News of the last military aircraft flying out of Willow Grove Naval Air Station last Wednesday brought back memories of my most embarrassing moment as a newspaperman.
It happened 30 years ago, when I was working for The Daily Intelligencer in Doylestown. The paper had gotten an invitation from the Air Force Reserve: We’d like someone on your staff to join some of our Weekend Warriors on a simulated combat mission. A squadron of C-130 Hercules turboprop transports from the 913th Airlift Group would fly from Willow Grove to Michigan for exercises.
I was interested — it passed for adventure in my otherwise routine job — and got the OK to go.
There’s not much to tell, mostly because I’ve repressed the chain of events out of misery. I do remember that on the flight out to the Detroit area, the crew put me in front of the controls in the pilot’s seat. I banked the plane left and right, amazed at how responsive it was to the slightest touch.
My misfortune came the next day, when we took off on a simulated combat mission after lunch. There were several C-130s ahead of us as we formed what’s called a fluid trail. The prop wash from those aircraft jostled our own plane, and I felt dizzy, with a bad churning in my stomach.
You guessed it: I got sick, real sick, there on the flight deck. Fortunately for the crew, I had a barf bag one of the guys had handed me when he saw me turning green.
The crewmen were polite, but I could tell they were looking askance at me as if I were a wuss. Well, yes, I’m prone to motion sickness, and we’d taken off when I was on a full stomach, and I hadn’t fully appreciated what I’d gotten myself into.
I was miserable as we flew on and, as part of the drill, dived straight down over a lake, pulling up seemingly at the last instant. I’d had enough.
The rest of the weekend was – and remains — a blur.
The story I wrote for the Intelligencer that summer of 1981 was forgettable. It ran on the front of the features section, paired with a military story that was very well written by a fellow staff writer. My piece was rescued from near worthlessness by the ministrations of the features editor, Sandy Bauers. (Sandy went on to The Philadelphia Inquirer, where she’s been doing terrific reporting and writing for years.)
I didn’t keep a copy of my story and tried to put the ugly business behind me. Then, about a month later, I called the Willow Grove base for information I don’t think was related to the Michigan trip, and happened to speak with one of the Air Force guys I’d flown with.
“Oh yeah,” he said. “You’re the guy that threw up on the flight deck.”
And so, with the military planes gone from the base in eastern Montgomery County and personnel working toward a shutdown in six months, I say goodbye to Willow Grove with a wave of nausea, barf bag in hand.