Silver memories, silver wings|Phil Irwin had close calls at old airport

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 29, 2009

He had over a thousand hours of flying before he ever soloed, Phil Irwin said, “but it was all flying backward. I was a tailgunner in World War II.”

Irwin took his first plane ride when he was about 9 or 10 years old. He paid $1 to take to the skies in a small plane with a pilot who made the rounds of airports, giving locals a thrill.

Planes were intriguing to Irwin, but they weren’t anything out of the ordinary, for his family lived on Oak Ridge Road, next to the old Vicksburg airport, moving to Warren County from Lorman when Phil was a year old. They lived on Main Street in the home now called Anchuca before his father bought land from Fred Girard, where Irwin still lives.

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Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.

He doesn’t know when the airport came into existence, but in the 1930s, during the Depression, the WPA prepared the landing strips with mules and scrapers. They fenced the land and put in drainage, “the pipes so big I could stand up inside one,” Irwin said. The airport had a mile-long dirt runway, a hangar and an administration building.

Irwin was a teenager in World War II, and he remembers the Javanese coming here for pilot training, stating, “It wasn’t anything unusual to have a hundred B-14s out there, 25 on the ground at one time, waiting to get in line” to take off.

He remembers when one Javanese pilot was killed when his plane crashed after a duck got lodged in the cowling, but birds weren’t the only obstacle at the old airport: there were cows, sometimes on the runway.

He began learning to fly when he was 17, taking occasional lessons from airport manager Lawrence Bell, “telling me how to land, or try to land, or whatever. I remember I was coming in and cows were on the field and he (Bell) was pointing down (you couldn’t hear anything), and I thought he meant he wanted to take control, so we were flying along there about 10 feet off the ground — and neither one of us had hold of the stick.”

Irwin had become interested in flying because of local pilots and planes. Girard, who was a Vicksburg auto dealer, had a Piper. He would buzz the big oak tree beside the Irwin home before landing. Another who owned planes was Tom Mincey, a real estate agent, who had two, one very similar to Charles Lindberg’s Spirit of St. Louis.

Lawrence Bell was not only the airport manager, but he was also a certified CAA mechanic, and Irwin followed in his footsteps, learning to work on planes.

“We washed the parts,” Irwin said. “We tore the engine completely down for inspection. It was disassembled, and we replaced anything that was needed. That’s the way they did it then — tore it down completely — rings, pistons, all that stuff lying out there. You had to soak it in a solution for so many hours, then you washed it off and put it back together.”

When he was a senior at Culkin Academy, Irwin joined the cadet program for the Army Air Corps in 1943. He was allowed to remain in school until graduation in 1944, but then was sent to the cadet training program in Walla Walla, Wash.

There were plenty of pilots for the B-17s and B-24s, he said, “but they didn’t have gunners. I was washed out for government convenience. Wherever you were in line, that’s what gunner you were. I just happened to be at the tail end.”

After the war, Irwin came home and resumed flying lessons. He soloed in 1946 with Dick Conner as his instructor. Conner, a World War II ace, had taken over management of the airport.

He had a close call soon after his solo flight. He was coming in for a landing when he hit a swarm of bees about 20 feet off the ground.

“They splattered,” Irwin said. “All that honey and everything. I couldn’t see a thing. That Plexiglass was covered. Here I am, 20 feet off the ground, and I can’t see.”

It was hot, and he had the side windows of the plane open, so “bees were all over me. What in the world was I going to do?”

He decided to make a side slip, to go down as far as he could before the wing hit the ground, “then I turned it up and prayed that I wasn’t too far. I got out of that thing, knocked the bees off, and walked up there (he couldn’t see to taxi the plane) and got somebody to help me get all that stuff off.”

Speed was the determining factor in being able to land and take off at the old airport. He saw P-38s and P-39s, World War II planes, land there, and he said with a super cub you could land and take off, land and take off on that strip — “which was practice for students. The plane didn’t even have flaps — which are like air brakes and helped half with the momentum. No telling what you could have done if it had had flaps.”

He remembers R.G. LeTourneau’s plane coming in for a landing at night. A car with its headlights on was parked at the end of the runway, so the pilot would know how far he could go. There were tall trees at the end of the airport, Irwin said, and “nobody else would have risked it.”

Irwin has never owned a plane, though he had hoped to buy Van Ratliff’s after the war. But someone crashed it over at the Pennebaker property, near the Big Black River. Irwin helped pick up the pieces and haul it back to the airport and had wanted to fix it up, “but my days at home were over,” and he enrolled at LSU. He had flown about a year, he said, but it was too expensive.

It was about the same time, in the late 1940s, that a new airport was developed south of town, near Warrenton, and the old one passed into private hands.

The hangar was torn down and moved to the new facility.

Today, the old airport, where planes used to land at night guided by car lights and pilots had to watch out for cows and bees, is one of the prettiest, greenest large fields in the hill section of Warren County.

Irwin still tells people, out of force of habit, that he lives just past the old Vicksburg airport, but he explained, “When you’re 83, you forget you’re that old.”

Not many remember, or know about, the city’s first airport.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.