An Aeronca Flies The Texas Coast
Imagine a silver crescent of sand arcing to the horizon, so long and lonely geography books say it's the longest piece of uninhabited beach in the United States. Imagine lonely bayous and estuaries concealing tiny fishing villages. Finally, imagine seeing those places, low and slow, from the front seat of a 1942 Aeronca L-3. The place is the Gulf Coast, stretching 400 miles along Texas from the Sabine River to the Rio Grande.
I've flown that coast many times, and each trip has reminded me of how well my Aeronca is suited for that journey. The coast, with its tiny villages and quiet inlets, invites close inspection. And the Aeronca, with its 70 knot speed, solo front seat, and seemingly yards of Plexiglas offers the perfect perch for such an adventure.
I start my journey down the Texas Coast from one of the small fields around Lake Charles, Louisiana. The first leg, lasting about a 100 minutes, will take me to Galveston. Baggage is bungied into the back seat along with a small cardboard box containing my charts, E-6b, ruler, and extra pencils. Recesses around the baggage hide sandwiches, apples, and a small canteen. A tiedown kit lies buried somewhere on the back deck. I've outfitted a hand-held radio with Velcro and stuck it onto a bracket near the instrument panel. Someone swings my prop, and I begin my journey.
As I break ground, the flatness of the land reveals itself-- the silver of the Gulf throwing off the morning fog, the swamp below and the Intercostal Waterway cutting a scar to the west. Soon I arrive at the Sabine River and cross into Texas. The Sabine flows down from the jack pines in the north, widens to a lake at Port Arthur, then necks back into a river before emptying into the Gulf.
Sabine Lake is wide enough to make me hug its south shore. I look to the north and see the big refineries crowded around Port Arthur. The day is clearing, so the white tanks of the refineries stand out in the morning sun.
Soon after crossing the Sabine, the land suddenly begins to change. the tidal pools remain, but the bogs between have dried into firmer stuff. A windmill with its accompanying water tank drifts by. A cluster of cattle socialize at the tank, and I know I'm in Texas.
Now I'm preoccupied by the beach, no longer a silver line fighting the morning haze, but lying before me is the blue Gulf of Mexico arcing west from Louisiana then south. Minutes later I throttle back, and my L-3 begins to ease through the still air to the surf. Through 500 feet then through 100 feet we glide. The decent begins to soften. At 30 feet the L-3 is flying level at reduced throttle. Ground effect is working its magic, offering up an automatic trim, and allowing me to enjoy the surf beneath my wheels. I watch the waves only feet below curl and tumble, sending up a spray that never quite reaches the L-3. The craft holds steady while the din of Continental blanks out any sound from the crashing surf below. Slight pressure on the rudder pedals slide me out to the cool water or over the warming sand. Minuscule temperature differences toy with the lift and change the altitude--30 feet over the surf, 35 feet over the sand.
Indeed, the L-3, like its cousins the Chiefs and Champs, are rudder airplanes. The ability for an 058B to fly feet on and hands off was a unexpected feature I received when I discovered the plane 15 years ago. Like the saga of many antique aircraft, my L-3 was found in a state of disrepair in a farm shed. I disassembled the craft and pulled it to a local high school where I rebuilt it during night classes. Once airworthy, the L-3 flew mostly in the Midwest except for yearly sojourns to Canada, or Mexico, and of course to Oshkosh. My craft will not take any prizes at Oshkosh or Middletown. It seems the best intentions to recondition the center section or reinstall a green house are somehow set aside with each new trip. Sectional charts are spread on livingroom floors and any hope of rebuilding the L-3 is put aside for another year.
As the Texas surf slides below, I enjoy the excitement of finding myself in this strange new place in a craft I know so well. Soon I can see a building, miles ahead, out near the beach. I know my position, this low and close, would be unwelcome. So I push the throttle forward and climb to 1000 feet.
Again I see the arc of the coast reveals itself, but this time a neighborhood of houses invades the empty beach. I am flying over the Bolivar Peninsula north of the Houston Shipping Channel. Climbing higher, I cross the channel and see industrial Texas to my right. Ships ply the bay, Texas City, and the smudge of Houston lie farther to the west.
Below lay Galveston with its pastel resort hotels clinging to the beach and its shipping terminals on the bay behind. Busy Strand Street is down there. And behind Strand, nestle waterfront stalls and shops where one can stroll, eating the best shrimp on the Gulf.
The airfield at Galveston, like many fields in Texas, is an old World War II base with lots of runways and a busy helicopter operation. Galv-Aero, the local FBO, extends much southern hospitality, even providing a courtesy car for a quick trip to a nearby strip mall. A fine mechanic, whose services I once used to weld a cracked heat box, works in the big attached hanger.
Assuming heat box intact, the next leg south takes me over the Galveston suburbs, open range land, and of course the ever present coast. About 50 miles south of Galveston, the unbroken coast blooms into Matagorda Bay. This bay, with is twisting shore line and featureless wetlands, is large enough that I need to turn my Houston Sectional to odd angles and check my location.
Soon the village of Palacious appears, and I lower to 500 feet, fly along the water front and spot the great white frame building and huge lawn of the Luther Hotel. The swaying palms and snapping Texas flag tell me when I land, choose a runway close into the wind.
True to form, the airfield at Palacious was an old training base with a half-dozen runways. I select the runway closest to the wind and with the least amount of stubble pushing through its concrete. After maneuvering through a maze of taxiways, I finally arrive at the abandoned operations building. Like so many small towns on the Texas Coast, Palacious's fortunes rise and fall with the price of petroleum. In the early eighties, when the price of oil was near an all time high, the operations building at Palacious always seemed to be crowded with oil patch roughnecks waiting to be choppered out to the offshore rigs. But this day, I am greeted only by a stiff wind blowing sand across an empty tarmac.
A pickup truck turns off the highway and makes its way down the dusty road to the airfield. It's a man from Mayor Lamar's office. "You burn car gas in that thing?" he asks. I assure him I did. Some time ago, I bought an autogas STC and since found the use of that fuel invaluable--especially at places like Palacious. However, I do use a certain amount of caution with car gas. I stay away from ethanol and only buy gas from busy service stations that have a high fuel turnover. I'd soon trust good fresh autogas than 100 no-lead that had set around in some rusty tank for months. Dirty carrying cans are a concern, so I usually waste a few quarts of gas sloshing out a dubious five-gallon can.
With the L-3 topped off, I beg a ride back into town and find a room in the Luther Hotel. In the evening, the breeze settles and allows me a pleasant walk along the waterfront across from the hotel. I discover four or five packing houses servicing Palacious's sizable fishing industry. Back on the main street, I stroll by the standard accouterments of small town Texas: the coffee shop with the local businessmen holding court, a couple of honky-tonks, and a Vietnamese family selling fast food in a converted service station. I stop by the coffee shop and arrange for next morning's ride out to the airfield.
The next day dawns clear and inviting. My flight takes me southwest from Palacious across a lagoon then finally rejoining the Gulf at Matagorda Island. This island, like the other barrier islands along the coast, runs thin and long offering few entrances to the lagoon behind. With my sectional chart matching the island, I sit back and enjoy the pristine shore. Soon a shadow intrudes on the water below. Something is lying just below the surface. I do a one-eighty, pass over the area again and discover a shipwreck lying a few hundred yards off shore. I want this find to be my discovery and mine alone. But as I later found, every bait shop from Louisiana to Mexico had thumbtacked to its wall a map of shipwrecks. There symbolized by a ship, bow high, slipping into the waves, would be my wreck off Matagorda Island.
Leaving my shipwreck behind, I continue. Then as at Matagorda bay, the normally placid lagoon behind the island begins to widen and fragment into a confusion of islands, inlets, and peninsulas. Towns emerge, large enough to wear an industrial haze. My chart becomes crosshatched with military alert areas. I'm entering Aransas County and the urban area around Corpus Christi.
A half-dozen airfields dot the Corpus area, each with a friendly FBO, plenty of fuel and a noisy gaggle of helicopters. At Aransas Pass airport, I fuel up and check the weather for the long flight south along Padre Island. Locals tell me the 107 mile flight is over the longest stretch of unbroken beach in the country, and the endless white sand to the southern horizon leaves me with little doubt.
The flight south along Padre Island usually begins by avoiding the Corpus Christi Naval Air Station. Flying along the beach in front of Corpus puts me 5 miles from the base tower, but unfortunately, well within Alert Area A-6328 and its inquisitive student aviators. This day, as usual, avoiding a T-34 is next to impossible. A T-34 comes up from behind, moves in close, and breaks right. I feel I've invaded some top-secret airspace even though I'm at 500 feet and down among the beach hotels.
Soon after leaving Corpus, the condos and hotels thin out into the sand and windswept grass of Padre Island. Finally I fly over a lone parking lot dotted with pickup trucks, and that's it--no more roads for a hundred miles. I can easily see the mainland shore 10 miles away across a shallow lagoon. Again no civilization, the mainland is the eastern boarder of the vast King Ranch coming out to the gulf. Minutes later, the mottled browns of the ranch turns into patches of white. A small desert, forming partly from ancient beach sands, partly from the dryness of the climate, extends through the grazing land.
My chart tells me Padre Island has been designated a nature preserve, and I must fly at least a 1000 feet above the sand to avoid the nesting birds. But at 1000 feet, an inversion layer puts me into a headwind blowing stiff from Mexico. Curiously though, as I descend to 300 feet the headwind disappears. Only a gentle offshore breeze forces the L-3 to crab a tiny angle to the left. A dotted line on the sectional chart says the nature preserve ends at the shoreline. So I swing wide offshore to give the birds plenty of room and fly low to avoid the headwind.
After about 90 minutes, I begin to scan the southern horizon for Port Mansfield. The town lies on the mainland next to the lagoon, and at the low altitude I'm flying it will be hard to see. The sectional shows that directly across from Port Mansfield, someone has cut a shipping channel to the open water. That canal is my checkpoint. I find it, then turn right, fly out across the open lagoon, and spot the town's water tower.
Port Mansfield is served by a 3200 foot strip that lies in the sagebrush to the east. The field has a windswept desolate feel about it. There's no FBO, an abandoned house trailer tells of a helicopter operation long since fallen victim to plunging oil prices. An above-ground fuel tank sits among a nest of prickly pear cactus. I discover a pay phone and call a number for service. Minutes later, the harbor master arrives and we top off the L-3.
Later we push the plane to a tiedown point devoid of ropes. Fortunately, I brought along lengths of half-inch rope for just such situations. In that part of the country, winds arising from even a small squall can be phenomenal, so tying down a plane with yellow nylon cord will not do. I also don't use the tiedown rings on the struts but wrap the ropes twice around each strut and secure them with a good knot. I try to find tiedown points where I can cinch down my taildragger with its back to the north. In winter Texas, strong winds usually blast down from the north. They push a taildragger, with its back to the wind, down onto the ground, aiding the tiedown ropes.
With the L-3 secured, the harbor master drives me into Port Mansfield. On the way, she points out a neighborhood of small, neat houses. "Our latest retirement community," she says, "We're getting a fair amount of snow birds down here. The weathers good, and it's away from the hustle and bustle of the Rio Grande Valley". Later we pass a newly refurbished boat dock. Gone are the big utility boats full of drilling pipe ready to go out to the rigs. Instead, small outboards bob quietly at their moorings, ready to take a hopeful party of fisherman out for an afternoon on the lagoon.
Locals point out how the Army Corps of Engineers created Port Mansfield as an outlet for the King Ranch onto the Intercostal Waterway. It seems Washington, through the Corps of Engineers, actually owns the port. By a leasing arrangement, people are allowed to build and live there. All this sounds complicated, and being Texas, you can be sure talk about the spawning of Port Mansfield abounds with political intrigue. Fact or just bait shop gossip? I don't know, but it makes a great way to pass a quiet evening after a head-roaring flight in a 1942 aircraft.
South of Port Mansfield, the sage brush continues for another 50 miles, then thins with the first cultivated rectangles of the Rio Grande Valley. Heat from the fields pitch the L-3 into a familiar porpoising action, endlessly cycling the airspeed from 60 to 100 mph and back. Bug carcasses paint the windshield, announcing the rich farmland below. Along the coast, resort hotels dot South Padre Island, while to the west, a 737 lets down into Harlingen. I'm entering serious airspace now, and I look for an uncontrolled field to land and think things over.
Cameron County, with its great brick and steel hanger, is just such a place. I walk through vast interior of this old military hanger, comfortable with the warm breeze sweeping through the open door. Hammer on metal echoes for seconds on end. Mechanics pour over a DC-3, readying it to carry Dallas sportsmen to Mexico and a weekend of pheasant hunting. Tinny, latin music from some radio competes with a couple of captured parrots. I'm in a different part of Texas now and I enjoy this place.
Ten years ago, before handheld radios, I would land at Cameron and call Brownsville tower on the telephone for landing instructions. "Circle at the orange tower and wait for the green light," they would say. Now at Cameron, I land to top off my tanks and say hello.
Brownsville International is the end of the line. Situated in a meander of the Rio Grande, it is surrounded on three sides by Mexico. North of the river, Brownsville and its cousin cities lie suburb to suburb, a mix of latins and retirees from the north. Across the Rio Grande, lie the modest dwellings of Matamoros and the dusty mysteries beyond.
That evening, I walk the flight line at Brownsville. Clearly, the airfield has seen better days. All commercial flights now go to Harlingen, leaving a forlorn terminal and three or four struggling FBOs. On the apron stand a tattered squadron of ancient D-18s and couple of DC-3s all with bald, fattened tires. I walk back to my Aeronca, fumble through the baggage tied into the rear seat, and discover a shop cloth. It's been a long flight, and spending a few minutes wiping up oil streaks seem to be in order.
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