With his wife as his co-pilot|Martin Hallman flew to the top of the world

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 28, 2010

Martin Hallman has a love story to tell. It’s about flying and about his co-pilot in life, Barbara.

He grew up on a family farm on Warriors Trail, where he still lives. He helped his dad on the farm — “We raised cattle and such” — but whenever an airplane flew over, he would stand and watch in wonder and amazement. He dreamed about flying, he said, and as a child built model planes.

“I took my first flying lessons in the summer of 1951, when I was 17,” he said. “I soloed in August.”

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

He was the only student taught by Johnny Johnson, who had been a World War II flight instructor. The airport then was on Oak Ridge Road. Lessons, Martin said, were $5, which he paid for with help from his parents and by sacking groceries for Pete Nosser at the old Jitney Jungle on South Street. Johnson also contributed some of his time.

“Everything I made went to the airport,” Martin said.

The plane was a Luscomb, a two-seater trainer, and he had taken lessons all summer until one day Johnson thought Martin was ready to take it on his own.

“We were doing touch and goes,” he said, “taking the plane off, setting her down, the same routine numerous times, when Johnson said to taxi down to the end of the runway.” The instructor opened the door, got out and said, “Take it around.”

It was a beautiful experience, Martin remembers, “But for a 17-year-old there were no words to describe it.” He took off, not having time to think about anything but what he was doing, because just to realize that he was alone, that his instructor wasn’t sitting next to him, “I knew I had to do it right.” It was a big step for a 17-year-old.

After graduating from Culkin Academy, Martin joined the military, and after that he started flying for a company in Rayne, La., near Lafayette and was there from 1958 until 1987. He was doing commercial agricultural aviation, which “to most people means crop dusting.”

Ag aviation has a long and colorful history, having started across the river in Louisiana about 1922 as Delta Air Service, later expanding into Delta Airlines “so the pilots would have something to do in the winter.”

Martin has between 25,000 and 30,000 hours of commercial flying and has had some emergencies —  “if you fly that long you’re going to have some” — but only one crash, and that was a mechanical failure when a propeller came off, which threw everything out of balance, and the engine was actually coming off when he “cartwheeled across the field, rolled the plane up in a ball” and walked away from it without a scratch.

He didn’t have time to get scared, because “it wasn’t like in the movies where it lasts five minutes.

“Emergencies are normal in high-risk flying. It’s high risk because you’re close to the ground, there are obstructions, you’re near-stalling speed. It’s precision flying.”

For years Martin worked for Sneed Flying Service at Redwood, and it wasn’t unusual for people from all over the world to stop, take pictures and “want us to tell them what it was all about. We enjoyed that. Of course, our pictures are probably all over Japan or China or somewhere else.” At one time Martin owned a business in Jonesville, La., and had four planes, four pilots, “and was cotton farming, too — lots of irons in the fire.” While running his business in Jonesville, he was also flying for a company out of Lafayette.

Of all the times he has flown, however, none is more memorable than the day he took off from the Vicksburg airport in his Beech 18, a classic plane. It was Easter Sunday, April 18, 1965.

Next to him in the co-pilot’s seat sat a lady who only a few hours before had been Barbara Barfield; now she was Mrs. Martin Hallman.

On the side of the plane was a sign, “Just Married.”

Martin and Barbara met on a blind date on the Fourth of July 1964. He had a two-seater plane, and often they’d fly over to the sandbar across the river. She played the piano at Trinity Baptist Church, then located near City Cemetery, and Martin often attended services there.

They became engaged and got their marriage license and “carried it around until we could set a time.” He was working in Lafayette and flew home on April 17, 1965, and Barbara picked him up at the airport. The next day they went to church with his parents at Calvary Baptist, just down the road from the Hallmans’ home and decided that morning to marry that afternoon.

“Easter dinner was forgotten,” he said. Everything was spontaneous. They called Roy Myers, pastor of Trinity, and by 2:30 when he performed the ceremony the sanctuary was full.

At the airport, Martin taxied the plane out onto the runway and into position. Barbara was in the co-pilot’s seat, and he remembers “her beautiful smile. We paused a moment, thinking about what we had just done, trying to savor the moment. I pushed the throttle up, and when the plane left the ground it shook the windows in the building. We took off into the sunset together.”

Martin remembers the landing in Lafayette for several reasons. One, somebody had called ahead and told the folks in the control tower about the wedding and tried to get them not to let Martin and Barbara land. Instead, after instructions about the approach, they heard “Congratulations” from the tower.

Martin semi-retired in 1987 when Barbara became ill, for he wanted to be with her. He still flew part time, then fully retired five or six years ago. He no longer owns a plane but occasionally rents one at the Raymond airport. He keeps his license current, but flying has become so heavily regulated, he said, “It takes all the fun out of it.”

In flying, he said, “You get a different perspective. You look at the world differently. You realize what a beautiful creation the Lord made that we’re living in. I learned early in life what really matters.”

Martin and Barbara had two daughters, Sheree Ahlvin and Sharon Barnett, and he has a 17-year-old grandson who is just getting started in learning to fly. The lessons that cost $5 when Martin was 17 are now $140, he said.

Though Barbara passed away June 24, 1992, Martin said he looks back “and I realize how blessed I am, not just being a farm boy who grew up wanting to fly, but a beautiful marriage, a beautiful love story, for Barbara was my co-pilot for almost 30 years.”