In the summer of 1960, my family journeyed from the east coast to the west coast of the United States. The focal point of this trip was Marfa, Texas, specifically the Marfa Army Airfield (MAAF) left over from World War II. One might ask oneself, why would a family target MAAF as a destination during the hottest time of the year?
To answer that question, a brief background of my dad is in order. Born of a family with a history in aviation, he held a Silver Certificate from the Soaring Society of America along with powered flight qualifications. In simple terms, Dad was a sailplane pilot who loved to soar above the land in his Schweizer 1-26 sailplane. Starting in the late 1950s, talk of powerful lifting thermal currents in the Marfa region was a buzz conversation amongst American sailplane pilots.
Two pilot friends of my dad’s agreed to a rendezvous designed to experience Marfa’s soaring climate. We pulled Dad’s Schweizer on a trailer behind our 1956 Chevrolet station wagon. This was accomplished by disconnecting the wings and loading them on both sides of the fuselage upon a specially designed trailer. After initially meeting with the other pilots in Monahans, we caravanned south with our vehicles, trailers, and precious cargo. Our unusual parade passed through Fort Stockton and Alpine. Some people watched us go by with quizzical looks on their faces. Westbound on Highway 90 seemed to get hotter by the mile as the heat mirage shimmered before us on the highway.
There appeared before us on the south side of the highway a single large hangar identifying MAAF. Driving through the adobe-walled entrance, we arrived at our destination. Ramp areas and runways of asphalt and concrete greeted us with expansive room to launch and land the aircraft. This was perfect for our plan to use a 1000-foot towline pulled by the station wagon. The towline attached to the release hitch on the nose of the sailplane. When airborne, the pilot would release the hitch hundreds of feet above the ground and quickly catch the closest thermal to gain altitude. We parked the trailers at the hangar and headed to Marfa to find a place to stay for our visit.
By 1960, Marfa had established itself as the place where the epic movie production Giant was filmed a few short years prior. The massive expanse of open range powerfully portrayed in the movie was a part of the strength of Texas. In the center of town, the Paisano Hotel reverberated of celebrities who stayed there in 1955 during filming. We stayed at the fledgling Thunderbird Motel on Highway 90, as did the other two pilots and their parties. Kitchenettes were a common part of travel motels then. Mom made good use of that feature to prepare daily meals. There was a pool and common area that made the atmosphere hospitable. That evening the three pilots gathered with our entire group and recounted the excitement about stories of Marfa’s preeminent place in soaring history. Would we find these stories to be true?
My mom, brother, and I served as my dad’s crew. We assembled the sailplane by rolling the fuselage off the trailer and carrying the wings into position for attachment to said fuselage, thus creating an intact aircraft. On a daily basis, all flight surfaces were checked, controls checked, oxygen cylinder and mask checked, parachute checked, lunch and water loaded. This was done with all three sailplanes. Each pilot would climb into his cockpit, the aircraft was hooked one at a time to the towline, launched, released, and then silently soared to thermal air lifting from the hot ground below.
Our first full day at MAAF had fantastic flight conditions. Towering cumulus clouds displayed proof of powerful air masses at work. Daytime heat rose in rotating columns of super-heated thermal air currents from the desert floor to heights of 40- to 50-thousand feet. Thermal activity was often observed as prolific dust devils through the shimmering heat mirages in the distance. These orbiting columns of rising air were exactly the thing that brought the sailplane pilots to MAAF. Marfa displayed its amazing qualities of premier air for soaring. The flyers’ days consisted of goal and return flights to places called Mt. Livermore, Chinati Peak, Cathedral Mountain, Emory Peak and more. These aviators were experiencing the truth about Marfa’s profound air!
While the pilots flew off for a full day of soaring, those of us left at MAAF were on leisure time. The adults, my mom included, tended to relax over iced tea and a book in the shadiest and breeziest spot possible in a corner of the hangar. Lunch consisted of freshly made sandwiches and ice cold Coca-Cola from a big ice chest. This leisure time meant exploration time for my brother and me.
The MAAF had been a large military operation at the height of the war. Clearly visible were numerous empty foundations where structures of all types were hastily built for the war effort in the 1940s.
The airfield was impressively large with three 7,500 foot-long runways and miles of connecting taxiways.
The large ramp area could accommodate many dozens of aircraft. The highlight was the main hangar, which still stood proudly. Amazingly, two abandoned AT-17 aircraft were parked inside. The hangar had office and storage spaces along both sides of the structure. Within many of the storage rooms were boxes of old radio equipment and flight instruments. For my brother and I, these planes and this hangar would become our biggest adventure. The AT-17s became our place to sit in the cockpit for hours, pretending we were flying through the big war, feeling as if we could be the heroes in the battles for the free world. In our minds, we must have dropped so many bombs on the evil forces that no more bombs were left. We wore old radio headsets pulled out of the hangar storage rooms. The planes flew thousands of miles across massive oceans to accomplish our missions. The imaginations of two boys, twelve and nine years old, could do anything. Many hours were spent at the controls of the planes. Fantastic feats of victory were our reward. We felt like movie heroes of the day, far better than John Wayne or Jimmy Stewart ever were!
The old runway edges had numerous wild gourd vines growing in a patchwork tangle of leaves and dried gourds. One day, in the brief early morning coolness, Mom was out for a walk with the dog along a runway when she encountered a rattlesnake in a gourd patch. She pulled the dog back and they ran back to the hangar. That incident caused her to establish the rule that we boys never were to approach any gourd patches! I always wondered how long that rule was in effect. I have seen rattlesnakes many times since that day, but I’ve never seen one in a gourd patch.
On a torrid Friday afternoon, we heard the sound of aircraft engines approaching from a distance.
Curiosity got the better of me, so I strolled out of the shady hangar and was surprised to see a DC-3 landing at the airfield. It was a Trans Texas Airways (TTA) plane doing a non-scheduled stop to drop off two passengers going to Alpine. We were honored to meet the flight crew, who were going from El Paso to San Antonio. They explained that TTA in the 1950s was a regularly scheduled airline in and out of MAAF. We just happened to be there when they were doing a surprise brief stop. The airline crew was so pleased to see us at MAAF that they gave me a souvenir photo of their plane, which I have kept to this day. That TTA DC-3 landing at Marfa was one of those rare moments in time.
On day five of our Marfa visit, hot, dry motionless air, as flat as a pancake, met the dawn. The sky was cloudless and not a breeze stirred. By mid-morning it was determined to be a non-soaring day.
The other pilots and their crews decided to stay at The Thunderbird to relax around the pool and rest.
My dad, on the other hand, opted to drive to the border and visit Mexico. Mom loaded sandwich fixins and drinks in the cooler, we left the dog with the people staying behind, and Dad headed our station wagon south. It was a late enough start that just about the time we got to Shafter, we were all hungry. It was hot, dry, and dusty in the abandoned mining town. The temperature was well over 100 degrees. We found a picnic table under a shade tree. Mom started making sandwiches, but as quickly as she made a sandwich, the bread dried. Our lunch was highlighted by eating sandwiches on crunchy toasted bread.
Shortly after leaving Shafter, we arrived at the Presidio border crossing. That day there were two customs agents on duty. Dad inquired about the best way to cross to Ojinaga (evidently the old crossing bridge was under repair). One of the agents stepped out of the customs house and waved across to the Mexican side. In minutes a big four door Buick splashed its way across the shallow Rio Grande and lumbered up to our location. This was our Mexican taxi. We climbed in and off we went. The driver headed straight across the rocky riverbed, “pedal to the metal.” About halfway across, he yelled, “Abierta las puertas!” – “Open the doors!” So, we opened the doors. And as he plowed through the shallow river, the water flowing across the floorboards, we propped our feet up to stay dry. That big Buick made it across without hesitation. He dropped us off on the south side of the Rio Grande with the village of Ojinaga right before us. We spent all afternoon walking around town.
Mom and Dad had cold cervezas. My brother and I enjoyed ice cold Coca Colas. We ate fabulous tacos at a little café. Our first time in Mexico was a great little visit. Everywhere we went, the people were joyful and greeted us with warm hospitality. My parents bought two bottles of tequila each to carry back with us. The taxi driver took us back across the Rio Grande, Dad paid him, and we parted ways with smiles and handshakes.
That evening back at The Thunderbird, I learned more about the role that tequila has. Based on conversations among the adults, not only does tequila have a place in Mexican heritage, it may well be mixed in with some Texas heritage also. I felt like a kid surrounded by a bunch of happy campers!
For several more days, Marfa Army Airfield provided overwhelming proof of spectacular soaring conditions over the Big Bend territory. This story relates a brief period in time that this terrain, this air, this weather and these pilots joined to share the experience of Marfa soaring. This unique event became forever etched in my memory.
Marfa had shown our family its enduring warmth, hospitality, and charm during our special visit.
We soaked in the heritage that is embedded there. The vast landscape and magnificent mountains that surround this special area are a gift to all those who set foot there, as I found out personally in 1960.
Russ Petre retired from firefighting prior to moving to Texas in 1997 where he sold fire trucks for more than two decades. He coincidently taught at various fire schools, including Texas A & M Municipal Fire School and Mile High Fire and Rescue School hosted by the Fort Davis Volunteer Fire Department in 2007–2008. No stranger to the Big Bend region, he and his wife, Cindy enjoy every visit to this marvelous area. Russ believes the people and the landscape in Marfa are the finest that Texas has to offer. He now enjoys retirement on their ranchette outside Denison, Texas. Email: email@example.com