Corvallis flying and Col. James McPherson
by T. Dietz
Colonel James (Jim) McPherson (USAF, Ret.)
1992 and with a year remaining of my National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, I uprooted once again and headed to Oregon State University in Corvallis. I was to continue working with the eminent biochemical adaptation expert, Dr. George Somero who was taking an endowed Chair in the Department of Zoology.
Not wanting to miss any flying time, I discovered the OSU flying club headquartered out of the Corvallis Municipal airport (KCVO). Immediately, I hooked myself up with a check out in the club’s high (Cessna 172), and low wing (Mooney M20C) planes.
From that day I distinctly remember meeting Colonel McPherson who, at the time, I did not know was a Colonel (Ret.). Jim stands about 5’5” and is one of those men who instantly commands respect. He was genuinely friendly but with an incredible air of authority. My memories of that day however are co-mingled with the many flights we spent side by side, learning lessons of flying, hard work, respect, integrity, courage, and much more. I spent enough time with Jim that when I left Oregon for the Bay Area, I knew I had a friend and mentor for life. We stayed in close contact over the years, through letters, emails and the occasional visit in California or Oregon. He followed my career with great interest and a highlight was Jim writing an incredible recommendation for me to the astronaut selection program. It cannot be said enough, I respected the hell out this man.
Sunday night: Flight planning for the trip to Corvallis in our Cessna T206. I had two routes mapped out, one at 388nm and another at 400nm depending on weather in the mountains. I planned for 10,500 feet, about 3 hours of flying, 50 gallons of fuel, and activated the engine pre heat system for the night.
Monday: After another weather briefing we (Leslie and I) were “wheels up” at 8:30amPDT and headed for Corvallis, the most Western U.S. City in the lower 48. With clear skies and visibility unlimited, we opted for the quicker route heading directly up to Fort Jones, Oregon, then over Medford and Eugene, arriving with almost a straight line into Corvallis. We climbed quickly to 10,500’ with air traffic control flight following for the journey.
Considering the weather had been in a warming trend, we were a little surprised to see snow on the lower elevation peaks in the Snow Mountain Wilderness area (7,000’), the Yolla Bolly Middle Eel Wilderness area (8,100’) and the Trinity National Forest (7,700’). Alternatively, we fully expected to see Mt. Shasta (14,170’) in full winter wear and were not disappointed. The entire Cascade range was in its full spectacular glory, a sight that you can not appreciate until you’re just a few miles away at eye level with the “White Mountain”.
As you fly in it’s vicinity, you remember, Shasta has the potential to be active, being about 200 years into a 6-800 year active cycle. It’s comprised of 4 overlapping volcanic cones and one of its seven named glaciers, Whitney, was the first glacier discovered and named in the U.S.
The weather and sun also highlighted the other prominent peaks in the Cascades. Above Mt. Shasta and starting in Oregon – Mt. McLoughlin (9,495’), followed by “The Three Sisters” (10,370’), Mt. Hood (11,249’), Mt. St. Helens (8,365’) and Mt. Adams (12,281’). We tried to convince ourselves we also saw Mt. Ranier (14,410’).
We touched down in very uncrowded space at KCVO, with only one Japanese student helicopter pilot gearing up for a training flight. Post landing we refueled, put the bird undercover for the duration and caught a taxi to the inexpensive, but centrally located, University Inn. By this time I too needed refueling, so we caught some lunch and tried to craft a plan to visit some of the local Wilamette Valley vineyards. Unfortunately all closed on account of it being Monday. Oh well. We next set out on foot to visit my old haunting grounds of Oregon State University. Although I’d been up to Corvallis in the interim, I hadn’t been on campus for over 20 years.
After our bucolic walk to campus, through the turn of the century Victorian homes, we were astonished by the growth. In fact, the student population has grown from around 13,000 when I was there to over 30,000. The campus infrastructure had grown to match, so my curiosity got the better of me and we mapped our way to the old Department of Zoology (now Integrative Biology) in Cordley Hall. Surprisingly, not much has changed in this old building. Pushing a door off the lobby we were confronted with magical cabinets filled with old bird taxidermy on display. Not great lighting but I had to take some photos.
As we approached the picture board of faculty, I was drawn to two faces, Dr. Barb Taylor and Dr. Art Boucot.
With little trepidation, we headed to Barb Taylor’s office and pleasantly surprised her. She recognized me right away, and that started a fantastic 3-hour visit where we got caught up on personal lives, science, politics and travel. The other faculty member I hankered to see was the eminent Dr. Art Boucot. I soon found out he passed away this past April. Art was/is a legend in the world of paleontology, a prolific scientist and author elucidating for the world the rules and patterns of evolution and extinction. Art’s office was across from mine at OSU and I was fascinated by him. Despite his general grumpiness, I was allowed to roam through his extensive fossil collections, giving us significant time discussing old school versus new school science and the history of life on the planet. I was also privy to several of his ongoing combative correspondence with the famous paleontologist, Stephen J. Gould. Art knew of my passion for flying and revealed that he’d been a navigator on B-24 liberators earning the Distinguished Flying Cross, an Air Medal and other commendations. The Boucot Plateau of the Geologist Range in Antarctica is named for him.
Walking from campus, we headed to the River for cocktails and dinner. Les indulged in an original Hemingway daiquiri while I worked my way through 3 single malts (Macallan 12, Bowmore 12, and a Highland Park 12). After a great meal of tapas we headed back to the University Inn.
Tuesday: Up and at ‘em, we met Bill Dougherty for breakfast. Jim had introduced me to Bill soon after joining the flying club. Bill was already a tenured faculty member and one of the youngest, not to mention a brilliant scientist with a hankering for adventure. Our introduction came about with Jim thinking it would be great for Bill to have me ride in the right seat, learning tips and sharing expenses. Of course Jim was right, Bill and I would become good friends, spending countless hours in the cockpit flying all over Oregon night and day. A free spirit, Bill gave up the “comfy” academic life and became a hugely successful car parts maven back in North Carolina. Bill had flown in for his annual Northwestern fishing trip and it was Bill who organized our joint visit with Jim.
As we approached Jim and his wife Patsy’s front door, I had mixed feelings about seeing him on the very far side of life. But the instant he opened the door and saw Bill and then looked past to me, with instant recognition and a broad smile, only good emotions flowed. Jim knew Bill was coming but we hadn’t told him I’d be along as weather could have gotten in the way of the flight, and we didn’t want to disappoint. He said he had a feeling I’d be along and he was thrilled Leslie came as well.
Col. James K. McPherson (USAF, Ret.) was a graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, 1955. He was the commander of the 559 Flying Training Squadron from June 1972 to June 1974. Taking over the Squadron with its conversion from a combat and training unit, to an instructor training squadron for both U.S. and friendly nation instructor crews, it has a proud history dating back to 1941. Prior to this assignment, Jim was a fighter pilot in numerous jet fighters, and after being shot down in combat, wrote a manual on how to bring a damaged jet to ground.
We spent a couple of hours catching up with Jim, who was a very active participant. Unfortunately, Patsy was not able to really converse with us. Jim offered Bill and I some books and one on the Rheinbeck aerodrome hit home as it was where I had my first exposure to small planes. Although I really wanted the book I felt that his son Jimmy should have the collection and said as much stepping away and worried I’d hurt his feelings.
We then spent another couple of hours at lunch where Jim recounted a few good flying stories and a few military administrative nightmares, all good stuff. I was clear we wouldn’t have a lot or even one more gathering all together. We then had the difficult task of saying goodbye but we still grabbed a picture for the album. Not even the Colonel could keep his emotions completely in check which made it even more difficult a parting. Jim looks great in this photo but it didn’t capture (happily) his frailty. Oh, and he did not like my beard – not one bit at all.
Back to Corvalis Muni for a preflight briefing, inspection and oil top off. We planned for 11,500’ and 3:45 minutes (a 14kt headwind was neither desirable nor helpful) on a straight line back to the Bay Area. I’d have a lot of time to think about the visit, Jim and Patsy, and how fleeting our time is here. We launched at around 3pm and as we got to Medford and the mountains, we encountered building cumulous and light/moderate turbulence. To save fuel and time I had my climb as fairly shallow at 300 ft/min. But by the time we got to 9,500’ I would have gone up to 13,500’ to clear the clouds. With that we opted to stay at 9,500’ and head toward Shasta/ Redding to get better weather and lots of “outs’ for the remainder of the flight. Although a little longer, we picked up a tail wind west of Redding and managed to wheels down in 3:20 despite an extra 20nm of flying. I also lost my digital turbine induction temperature probe about an hour or so into the flight (despite being new) but had a back up in the ship’s original gauge.
I’ve since had a touching email exchange with Jim re the visit and we both thanked each other for our time together.
I’ll say it again; I respect the hell out of that man.