November’s flight-of-the-month found Connie and me flying to Gilliam-McConnell Airfield in Carthage, North Carolina on the 11th. We picked this airport for the pork barbecue restaurant located right on the field, the Pik-N-Pig, but found much more on our little Veteran’s Day adventure.
A mere 22 nautical miles from Raleigh Executive Jetport (KTTA) near Sanford, the flight to Gilliam-McConnell lasted about 20 minutes. But the destination runway was short, so after we took off from Raleigh Exec in our Wings of Carolina Flying Club four-seat Cessna 172, I asked Connie if she’d mind if we did a touch and go before heading to the southwest. With relatively low windspeeds, I didn’t anticipate any trouble landing at Gilliam-McConnell, but its asphalt strip runs about half of Raleigh Exec’s 5,000 feet, and I wanted to see how short I could land in the current conditions.
Given the day’s winds and the orientation of the two runways, a landing at Raleigh Exec would give me crosswinds similar in magnitude though opposite in direction to landing at Gilliam-McConnell – a good test. After a smooth take-off and once around the pattern, we could have stopped our landing roll-out well short of the runway’s halfway mark – a confidence-builder. Time to go get some pig.
Tall trees surround Gilliam-McConnell’s narrow airstrip. With its orientation nearly perpendicular to our approach from the east-northeast, we didn’t see the field much before we were on top of it. Connie noted after we landed that she never saw the field until we had lined up on our final approach. Guess she had confidence that I was making three 90-degree turns for a good reason. We overflew the field intending to turn left onto a downwind leg for our landing on runway 31. An oncoming Piper had announced it was inbound from the west, and just before starting my turn onto the downwind, I spotted it out my left window.
“Gilliam-McConnell traffic, Cessna 53587 has inbound traffic from the west in sight. We’ll do a 360 here and then enter a left downwind for runway 31, Gilliam-McConnell.”
Better to make a turn than risk a mid-air collision. Coming out of the turn, it took a few seconds to pick out the other plane as it initiated its turn to base. We were number two for landing. Another inbound aircraft mentioned it was five miles south, so we kept our eyes peeled for that one as we made our turn to base above the tall trees rising closer below us.
Did I mention the tall trees surrounding the runway? The winds remained calm on final approach, well, until we reached the tops of those tall trees. They form a little, that is, narrow, tunnel down to the end of runway 31. We flew from smoothly calm wind into a bit of buffeting as we dipped towards the tops of those trees.
Have you ever been in a commercial jet climbing up or descending through a cloud layer? As you approach the elevation of the clouds, you get an exciting sensation of your speed as the clouds go zipping by. Jets go really fast, but you don’t often realize how fast until you see those clouds zooming along right outside your window.
Those trees surrounding Gilliam-McConnell, they didn’t zip by that fast since our approach landing speed was only about 65 miles per hour, but they were close. It felt like entering a tunnel as those tree tops rose up above us as fast as the ground reached up for the belly of our aircraft. The buffeting kept me from fully appreciating the tunnel effect as I kept us on the runway’s centerline at an appropriate descending slope and airspeed.
We passed over the numbers at the end of the runway, in this case a big 31, and touched down near the center of the black asphalt strip several hundred feet later. With room to spare, we turned left onto the taxiway just past the runway’s midpoint, and headed back to the grass outside the Pik-N-Pig.
The pork barbeque melted in my mouth, worth the $105 per hour it took to fly there. During the meal we enjoyed watching planes land and take off 40 yards from our table. Then we went outside to browse the monuments and parked P-40 World War II era fighter between the restaurant and the runway, and discovered another reason to visit Gilliam-McConnell airport.
First, on one monument we discovered that the second of the two people the airfield was named after had been a member of the Lafayette Escadrille, an elite First World War fighter squadron based in France. James McConnell joined up in 1916, eager to fight against Germany. He died in the skies above the Somme battlefield on March 19th, 1917, flying his biplane in a dogfight with two German aircraft. He was the last American aviator to die in France before the United States officially entered the war alongside France.
Two additional monuments commemorated another fallen American aviator and North Carolina native, this one Robert Hoyle. Second lieutenant Hoyle flew P-40 Warhawks as a member of the 74th Fighter Squadron, better known as the Flying Tigers. These volunteer American aviators fought for China against the Japanese during World War II. Robert Hoyle was shot down on October 6, 1944 over mountains in Hunan Province. He was returning from a strafing mission, ran into bad weather, and crashed.
Residents of Guidong County, near the crash site in south central China, found the wreck and his body shortly after the crash, but the debris left little in the way of identification. They only knew he had been fighting for them, and they buried him nearby with full honors under a monument with the simple epitaph, “American Pilot of the Flying Tigers.” For over 60 years, citizens in Guidong County cared for the hero’s grave and wondered who he was.
Robert Hoyle’s family knew only that he’d been reported missing in action. In 1945 the U.S. Army Air Force officially presumed he was dead. In 2005, a team of American military forensic experts visited three provinces in China, and during a month-long trip examined the remains buried in Guidong County. Based on DNA evidence provided by family relatives, they identified those remains as belonging to 2nd lieutenant Robert Hoyle.
Sixty-one years after he died fighting in a foreign country, Robert Hoyle’s family discovered his fate, and the Chinese citizens learned the name of the hero they’d been honoring for over half a century. In April of 2006, Chinese officials accompanied Robert Hoyle’s remains on a long-overdue return flight to American soil. After a burial service, 2nd Lt. Hoyle went to his final rest in High Falls, North Carolina.
After crawling over the P-40 replica at Gilliam-McConnell, it was time for us to return home. Climbing out at 80 knots we quickly cleared those tall trees surrounding the airfield and turned to a 50-degree heading that would take us to Raleigh Executive Jetport. Reluctant to end our Veteran’s Day adventure, I asked Connie if she’d mind if we did a touch and go. She did not mind. Minutes later we shut down on the ramp outside the Wings of Carolina hangar, recorded 1.0 hours from 53587’s Hobbs meter, and tied her down.