Monday, September 1, 2014

Colonel Harry Ford at Squadron Officers School

In 1929, Hungarian author Frigyes Karinthy became one of the first proponents of the "Six Degrees of Separation" concept when he wrote his short story titled Chains.  In the theory, any two people in the world can be linked through a series of "friend of a friend" relationships.  Many of us are now familiar with the pop culture spin-off game, "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon", in which Kevin Bacon can be linked to nearly any other star in six steps or less.  We now even a have crazy website to make the linkage easy:

The USAF is a microcosm of American society, and the smallest it has been since its inception in 1947, typically making it easier to link to someone in fewer than Frigyes six links.  I enjoy getting to know people and learning about them. Given my interest in interpersonal relationships I am as guilty as anyone I know when it comes to playing the "hey, do you know ____?" game (which I should mention is despised by some). But in the process of meeting someone new, I frequently stumble upon a common acquaintance or friend. 

Nearly all of these connections are made to contemporaries or peers.  I did have one chance encounter, however, that spanned to a family member in the earliest days of the USAF.  

I attended Squadron Officer School (SOS) at Maxwell AFB in Montgomery, Alabama in April and May of 2004 as part of what the military calls Basic Developmental Education (BDE). As part of the curriculum, the school had regular lectures given by a leader in with a background airpower.  Some were current or former USAF general officers, others were leaders in industry, and my favorite, Airmen with a story to tell.  Occasionally, the speaker would offer to meet with a small group of students after his or her lecture.  

The schedule for the day before graduation included the last of these talks and we were informed that the guest speaker was one of the last of the original Tuskegee Airmen.  I was chosen to be the officer from my Flight to have the privilege of eating lunch with the speaker after his presentation.  

During his speech the Colonel mentioned flying RB-47s at Lockborne AFB just south of Columbus, Ohio.  I knew that my great-uncle Vance Heavilin also flew RB-47s and was at one time stationed at Lockborne.  What were the chances that these two aviators knew each other?  The Air Force was HUGE in the early-50's and I decided the chances were very slim.  

After lunch I immediately wrote a letter to my grandmother describing the encounter with this interesting man.  I've posted it below and I think it does a decent job of capturing the meeting with Col Ford.

                                                                                                                                         17 May 04

         I hope this letter finds you feeling well. It was good to talk to you on Mother's Day. 

        As you know, I was recently in Montgomery, AL attending Squadron Officer's School at Maxwell AFB.  The day before we graduated, three men came to speak to the class of 450 Air Force Captains.  These three guys were some of the famous Tuskegee Airmen who trained in Tuskegee, AL in the early 40's.  As you know, they were the first black American pilots and they came to speak to us about their experience in the USAF.  Two of them were fighter pilots and one was a bomber pilot. 

         About 15 of us were given the opportunity to eat lunch with the men. I chose to eat with the bomber pilot, Col (Ret) Harry Ford.  I noticed during his speech that he had flown RB-47s and I wanted to ask him if he had ever heard of or knew Vance.  The Air Force was much bigger back then so I did not think there would be much of a chance of that.  Part of the way through lunch I told him my great-uncle flew RB-47s and that he was stationed at Lockborne at one time.  He looked at my nametag and said "Didn't know any "Wallaces."  I told him that his name was Vance Heavilin and saw his face light up.  It was obvious he knew Vance.  He looked at me and said "he had red hair too!"  He went on to ask about him and told me he (Vance) was a 'good guy.'   I told him about the flight Vance flew over the Soviet Union and he said that he remembered that, and that he had flown with Hal Austin on that flight.  He told me that I "made his day" and that it brought back a lot of good memories.  He said Vance was not in the same squadron as him, but they knew each other. 

        I asked to get a picture with him to send to you. I knew you would be interested in hearing this story!

        Talk to you later,


My grandmother's brother, Vance Heavilin, also had an exceptional career as an Army aviator in WWII and then the USAF after it's birth in 1947.  One of Vance's flights remained classified until the 1990s and was later made into an hour-long Discovery Channel episode.  Here's a link to the flight that Col Ford mentioned during our lunch:   Another coincidence- Col Ford and I met nearly 50 years to the day after uncle Vance's epic flight.  

I put Col Ford's name in to a search engine a few years and learned that he died on 26 Feb 2009, just five years after our photo was taken.  At the time of his death he was one of two remaining Tuskegee Airmen in the state of Alabama.  

The heroes of the WWII generation are leaving us at a rapid rate.  If given the opportunity, I encourage you to take the time to get to know these amazing men and women and hear their stories.  You may even make a surprising connection to your own story.


Tuesday, May 27, 2014

2014 Memorial Day weekend

They say every great journey starts with the first step, and what you are reading is the first step in my journey in to the world of "blogging."  It is my intention to capture some of my more memorable memories by writing them in the form of a blog.  Many of you reading this already know me well and likely know some, or all, of these stories.  One other thing you probably know about me is that I love flying airplanes.  In fact, as I quickly approach 20-years of flying, I realize that I’ve been a pilot for longer in my lifetime than not.  Now at 37 years of age, and given that we are expecting our first child, I decided it was time to attempt to preserve some of my memories for our unborn son.  I expect that most of my blogs will revolve around flying, but don't worry if you think that sounds boring... I've come to realize that one of the things I love so much about flying is not necessarily the act itself but the people I've met along the way.  Most of my stories will be about this cast of characters.  -bpw    

2014 Memorial Day weekend

About a month or so before the 2014 Memorial Day weekend, we kicked around the idea of using the extended work reprieve to make a trip to the island of Martha’s Vineyard.  One theme you’ll see as I continue to write about flying is that Amber and I have developed a fascination of sorts for islands, and especially islands with a small general aviation airport.

It hadn’t been too long since we returned from our last phenomenal island flying experience in the Bahamas, so making the decision to spend the money to take another trip so close to the last wasn’t taken lightly.  But given the reality of a somewhat curtailed travel options once baby Parker arrives, we decided to make the financial sacrifice now to visit a great island while we were living on the east coast and within “striking distance.”

As luck would have it, one of Amber’s co-workers was born and raised on "The Vineyard", as the locals call it.  Amanda provided great advice on places to stay, eat, and “must-see” sights.  In return, we took her along with us so she could spend the weekend visiting friends and family while we explored.  Amanda, with the counsel of her family, recommended that we check out Lambert’s Cove Inn ( when looking for lodging.  Like many businesses on the island, Memorial Day weekend was their annual opening weekend and they offered a “special” in the hopes of drumming up business.  After checking their website, I called and booked a room for the weekend, and since we were already within the 2-week cancelation window we were now committed to the trip!

Once we had the room booked, we decided it would be fun to attempt track down some family history while on the island.  Amber’s grandfather, Ralph Howser, was in the Unites States Coast Guard during WWII and was stationed on Martha’s Vineyard.  A quick check of confirmed Ralph Howser’s USCG service dates were 12 Oct 1042 – 27 Sep 1045 but no address or duty station were listed.    

Unfortunately Ralph died in April of 1992 and his wife, Laura May, in October of 2004, so any “first hand” knowledge of where they lived and worked was lost.  Amber's mother, Julie, recalled a couple of photographs from photo albums in her mother’s house and Amber asked her to snap a digital picture of them with her iPhone and send to her.  The words “Mr & Mrs Fisher, Landlords - Edgartown” and “Thanksgiving 1943 at Dinsmore's” were written on the bottom of the photos.  Julie also discovered a return address of “PO Box 331, Edgartown MA” on a letter.  The PO Box was bittersweet… we were hoping for an actual street address, but at least we knew for certain that they lived in Edgartown. Given these sparse clues, we were not optimistic that any connections to the modern Vineyard could be made.  

I also spoke to May’s only living sibling, June Howser, on the phone prior to our departure.  She recollected that her sister would often help take care of a wealthy elderly woman named Mrs. Dinsmore (the same name as written on the picture) while Ralph was on duty.  She also recalled that there was another woman named Mrs. Maxwell that was employed as a nurse by Mrs. Dinsmore. June told me that Mrs. Maxwell opened a sewing/knitting shop on Martha’s Vineyard and later in St Augustine, Florida.  Years later while on vacation, Ralph, May, June and their families found Mrs. Maxwell’s Florida store and spent some time visiting with her.   

About a week prior to our departure, I typed “Fisher+Edgartown+Martha’s Vineyard” into an Internet search engine.  One of the first returns was for the obituary of a Mr. Sandy Fisher who died on 8 May 2014 (only about 3-weeks prior to our trip) at the age of 98.  Mr. Fisher had lived a spectacular and full life.  The story allowed for the posting of comments, so elected to leave a short comment stating that we were trying to locate the lineage of Fishers who were Amber’s grandparents landlords during WWII and closed with my email address.   I was quickly contacted by the editor of the newspaper who said that he passed along my information to a Ms. Madeline Fisher who currently resides in Edgartown and operates the “Fisher Gallery” on the edge of town. 

Here's the article: 

Madeline emailed me a short time later and said that there were several branches of the Fisher family in the Edgartown area, and that she’d love to help us find more info.  We exchanged phone numbers and agreed to talk once we arrived on the island.   

I took Friday off from work to make the holiday weekend a rare 4-day vacation.  We planned to depart as soon as Amber and Amanda could sneak away from their office.  I arrived at the airport a couple of hours early and prepped as much as possible prior to the arrival of my passengers.  The ladies arrived and each loaded their suitcases while I made one last check of the weather and filed an IFR flight plan (requesting 9,000’ enroute altitude).  The three of us soon departed 2W5 (Maryland Airport) in our Piper Dakota on the beautiful Friday afternoon. As we turned northeast over the Chesapeake Bay, ATC instructed me to level at 5,000’ and expect 7,000’ as our final altitude.  As it turned out, our cruising altitude of 5,000’ kept us below the building cumulus clouds as we proceeded northeast.  As we approached New York City, ATC directed me to climb to 7,000’.  We were disappointed to find that this put us into the clouds just as one of the most exciting cityscapes in the U.S. began to materialize on the horizon in front of us.  Adding to the “fun”, the puffy clouds were beginning to organize and become a bit angry.  ATC asked if I had access to weather radar, and after hearing my “negative” reply, promised to keep us clear of convective activity.  But, as you can tell from the image below, there was likely a less bumpy route than what we were eventually given. Thanks ATC!!

Letting down through the clouds into The Vineyard just prior to sunset was spectacular.  The overcast muted much of the color, but tour guide Amanda pointed out the clay cliffs on the westernmost edge of the island, near the town of Aquinnah... our interest was piqued and we decided to visit this area first.  

The Vineyard control tower was understandably busy on the eve of the holiday weekend that marked the kickoff of the summer tourist season.  Once I confirmed I had the runway in sight, the controller  directed me to fly “straight fa the numbas” and to "keep my speed up."  Hey fellas... remember that this is a Piper Cherokee, not a CitationJet.


After a good night's sleep, Amber and I set out on our own to explore the island.  We started by driving west to the clay cliffs Amanda pointed out on our arrival.  The Gayhead lighthouse is located close to these cliffs- we learned that as the cliffs erode, the lighthouse is now in fact too close to the cliffs and one of the island's historical societies has raised half of the $3M required to move the structure. They are hoping to make the move in the Spring of 2015, if the remaining $1.5M is generated in the remaining time. 

The Gayhead lighthouse near the town of Aquinnah.  I'm fairly certain that the "pay-per-use" restrooms, complete with attendant, were a first for me.... don't worry, we each got our $0.50 worth (hence, the big smiles)!

Late Saturday morning we departed Aquinnah and drove easterly.  There are no direct routes, so we had fun learning the lay of the land and navigating the circuitous paved roads.  Our next stop was in the fishing town (aren't they all?) of Menemsha.  One of the most prominent buildings in Menemsha is the Coast Guard Station situated nicely on the hill overlooking the harbor.  We momentarily considered obeying the "RESTRICTED AREA: MILITARY INSTALLATION, DO NOT ENTER" sign before we deciding we drove by similar signs everyday when living and working on bases. It's the Coast Guard, right? Do they even have guns?

We soon found out the answer to that question.  We literally walked in during shift change and the OIC, Mr Gary Kovac was issuing weapons to his men.  But the Coasties were very polite, and once I explained that I am also on active duty (yes, they checked my ID to confirm) and were interested in their facility because of the connection to Amber's grandparents, they were very eager to show us around...after weapons issue, of course.

Gary explained that the former facility, which was closer to the water, had burned about three earlier and a new building was under construction.  He took us to the cupola of their current building, which was immaculately clean and tidy.


We thanked Mr. Kovac for his hospitality and proceeded to our desired lunch destination on the eastern shore of the island- Edgartown.

If you weren't really paying attention during the flying portion of this blog so far, start reading more carefully now... what I am about to describe in the next 7 or 8 paragraphs is almost unbelievable!

The 2010 US Census counted 4,067 residents in Edgartown, MA.  That sure seems like a low-ball estimate to me... this may be because my only data point was on a holiday weekend but the town was very congested.  So congested that we drove around multiple streets and alleys looking for any available parking.  After 5 or 6 streets, we finally found an empty spot on Morse Street and I carefully parallel parked our rental car.  We walked southeast towards the harbor and the intersection of Water Street.  Just as we reached the intersection, Amber looked at me and said "That's it! Those steps are where the picture of Nan (what she calls her grandmother) was taken!"  We stopped, looked at the picture on our phone, and after a few minutes I decided that she was correct. We thought it was quite the coincidence that we parked within a couple hundred feet of where the Thanksgiving photo was taken, and wondered how hard it was going to be to find any more historical ties to Amber's grandparents island experience 70+ years ago.

The bronze plaque on the south corner of the home identified the beautiful, large home as the "Capt Morse House."  Here's more info on the house, if you'd like to read about it (of note, check out the picture of the stoop in 1912):

Edgartown, MA
Red pin denotes Capt Morse House

We continued southwest on Water street and found a place to enjoy a late lunch.  Amber was very much looking forward to eating lobster and the lobster roll at Among the Flowers cafe exceeded her expectations.  We chatted about how sure we were that we found the house from the picture (labeled- "Thanksgiving 1943 at the Dinsmore's") and the luck of parking on the same street as the house.  Once we finished lunch, I called Ms. Fisher to see if she was still interested in meeting with us and possibly trying to find the house the grandparents had rented.

Madeline said that she contacted her cousin, Tom Fisher, and that he had some information that would be of interest to us.  She told me that Tom was the little boy in the picture with the caption "Mr & Mrs Fisher, Landlords - Edgartown" and that the adults were his parents.  Wow- this was a huge help in our search!  I told Madeline that we were fairly certain that we had found the stoop in the Thanksgiving picture, and explained to her where we believed the picture was taken.  She said- "Yes! you are correct!" and that she and Tom would meet us in a couple of minutes to walk around the neighborhood.

We walked with Madeline and Tom to the Capt Morse house while Tom told us of his recollection of growing up in the area and of Ms. Dinsmore.  But he had a lot more information for us and asked us to follow him northwest up Morse Street towards our car.  We stopped at our rental car to pick up our camera, and he pointed across the street, "I grew up in this house, and my parents had a small cottage in the backyard.  Your grandparents lived in it."  Yes, after searching many streets for a parking space, we parked almost directly across the street from the place we hoped to find!

The Fisher house is now is disrepair and the cottage is long gone, but it was very gratifying to find the place we were looking for.  Unintentionally parking AT THE HOUSE was just too coincidental.

Tom led us further northwest on Morse Street and pointed out the place where the photo of him and his parents was taken.  He estimates that he was 2-years old in the photo (in 1943) and does not recall the actual taking of the photo.  I asked him to stand in the same place so I could take a similar photo.  Looking at the photos side-by-side, I certainly see a resemblence between the elder Tom and his father.


The young boy in the picture on the left is Tom Fisher.  Mr Fisher posed for this picture in front of the same house 71 years after the original was taken.

We once again walked the length of Morse Street, back towards the Capt Morse House.  This time Madeline took the photos as Amber and I attempted to stand in the exact place Ralph and May stood all those years earlier. 

Our re-creation of Ralph and May's photo.  

Ralph was 24 and May 20 in the photo above, and we are both 37 years old in our reenactment.  But one more coincidence-  Ralph and May welcomed their first child (Gary Lynn Howser) into the world on 7 Jul 1944, making May approximately 8-weeks pregnant in this photo.  Amber is a little further along at 23-weeks with our first child in our photo, also a boy!

As you can imagine, Saturday was a full day and after parting ways with Madeline and Tom, we decided to go check in at Lambert's Cove Inn, relax and think about the day's unbelievable events.  

Lambert's Cove Inn is located on 7.5 acres on the north central part of The Vineyard.  It is secluded and meticulously maintained.  Even with it being the "kickoff to summer" weekend there were only 2 or 3 of the 15 rooms on the property rented.  But given the personal touch and attention to detail of proprietors Scott and Kell, I'm sure they make everyone's visit amazing, even when they are at max capacity.
We decided to be a little less active on Sunday than Saturday.  After a great breakfast at the Inn, we set out to explore. Scott loaned us a book of trails on the island and recommended the Great Rock Bight preserve trail, as it is one of his personal favorites.

While on Great Rock Bight beach, we talked to a local who told us we should see Lucy Vincent Beach while on the island.  She said that during the summer a guard is posted and only residents of the town of Chilmark are allowed on the beach, but the guard doesn't arrive until 1 June so we were good to go.  Hiking back from Great Rock Bight beach, we took an alternate route which led us through several open meadows and the around Marl Pond (pictured above).  Our guidebook said that this, the "easternmost of the Great Rock Bight Preserve's chain of ponds, is of special interest; its natural acidity was used to preserve the baskets and hemp ropes of early settlers." The water was nearly pitch black.  

We took the advice of the woman we met on the beach and drove to Lucy Vincent beach... very nice!  We spread out a beach mat and both took a short nap with this scenery:

We finished off the day back in Menemsha, this time on the harbor beach enjoying a beautiful sunset.  Amber enjoyed (another, this one hot and on a toasted bun!) lobster roll and a bowl of lobster bisque while we spent an hour waiting for sunset and relaxing on the beach.  

On Memorial Day (Monday), it was time once again for us to do what we always begrudgingly have to do at the end of each vacation- head for home.  A light rain from a high cloud deck and a stiff westerly wind (18 knots direct headwind) promised to make at least the first half of the flight a bit unpleasant.

We enjoyed another great breakfast at Lambert's Cove.  On this morning we were the only guests, so we spent about an hour after we ate chatting with Scott about the Inn, flying, and their hobby- sailing.

The weather steadily improved throughout Monday morning.  We made our way to the airport, returned the rental car, and took off around 2PM under visual flight rules (VFR) so we could circle the island once and look at all of the places we explored from a new perspective.  I then contacted Providence Control and picked up my IFR clearance back to 2W5 airport.  

New York City was spectacular as we approached from the east.  My flight plan included a turn to the south that took us directly over JFK airport and we could see the skyscrapers and the Statue of Liberty off the right wing.  I asked JFK Approach if they'd let me deviate 5 or 10 miles to the east for some photos, but they responded that they preferred I maintain the filed course.

Over New Jersey the Dakota’s intercom system developed a loud squeal.  After cycling the avionics "master switch" a couple of times to attempt to "reset" any malfunction, I noticed the OFF flag in the turn coordinator and realized we were losing electrical power.  Sure enough, the needle on the ammeter gauge was deflected full left.  I attempted to reset the alternator switch, but that did not fix the problem.  And now the radios were powering down.  With seperate electrical systems for engine ignition and the other various airframe accessories, a general aviation aircraft is not reliant upon alternator or battery power to keep the propeller spinning. 

I've had many emergency situations / malfunctions in the B-1, so losing electrical power in clear air with the sun high in the sky was a nuisance at worst.. in fact, if it weren't for having to penetrate the Washington DC Special Flight Rules Area (SFRA), I may have even considered continuing to our destination.  I set 7600 (the signal from aircraft to ATC for radio failure) into the transponder realizing that with few electrons flowing, this action was likely in vain and pointed the nose towards the closest airfield-- Millville NJ.  I think ATC observed at least one 7600 reply light before the transponder lost power, as I was later told that a Mooney in the traffic pattern at Millville was asked by ATC if they saw us.  We landed uneventfully and coordinated with a mechanic on the field to repair the airplane.

Even with the aircraft trouble on the return flight, Memorial Day weekend 2014 will be remembered as a great experience! Amber and I hope to return to the island many more times over the years. Do you wanna go along?