An Outlandish Landing

It was 1942 and they were building half a dozen bomber training bases around the Panhandle of Texas. At the same time the army bought a couple sections of prairie land just north of the railroad tracks between Panhandle and Amarillo for a factory to build practice bombs. It wasn't long before building practice bombs turned into making the real things.

Shortly after the Pantex Ordnance Plant, as it was then called, began to make and ship bombs, they started building a small city about five miles west of the plant. They laid out streets, installed utilities and erected all sorts of houses. Some were made of stone blocks, some of brick, others of wood, and at the end of the main street were some made of bamboo shipped in from Florida. When it was finished, all one would have to do was move furniture in and start living there. All sorts of stories were going around about the purpose of this town, housing for Pantex employees, training area for soldiers and even a special training area for FBI. As it turned out, it was for testing the effects of different types of bombs on various structures. It became known as Boom City.

When WW-II ended, instead of closing as most such facilities did, Pantex expanded exponentially until it covered more land than Rhode Island and became known as Pantex Atomic Energy Facility. The original buildings were abandoned and a huge new complex was built some ten miles to the north. No one talked about what went on out there, but it was a great place to work if you could pass the security checks to get hired.

Glider photo

It's now 1972 and my fifteen-year-old son, Steve, was trying to make his first silver distance flight in our glider. It looked like a good day - cloud streets marched off to the northeast and the Borger airport would be just the right distance. I towed him off at Palo Duro Airport, put the towplane back in the hangar and headed out after him. He had worked his way around the municipal airport east of Amarillo and was following the highway toward Fritch when I caught up with him circling under the end of a cloud street.

A new cloud street was forming a few miles to the east so he headed for it. Dead air turned to sink and he soon found himself circling in zero sink a thousand feet above ground over a place that looked like Berlin in 1946. I could see him struggling to stay aloft about three miles east of the highway when I came to paved road going that direction through an open gate. There was an empty guardhouse and a huge sign which said, "Service Gate Only. All Others Use Main Gate on Highway 60". A mass of buildings could be seen on the horizon ten miles away. Now, I could find no good reason to drive twenty miles when there was an open gate and I was only three miles away.

By the time I arrived, he had set up a pattern to land in the open prairie across the road west of Boom City. Two men mowing grass along the road had stopped working to watch him land. As soon as he rolled to a stop, I pulled across the shallow bar ditch and in position to load the glider. My wife sat in the back door of the camper to watch us load. The two men waved, got into their truck and drove away.

It was a beautiful day as we casually removed the wings, laid them aside and I started rolling the fuselage toward the trailer with Steve guiding from the tail. It was then that I heard sirens screaming, looked up and saw half a dozen cars with gumball machines spinning as they roared toward us like the start of a NASCAR race at Talladega. We watched in awe as they screamed around the corner on smoking tires, bounded across the bar ditch and slid to a stop in a circle of dust around us. Doors flew open, the occupants rolled out in practiced precision and faces covered by shields appeared behind sawed-off shotguns aimed at us over the hoods. A speaker on top of a station wagon blared, "RAISE YOUR HANDS AND DON'T MOVE".

"Don't move," I instructed Steve as I raised one hand, the other occupied in keeping the fuselage from falling over. Sensing that six shotguns had us firmly in control, a guy wearing Sergeant strips edged around the front of the station wagon in an FBI crouch with pistol at the ready. He was jabbering rapidly into the radio in his free hand.

"Was anyone injured in the crash?" he asked.

"It's not a crash, my son just landed his glider here," I told him.

"Why did he land here?" he asked, still holding me at gunpoint.

"I ran out of air." said Steve from the tail, giving the age-old glider answer. That kid could find humor in a forest fire.

"You sure that no one was hurt in the crash," he asked.

"No, as I told you, my son just ran out of air and had to land, but I'm afraid that someone is going to get shot. Could you please have your men raise their guns a bit."

The Sergeant spoke hurriedly into the radio and two ambulances screaming in our direction turned off their sirens, turned around and headed back. As he edged closer, he signaled to his men and the barrels of their guns tilted up slightly.

"Could we load the fuselage onto the trailer so I don't have to hold it up?" I asked.

"No, not until we finish our investigation," he said as he peered into the cockpit.

The Sergeant moved out of the way as a Lieutenant arrived with the same questions, "Anyone hurt in the crash?"

"It's not a crash, my son just landed his glider here."

"Why did he land here?"

"Ran our of air."

"Can I load the fuselage?"

"Not until we finish..."

The Lieutenant gave way to a Major and he to a civilian wearing a cheap suit and a skinny tie. The cheap suit gave way to a better suit and him to some guy who flashed a badge and identification card. They all had the same questions: Anyone hurt in the crash? It's not a crash. Why did he land here? Ran out of air. Can I load the fuselage? Not until we finish...

You could tell the pecking order by who got out of whose way when they arrived. A photographer came to take pictures and some guy with a sniffer box went over the ship. After almost two hours there were twenty or thirty people standing around and I was still holding the fuselage.

An Oldsmobile drove up and a man with a familiar face stepped out. I recognized him from working on the United Way Fund Drive. He was the plant manager and everyone got out of his way. "Hi there," I said as I introduced myself. We shook hands as he looked at the sailplane.

"I've been standing here holding this fuselage for two hours," I told him. "Can I load it on the trailer?"

"Of course," he said. "Some of you men help him load it."

A dozen pair of hands grabbed the fuselage and carried it to the trailer. As I secured the fuselage, people were there with the wings. It was loaded in a matter of minutes.

My wife, who had been silent through all this, finally spoke up with the most obvious question, "What would happen if something important happened? Everyone is here."

The plant manager looked around and said, "Why ARE all these people out here? Send them back where they belong." They scattered like a flock of spooked quail; all of them that is except the guys with flack jackets, face shields and shotguns. They didn't move from behind their cars.

"You are lucky that you didn't land across the road," said the Sergeant. This is only a C Security area and that's a B area over there.

One white car with gumball machine on top positioned himself in front of us and three behind as we pulled back onto the road. They escorted us to the gate and as we pulled away, they closed and locked the gate.

I'm certainly glad that we didn't land in the dreaded B Security area or they might have shot us.

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Copyright 2000 by Jim Foreman