Aircraft—Big Sandy Unicom…Citation 7…7…3…Bravo…Charlie…10 miles to the northeast… inbound for landing…
Unicom—Bravo…Charlie…winds calm…no other traffic…
A Lesson in Civics
I get to meet a lot of interesting people from all walks of life at the airport. Airplanes are actually more than just a mode of transportation, they are ‘time machines,’ you can cover a lot of ground in them in a short time compared to driving. Corporate aviation is the backbone of my business, CEOs of companies fly almost exclusively, that was really true at Big Sandy, during the coal mining days. If you fly into Lexington Bluegrass Airport on any given day you will see several business jets sitting at their FBO. (Fixed Base Operation, fancy name for where private aircraft park)
Another group of people who take advantage of aviation are politicians. Over the years our governors and senators will sometime visit several parts of the state on any given day and still be back home in time for dinner. In my 22 years managing our airport, I have met every governor, senator and congressmen we have had. A few of them have actually remembered my name. Some even remembered my grandchildren’s names, (I’ll be doing a story on that later).
A few years back during a presidential election year, I watched the National Republican Party nominate Senator John McCain to run for president. Little did I know while watching him on TV that night that in just a few days I would be shaking his hand at our airport. To kick-off his bid for president, Sen. McCain started on a series of town hall style meetings on his tour bus called the Straight Talk Express and one of, if not the first, stops was in Inez, KY.
A few days after he was nominated a man walked into my office and introducted himself to me as one of Sen. McCain’s campaign organizers. He said, “Sen. McCain will be visiting Inez, Louisa and Huntington in a couple of days and I wanted to coordinate a few things with you at the airport.”
“That’s exciting, what can I do to help?”
“Actually there’s nothing you need to do, I’m just making you aware that the Straight Talk Express bus will be picking up Sen. McCain at your airport, then the jet will reposition to Huntington, WV. We would like to have ramp access for the bus, Sen. McCain will be on a very tight schedule and as soon a the jet lands we will be taking him quickly to Inez.”
“Yes Sir, no problem on the ramp access, I would however like to get the chance to shake Sen. McCain’s hand, if that’s possible.”
The champaign organizer grinned at me and said, “I think we will have time to make that happen but there will be no event at all at the airport, everyone will get their chance to see Sen. McCain at the courthouse in Inez. We don’t have time scheduled for anything here.”
“So I assume you would like for me to keep it quiet, that Sen. McCain will be flying into Big Sandy?”
“Well, that won’t be necessary, there just won’t be any event here at the airport, we just want ramp access so we can quickly whisk him out of here to Inez.”
“Yes Sir, we will be glad to accommodate you any way we can.”
Since I was told there was no need for secrecy the first thing I did was call my wife, Rossalene, and tell her of our special guest. Then I called my brother, Larry Joe, then my kids, and so on and so on…. just like a episode on Mayberry, the word got out that Sen. McCain, possibly the next President of the United States, was not only going to be at the courthouse in Inez but was flying into Big Sandy Regional Airport.
The next day the pilots of the plane informed me of the arrival time and a few minutes later, Mr. Robbie Fletcher, principal of Warfield Middle School, called and asked if I knew what time the jet would be landing.
“I was told 10 o’clock Robbie, (I have known Mr. Fletcher since he was a student at Warfield himself) but I was also told that there would not be any thing happening here at the airport, they were going to quickly take him to the courthouse in Inez.”
Mr. Fletcher said, “I think this is pretty exciting, I don’t want my students to miss the opportunity to see a United States Senator who may be the next President of the United States. If we take them to the courthouse there’s a good chance they won’t get to see him, not enough room, I think they will remember the jet landing and seeing him at the airport; I think this will be a good learning experience for them. With your permission I would like to bring my entire school, students, teachers and staff. Is that something we can do?”
“Yes, you can, we have plenty of room and I totally agree with you Robbie, I remember as a fifth grader getting to see President Johnson in Inez in 1964, I think it’s a great idea and we can accommade you with no problem.”
I also had about 30 people to call saying they would like to see Sen. McCain and planned on coming to the airport.
Remember – I was told I didn’t have to keep a secret!
About an hour before the jet was scheduled to land about 7 buses with Warfield students came inside the gate, I parked them on the side of the terminal in the grass. About 30 cars of adults were parked in the parking lot. I hadn’t heard back from the campaign organizer since our meeting a few days before. To tell the truth, I was kind of dreading to see him. Then he called, “Mr. Cox, the Straight Talk Express bus and I will be there in about 15 minutes, the jet with Sen. McCain will be there in about 30 minutes, will it be OK to come directly to the ramp when we arrive?”
I hated to tell him but the ramp was the only place left for anything to park. I had kids walking around looking at the planes, adults standing in line for the restrooms, the parking lot was full extending unto the grass, the scene here at the airport wasn’t like anything that young campaign organizer was expecting. I heard the air brakes go on the bus and when I looked up my campaign organizer was giving me a look like ‘what is going on here?’ I said with a grin, “The bad news is the word got out about Sen. McCain flying in, the good news is, all these people are wanting to see your candidate!”
I’m sure he thought he had just came in on the bus from Mt. Pilot and he was dealing with either Barney or Goober. I don’t know which one he thought I was but I have to say he handled it pretty well once he grasped the situation. He asked, “Where are you going to park the jet?”
I told him by the fuel farm and about ten seconds later the pilot called in.
“OK, let’s park the bus over here (about 300 ft from the fuel farm), after you get the jet parked I want all the kids lined up in two columns from the jet to the bus, can you get the kids organized? Then I want all of the adults wanting to see Sen. McCain by the flag pole!”
Mr. Fletcher’s kids were very well behaved, Robbie had a system of him clapping once and all the kids would clap twice, when he needed their attention. He had already done the clapping method a couple of times on how to behave at the airport and it really impressed me how well this worked and how disciplined his students were each time. We got the jet parked, the kids lined up and the adults gathered together.
The jet door opened and the organizer got onboard, the pilots got off and stood by the wing of the jet talking with me, they wanted refueled as soon as all the students were away from the jet so they could relocate. They were pretty surprised by the crowd of people. For what seemed about 10 minutes, no one got out of the jet. I guess they were briefing Sen. McCain on the unexpected crowd and how to handle the ‘situation’.
I did want to shake Sen. McCain’s hand but when he did exit the jet, I wasn’t looking and he walked right past me toward the adults by the flagpole. I had on a white shirt and the two pilots had on white shirts and I’m sure he just thought I was one of them. He was about 20 feet away from me when he realized he had walked by me, he turned and came back. I welcomed him to Big Sandy as I shook his hand and with a big grin he said, “I’m totally shocked at this welcoming party!”
Sen. McCain talked to all the adults and then went down the entire line of students on both sides speaking with and shaking hands with anyone of them that wanted to meet him. I was humbled knowing how his plans had fallen apart, he was on a tight schedule, had a courthouse full of people waiting on him and how much patience he showed to those students who weren’t old enough to vote for him.
We all know that he didn’t win the election but I hope that some of those same students who are now of voting age, remember meeting the man whose flag draped coffin was in the rotunda of the Capitol after his passing. If ten percent of them remembered that day, the trip to the airport was a good lesson of our democratic process, civics and American history. Good job Mr. Fletcher!
When he finally arrived at the courthouse in Inez he got to meet Pilgrim resident and Navy veteran, Larry Jack Adams, who served with Sen. McCain on the aircraft carrier USS Forrestal. Larry Jack and Sen. McCain were on the Forrestal at the same time, July 29, 1967 when a bomb set off a fire and 130 men lost their lives off the coast of Vietnam. It was an emotional reunion.
After refueling the McCain jet, I told the pilots who had been flying for Sen. McCain’s wife’s family for over 20 years, the whole story about the crowd and we had a good laugh before they repositioned to Huntington. Don’t know how late the Straight Talk Express was getting to Louisa and Huntington but I bet that campaign organizer never laughed too much that day!
Aircraft—7…7…3…Bravo…Charlie…departing runway 3… to the north…
Unicom—Thanks for the fuel sale…have a safe trip…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager of Big Sandy Regional Airport, owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties.)