a strainer and one-way check valve. When I got ready to operate off that strip, all I had to do was fire up a gasoline pump and pump water out of that pond. Not having to truck water to an airstrip was always a chance to save money.

    And there was something else about that little strip that really made me like it.  Just to the edge of that stock tank, not more than 100 feet from where I parked my airplane, was a big old gnarled-up Live Oak tree that must have been 400 years old.  The first time I ever saw that tree I had an immediate vision of sitting under those sprawling limbs in a lawn chair and eating my mid-day meal.

    I went to a lot of trouble setting up that strip. I had several farms over in that area that I worked pretty regularly, and I was convinced that that little Frio strip was going to make me a lot of money before the season was over.

    There was only one problem with that air strip.  From the point where I would begin my take off roll to where I had to fly over the high-line wires along that little farm & ranch road, was only about 1000 feet. When I first inspected that bermuda grass field I planned to line up my strip at an angle across the field.  That would have given me plenty of room to operate, but then I discovered a long rocky out-cropping meandering across that field. I knew that if I was going to use that field, I was going to have to roll across the short end and climb out over those wires.

    After studying the situation, I decided that I wouldn't have any problem climbing out over those wires if I kept my loads down to about 100 gallons. As it turned out, that was all wistful thinking on my part.

    The first load I hauled off the Frio strip was made one cool morning.  Just to be safe, I only loaded on about 75 gallons.  On that first load I got over those wires comfortably, but I was a little concerned how that old Pawnee was going to climb out when the day got hotter, especially if I put on 100 gallons. After about half-a-dozen loads it was plain to see that hauling 100 gallons was going to be out of the question.  By two o'clock that first afternoon, with the thermometer bumping 110 degrees and the density altitude headed toward the stratosphere, it was plain that even getting an empty airplane off that strip was going to be a risky operation.

    But by that time I had really fallen in love with that little air strip.  It was a joy to land on that soft bermuda grass turf, and that little pond with it big old Live Oak was just too much for me to turn my back on.  It was plain to me what we were going to have to do.

    There was a lot of brush and small trees growing along the fence directly beneath that power line at the end of the strip. We got out an axe and a machete and went to work along that fence line. We cut out a 75 foot wide section of brush at the end of the airstrip right where I had been struggling to climb out over those wires.

    From that time on, every time I took off I would just fly under the high-line wires at the end of the airstrip and make a leisurely climb-out over the field on the other side of the road. It was easy to fly the aircraft through that slot with trees on either wing tip, a barbed wire fence beneath the tires, and a set of high-line wires passing just above the vertical stabilizer. Slipping through that slot was no big deal. Any crop-duster pilot worth his salt can do that sort of thing all day long.

    With this new plan of operation, I went right back to hauling 130 gallons, but it was still a sticky operation. That airplane would get off the ground okay, but once the tires were about two feet off the grass she wouldn't gain any more altitude until the airspeed increased another 10 mph or so. Until the speed of the air across the airfoil increased, the wing would just ride along on ground effect, that bubble of air compressed between the wing and the ground. A heavy airplane howling along on a bubble of hot, turbulent air was a clumsy and unresponsive flying machine, and it took extreme control movements to make it behave. Until the airspeed built up, it was a handful to control, and every time I aimed that airplane through that narrow slot it took my undivided attention to keep from having a major catastrophe.

    And then, after all my planning and preparation, I began to realize that there was another problem I had not foreseen. The problem was that little farm road just across the fence. Each time I brought a load off that runway, I crossed over that farm road about four feet above the asphalt. This was not high enough for me to see over the tree line that extended off to the west.

    If a vehicle came down that road from the east I could easily see it a good half-mile before it crossed the flight path of my aircraft. But if a vehicle approached from the west, trees prevented me from seeing it until it was only about 150 feet from my slot.

    Being blind to traffic approaching from the west didn't bother me at first.  That farm and ranch road hardly had any traffic on it at all, and the chances of me encountering an automobile in the few brief seconds I was over that road were remote.  "What are the odds.......," I thought?

    But I was the worrying kind, and as the days went by this problem was really starting to nag at me.  I would sit there in my loaded airplane, wait for my ground crew to unhook the loading hose, and try to imagine if there was some farmer approaching along that road behind that scrawny little line of trees.  As I would slide open the throttle and roll off along that bermuda grass field, my eyes would be straining to catch a glimpse of any movement beyond that distant tree line.

    But I just kept pushing that worry out of my mind.  The Frio airstrip was turning out to be a real plus to my operation.  By cutting down aircraft ferry time, and not having to haul water to my mixing rig, I could see where I was saving a good solid one hundred dollar bill every day I operated off that strip.  And I was starting to like that big Live Oak tree more and more every day.

    I must have flown 80 or 90 loads off that strip without experiencing any traffic problems. But nothing good lasts forever, and one hot summer afternoon, sitting right in the middle of a screaming, shaking, overloaded airplane not three feet off the ground and about 100 yards from that narrow slot, I spotted an old Diamond-T flatbed truck with a load of watermelons come poking into view from behind that line of trees.

    Strangely enough, my mind did not immediately jump to the task of trying to figure out how to deal with this unfortunate turn of events. It wasted several split seconds in mournful disgust at the rapidly deteriorating situation.

    "What am I doing here," my mind sighed? At that moment I had an overwhelming desire to be sitting in a lawn chair underneath the sprawling branches of that big old Live Oak tree.

    But as the instants flashed by, I realized that I could not sit there all day and muse on the malicious behavior of fate. My first thought was that I was just barely far enough ahead of that truck to pass across the roadway and miss the hood ornament by a good 40 feet. But an instant later I had my doubts. I knew that there was no way to abort the take off. I had much too much speed and weight to bring the aircraft to a stop before I got to that fence.

    I also knew that there was no way to lift that loaded airplane over the high-line wires, and no place to go either left or right. There was only one thing left to do: the emergency dump handle, the crop-duster's last resort when things got downright hopeless.

    My left hand moved from the throttle to the dump handle, and I slammed it to the max-open position. In an instant, a thousand pounds of farm chemicals fell from the airplane onto the dusty airstrip, and I soared over that high-line like an ICBM.

    That was the kind of incident that left crop-duster pilots with funny twitches long before they grew old.

    I abandoned the Frio strip reluctantly. It had been the loveliest little airstrip I had ever set up, and it had been the perfect location to support the farms along the eastern edge of Frio County.

    But that quiet little voice of reason cautioned against the further tempting of fate. It was the same little voice that often scolded me about the foolish way in which I was burning up the days of the only life I would ever have.

    I had made a long habit of ignoring that quiet little voice of reason, but in the matter of the Frio Strip, it put up the winning argument. That little voice pointed out that the Frio Strip was too short for a safe operation even if there hadn't been the problem of conflicting highway traffic. It also reminded me that that load of chemicals had cost me nearly $150 dollars.

    Thus ended my use of the Frio Airstrip. Even if my nerves could have held up under that sort of thing, my bank account couldn't.




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