BY: Jack Serig, Sr.

    This event occurred flying my first cross-country night solo out of Gary Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas, in Army Primary Flight Training, mid-1955.

    Flight planning had been completed earlier in the day in the classroom.  Our planning equipment consisted of a E-6B dead reckoning computer, type MB-4; a strap-on-the-knee clipboard containing our flight log; pencils; and appropriate maps. We wore Army issue flight suits, combat boots and baseball-style fatigue caps, with the traditional one small metal nut pinned to the cap.  We were rewarded the one-nut pin when we soloed.  We would receive two nuts upon completion of our primary training with the Air Force.

    Our night pre-flight briefing required that we fly a cross-country triangular pattern over two cities, one northeast and one northwest of New Braunfels, where Gary AFB was located, and return to Gary. Weather conditions were clear.  No haze, no moon.

    We were flying Piper Cubs designated by the Army as L-4’s, a tandem two-seater. There were no radios.  We would be monitored by two of our Air Force instructors in a radio-equipped T-6 trainer who would fly back and forth between the several trainees’ flights, allocated different routes, for safety. Of our flight group, I happened to finish my aircraft pre-flight first and was number l for takeoff after taxiing to the designated runway.  Since there was no radio communication we used our landing light to notify the tower that we were ready. The tower would clear us for takeoff with a “green light”, “red” if there were a need for delay. After the pre-takeoff check and upon receiving the “green light” I lined up on the centerline climbing out to the pre-planned flight route.

    There was a zillion stars peppering the sky.  It was truly a beautiful, clear night.  Everything was perfect.  What could possibly go wrong? My time-distance calculations, considering wind conditions at the assigned altitude, were within 1-minute over the two designated cities’ checkpoints. As I turned over the second city to head back toward Gary I noted the long line of red and green flashing wing lights of my classmates behind, following my lead.

    Our instructions on entering the airfield’s control pattern, for landing at Gary AFB, on returning, was to enter a high pattern, flash our landing lights, and remain at altitude while awaiting the tower operator’s “green light”. Upon getting the “green” we were to let down to the lower pattern level, staying in the pattern and flashing our landing light for the final “green” to land. When I received the “green” in the lower downwind pattern there was no one in front of me since I was the first to takeoff and the first back. Being in the lower pattern I could see the flashing wing lights of several ships in the higher pattern above.  

    Before turning to left base, the training that had been verbally pounded into us since program inception, took over.  I looked behind to my left.  Finding nothing, I looked up through the plastic cockpit overhead canopy to further clear myself before the left turn.  The right wing light of another aircraft was descending rapidly over my craft.  It was in a diving left turn directly above me. So he couldn’t see me.  I dove straight ahead.  The right wing of the aircraft above me passed within several feet of my canopy.  Had I failed to look up, and had I made the left turn, a mid-air collision would have occurred. After realizing I was alive, by only a few feet, I looked back to my left for his aircraft tail number. But I was already too far below him, it was too dark, and I was busy concentrating on pulling out of my dive and pulling out of the pattern.  I was so mad at my unknown flight-mate that all I could think about was punching him out if I ever found out who he was.  I can’t remember being nervous.  Just mad as hell!

    I climbed back to the upper pattern altitude, re-entered and went through the entire process again with the “green light” procedure, landing without further incident. I taxied back to an open tiedown slot on the parking apron, completed the post-flight shutdown and stepped out of the aircraft.  I fell to the ground because my legs buckled.  They felt like jelly.  I actually crawled to the edge of the apron and sat for a while gathering my strength. I was totally drained. I could not physically walk. The apron was empty of people.  Since I was last to land, all those landing before me had proceeded to the briefing room for post flight de-briefs with our instructors.

    Never found out who my near crash-mate was.  I’m convinced he never knew I was there and he never knew how close we both had courted disaster. I’ve always been appreciative of the constant verbal pounding of the instructors,“LOOK BEFORE YOU TURN!”