At the conclusion of my last blogpost, I'd just left my friend Johnny in Albuquerque, New Mexico, headed east. My fun drive home from Washington State this past season was about to get cranked up a notch. I was on my way to Texas, to visit Russell Madden, another pilot friend whom I’ve been forever promising I’d stop by and see. He and his lovely wife, Joy hosted me at their beautiful house on Possum Kingdom Lake.
Self-employed Russell is a genuine aviation addict. He owns…I won’t even go into how many aircraft (and cars, and motorcycles) he owns, spread out in two hangars at the bucolic Possum Kingdom Airport. And everything is gorgeous, of course. Of great interest to me however is his pristine Hiller model 12E. I mean, it’s immaculate, like it just left the factory. I thought I'd taken some pictures of it, but when I get around helicopters I get kind of excited and I guess my camera is the last thing on my mind. I really wanted to fly Russell's ship. But he had something else up his sleeve…maybe something even better? I’ll get to that in a bit.
Russell is an interesting guy. Fed up with the current political state of affairs (and who isn’t?), he has come with his own ideas about how the country should be run. He is waging a semi-faux campaign for president. Knowing his own suggestions would never be implemented, he calls himself, “the future shortest-term president ever.” He’s even had bumper stickers made up. The "campaign" started out as a joke. But considering the cast of characters we have running for president this time around, I'd seriously consider casting my vote for Russell as a write-in!
While I was there, Russell and I made a trip over to an airport in the town of Breckenridge, to Ezell Aviation. Nelson Ezell and his sons rebuild “warbirds”…ex-military aircraft, usually fighters from WWII but also some from the Korean era. The work they do in their huge, eat-off-the-floor hangar as is meticulous as it is incredible. They turn out show-planes, pure and simple - but show-planes that fly! A lot of parts for these old airplanes are simply not available anymore, so the Ezell’s have to fabricate them, often from scratch, in-house. I walked around with my mouth agape. Their facility simply has to be seen to be believed. Man, I was already in aviation overload!
Russell hobnobs with some luminaries in the air-racing and aerobatic demonstration communities, including the recently-retired helicopter legend, Chuck Aaron, whose work you can see in the latest James Bond film. Russell is also friends with Pat Pockrus of Fort Wolters Helicopters which rebuilds and maintains Hiller helicopters in nearby Mineral Wells. Pat’s facility is actually located on the very site that used to be Ft. Wolters, a U.S. Army airfield where, from 1957 to 1973 over 40,000 military helicopter pilots were trained…mostly in Hiller helicopters!
Eventually Ft. Wolters was closed and the Army’s training was moved to Ft. Rucker in Alabama. Today the Texas site is a sparsely developed industrial park. Many of the old Army buildings remain. As you drive around, the history of the place is palpable. For helicopter pilots, this is hallowed ground - as hallowed as the Ellison Industrial Park here in Pensacola, where my dad learned to fly helicopters in 1954 when it was Ellison Field and belonged to the U.S. Navy. I literally get chills walking around at such places.
Pat’s facility is incredible. Hiller helicopters of all models - some of them historic - are crammed into the place. You can't turn around without tripping over something and going, "Heyyyy, I've read about this ship!" To a helicopter nut like me it is the best candy store ever.
It happened that Pat has his personal helicopter stashed in Russell's hangar out at Possum Kingdom. It is a Hiller model 12E-4. Would I like to fly it? Well, you know the answer to that question... And so off we went. It's funny that I still get so excited about flying helicopters even after all these years. You'd think by now I'd be bored with it. But as we drove back out to Russell's airport I thought I was going to pee my pants. Which may be a little more than you wanted to know.