Jake revved the engine, set off down the runway, lifted the nose, pulled the wheels up—too soon, too soon—and sure enough, the plane crashed back down, its belly screeching along the runway trailing sparks and parts and a tattered banner and tow line.
Back in the ready room, the skipper ordered Jake to write a full report on the incident for the colonel who commanded the base.
In disgust, Jake told us that he wrote, “Like a damned fool, I pulled the wheels up too early and stalled out the aircraft. My actions were inexcusable.” End of report.
That cryptic two-liner almost earned Jake a court martial. But Barney McShane interceded on Jake’s behalf and offered him a few extra pointers for his second try the following afternoon.
Jake was a man of indomitable spirit. He made it on his second try.
My turn for the dreaded tow-plane assignment came a week or two later in an SNJ. Or was it an SBD? I don’t remember. But with Barney’s tips and Jake’s mishap in mind, I know that I followed the startup checklist with more care than ever. “Check fuel—mixture rich—low blower—set prop—wings locked—cowl tabs open—check tabs—tail wheel.” All O.K. Then I kept my feet on the brakes while I revved the engine up to a high rpm level, as in a carrier take-off. And I let ‘er go. Nearing the end of the runway, I eased back on the stick and nursed the plane into the air, carefully. I probably didn’t pull up the wheels until I reached a 1,000-foot altitude. And I felt the drag of that damned tow line all the way up to 7,000 feet.
Mexicali is a sprawling capital city today, swollen with maguiladoras or foreign-owned assembly plants, large hotels, industrial parks, banks, new government buildings, golf courses, giant warehouses, and more than 900,000 people. Far different from the Mexicali of sixty cockeyed years ago, when we knew it as the small, colonial capital of Baja California Norte, located in a dusty valley across the Mexican border, 12 miles south of El Centro.