Author’s note: I have decided to make a random flight with no goals except to fly. This is Part 2 of my adventure.
My airplane leapt off the runway and why not? With just me and partial fuel, on a crisp morning with temperatures in the low 40s, it was a perfect morning to fly. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and visibility was pegged somewhere around forever. Every flying part of an airplane likes the dense air of cold weather- the engine produces more power, the propeller gets a better bite, and the wings generate more lift. The only wind was about to be at my back, which meant an increased ground speed- I would go faster with the same power setting. I quickly settled in at 3000 feet, the altitude of choice for today’s non-mission. I switched on the autopilot and set the altitude hold, allowing me to settle in and just let my eyes have some fun for a change. I pulled my power back- I wasn’t trying to get anywhere fast. On the contrary, I had all day and wanted to savor this adventure. Slower speed meant more time flying.
In this part of South Carolina, mostly what you see are trees. In fact, what you are looking at is the Francis Marion National Forest, over a quarter of a million acres of trees and swamps. Francis “Swamp Fox” Marion is the Revolutionary War hero popularized in the Mel Gibson movie, “The Patriot”. However, the movie was an awful lot of Hollywood with little historical accuracy- so little, in fact, that in 2011, Time magazine listed it at the top of its “Top 10 Historically Misleading Films.” Simply put, Francis Marion could be as cruel as his British adversaries, though he never rounded up women and children in a church and burned them alive, as the British were depicted in one horrendous scene. As it turns out, the British never did that either.
Marion’s survival seems to have been due to a spectacular run of good luck. Early in the Revolutionary War, while he was stationed in Charleston, he had broken an ankle and left the city to recuperate, thus missing the siege and capture of that city by the Redcoats. When Marion joined General Horatio Gates, no fan of Marion, he was sent to Pee Dee area. Shortly afterward, Gates was routed by Cornwallis, suffering 2000 casualties in an engagement that was over in an hour’s time. The Battle of Camden was a humiliating loss for the Revolutionaries. Gates never held a field command again, but due to Gate’s dislike of the man, the Swamp Fox survived.
Almost every town or county in the United States named Marion, including my home county of Marion, Indiana, was named after this war hero. He had been mythologized by M.L. “Parson” Weems, an American author, who wrote “The Life of General Francis Marion”.” Weems was not particular about facts when they got in the way of legend, if his account of a young George Washington and his cherry tree is any example.
Marion’s namesake forest has had its own travails- in 1989, Hurricane Hugo destroyed as much as a third of its trees, and in fact, it’s not easy to find a tree today that predates the hurricane. Immediately afterward Hugo, and for many years more, driving the stretch of Highway 17 between Mt. Pleasant and Georgetown was a surreal trip through an entire forest of trees bent almost double, all in the direction of the 140+ mph winds.
Of course, from the sky, it just looks like a solid green mass of vegetation, almost completely uninhabited except for the occasional group of homes that resemble nothing more than an early settlement. You almost expect to see somebody walking up a dusty trail with a water bucket on their shoulders. But looking ahead, I could spot a major change in the landscape- the blue of Lake Moultrie, named after General William Moultrie, the commanding officer of Revolutionary forces in Charleston. Unlike Marion, Moultrie had not been fortunate enough to break an ankle, and was captured by the British when Charleston was captured after a siege of about six weeks.
The 60,000 acre man-made lake is the third largest in South Carolina, and was created in the early 1940s by the South Carolina Public Service Authority. It is where the world-record channel catfish (over 58 pounds) was caught, and where a swimmer lost an arm to an alligator in 2007. But it’s the Pinopolis Dam that really gets your attention. This earthen and concrete dam was completed in 1941 and is what actually forms Lake Moultrie. Boaters traversing between the lake and the Tailrace Canal must use the single-lift lock to negotiate the 75 foot difference between the two bodies of water. From the air it’s impressive, but this may be one instance in which it’s best viewed as intended- from the deck of a boat. Entering the lock from the Tailrace on the water is almost claustrophobic, despite it’s huge size. You can still see the sky above, but everything else is steel walls. It moves you up and down surprisingly fast, though. Every time I see it from the air, I wish I had a boat so I could experience the lock on a regular basis, but then, every time I’m on a boat I wish I were in an airplane.
Past Lake Moultrie is Lake Marion, named for you-know-who, and on the far shore was my destination- Santee Cooper Airport, though for many of us, it’s just Manning Airport. The airport is just south of the town of Manning, and as always, almost completely devoid of any activity. They do have a self-serve fuel station, with incredibly cheap aviation fuel, so I taxied up and started pumping. Once my tanks were full, I started kicking myself again for not bringing my passport, when it struck me- I could take a notebook, have it stamped at the airports, and then transfer it to the passport later. I rummaged through the airplane and pulled out the spiral-bound notebook used to register squawks, then went to the FBO building, only to find it locked. Darn it! I had forgotten that Manning was not one of those airports that kept its doors open on weekends. However, there was a mailbox mounted next to the door- could I be this lucky? I reached in and voila! -there was the airport stamp! I stamped my notebook; yes, this was a workable plan.
As I walked back to where my airplane was parked, I saw a sign that said “Restroom” and an arrow that pointed towards a rather new looking cinder-block building standing all by itself. Sure, I thought, why not? I walked over to the building and pulled on the door- locked. Really? What was the point of having a public restroom if it’s locked up? They clearly did not want pilots visiting this airport. I walked towards the airplane and turned to look at the building again. Using the restroom hadn’t been my original purpose, but now the suggestion was driving me- I really wanted to use men’s room. As I inspected the building’s exterior, I noticed an antenna on the top, looking for all the world like a Non-Directional Beacon (NDB.) Hmm…perhaps a more in-depth investigation was in order. I looked at the “Restroom” sign again and this time, let my eyes follow the direction of the arrow past the concrete building, over the grass, and to the row of hangars. Sure as heck, there it was- a small sign on a hangar door. I found the door unlocked and silently made a partial apology.
Once that was over, I did a quick pre-flight of my airplane and hesitated before I climbed into the cockpit to take one last look at the field. It struck me that in the 30 minutes or so I had been there, I had not seen one airplane land or take-off, and no movement at all on the ramp. Looking up, I saw a lone vulture, circling over the runway. Fitting, I thought- lonely and kind of depressing. Looking again, I realized that the bird was not a vulture, but some breed of hawk, a majestic bird of prey, probably looking for a meal, and now the scene went from depressing to hopeful. I was struck by how my perception had been changed by the type of bird I identified, even though the scene was essentially the same. Time to blast off, I thought, and I was soon climbing away once again into the beautiful morning.