Later this week I’ll be flying from Lakeland, Florida to Lowcountry Regional Airport in South Carolina. I’m flying there in a shiny, nearly new, totally rebuilt Cessna 152.
As hard as it may be to believe, I’ll be meeting a new friend who will be flying an almost identical airplane in from the frozen north. I suppose we’ll hang out for a bit, grab a bite to eat, and maybe even stay overnight in this quaint southern town. Then we’ll fly home again.
The only twist is that I’ll be flying home in the airplane he flew down and he’ll be flying north in the one I flew up from Florida. The whole trip is something of a hand-off. A swap.
The airplanes themselves are the reason for the trip. Or at least that was how this adventure started. They’ve been branded as the Reimagined Cessna 152, and I have to say, I love flying them. Go ahead and Google them. You’ll be intrigued I’m sure.
Instantly recognizable thanks to a uniquely eye-catching yellow and black paint scheme, these little flivvers are admittedly not very fast, and not particularly sleek or sexy. But they’re solid. They’re dependable. They’re also an amazingly affordable and durable trainers or personal aircraft. And so I’m headed to Lowcountry Regional in a unapologetically VFR aircraft to meet a new friend, trade airplanes with him, and fly home again.
To this point in my life I’ve never set foot on the ground at Lowcountry Regional Airport. To be honest, when my friend recommended we meet there, the name didn’t register with me. It was only after I fired up my iPad and began planning the flight that I realized I’ve known of this place for years.
Although, I’d only ever heard it referred to as Walterboro, the name of the town where it’s located, and the name the pilots of World War II used to describe the place. The men I knew who flew there were Tuskegee Airmen. They are my connection to Walterboro and Lowcountry Regional.
Last year I wrote a column about my friend, Hiram Mann. It appeared in General Aviation News and I remain quite proud of that column. It was my goodbye to a treasured friend who passed away at the ripe old age of 92. It was from Hiram I first heard of Walterboro. With a big smile, and a throaty chuckle he told tales of his younger years there. Of his flight training. Of his fellow pilots. Of the need to stay in camp at night and not dawdle in town. Of life from the perspective of a young black man who was working as hard as he could to make a difference in the world, even when his world pushed back, resisting his best efforts.
Hiram Mann was a Tuskegee Airman. A designation he was proud of and spoke about with great enthusiasm. He flew at Walterboro, as I will. But he flew in tougher times, and behind the stick of much more powerful machinery. He logged time in P-40s, P-47s, and P-51s there. I will be flying a Reimagined Cessna 152 — an airplane that hadn’t been fully imagined in the first place when Hiram was training.
I think if given the chance to comment on the disparity of our aircraft, Hiram would be on my side. After all, the US military was paying the fuel bill for the big, thirsty engines he was flying behind. The Cessna sips 100LL at a much more affordable pace than the average warbird. Thankfully.
The story of the Tuskegee Airmen is wound up in the history of Lowcountry Regional. It’s an important piece of American history. One that could be easily missed, I’m sorry to say. So I appreciate my new friend recommending that we meet there. I’m looking forward to it very much. Not incidentally because the Tuskegee Airman chapter in Walterboro is named after my old friend, Hiram. I will no doubt visit the memorial on the field and be thankful to have met and benefitted from the sacrifices those gentlemen made so many years ago.
Several years ago I moderated a symposium on the topic of the Tuskegee Airmen. On the stage with me were four Tuskegee vets, Leo Gray, George Hardy, Roscoe Brown, and Hiram Mann.
During the question and answer phase of the presentation, an elderly white man stood up, took the microphone, and stunned those in attendance. He introduced himself as a B-17 crew-member who had been escorted by the Tuskegee’s over Europe. He made it clear that he believed the only reason he was still alive was because the men sitting on the stage had protected him when he needed it most. Then he saluted, and he cried.
He was not alone in experiencing a powerful outpouring of emotions when in the presence of these amazing brave men. The audience was with him, as was I.
So later this week I will land on the runways Leo, George, Roscoe, and Hiram landed on. And I’ll walk the ground they walked. Later on I’ll take off and climb into the sky over Walterboro just as they did. A little slower perhaps, with fewer horsepower behind my throttle. But flying is flying, and friends are friends.
Which makes me so glad that a new friend has given me a reason to remember an old friend, and build a new memory to cherish. Thank goodness I’ve got an economical little cruiser to climb into and fly to the destination that will make it all possible.