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Connections

By Hugh Oldham

 

Stepping on the Montana site where he will build his new summer home, Big Dog places his lawn chair where he can view the surrounding mountains, lights a fine cigar, fill his glass with good wine and prepares to select the view from his future front porch.

 

His Native American ancestors speak to him; “Look east, not at the setting sun, but from where the future comes.”  He turns his gaze from the beautiful sunset and one particular mountain, across the wide valley, several ridges and miles away draws his full attention.  What is so special about this particular mountain is unknown to him, yet he knows that his new home must face THAT mountain.   He tells his contractor that the house shall face THIS way!

 

Several months later, the contractor mails him a topographical map of the area.  On this map, THE mountain is circled in red: THE mountain’s name – Thunderbird! 

 

With this story, a long and very personal interview with “Vintage Thunderbird” pilot, Fowler “Big Dog” Cary continued.  Taking place in the study of his family home in Batesburg-Leesville, South Carolina, across the street from his grandfather’s icehouse, where Fowler worked as a teenager, this writer got to see a side of a man he thought he knew well – yet was surprised at the depth, breath and intellect of a true southern gentleman and, as trite as it may sound, a true American.

 

Those of you who have met Big Dog at an airshow may know him as the wonderful, big, boisterous, cigar chomping, hard flying, hard playing pilot of the T-33 “Vintage Thunderbird.”  Yet, if you have had the opportunity to get closer to this mountain of a man you may have discovered the multifaceted personality of a very complex individual.

 

Fowler grew up the son of a US Air Force officer in the early fifties.  He saw his first T-33 in Germany as a youngster and a “connection” was made.  That concept of “connection” is very important to Fowler; it follows through his life as a thread that binds his story together like a fine, complex tapestry.   The T-33 connection would not surface until much later in his life, yet Fowler knew he wanted to “fly fast jets.”

 

That desire sent him to the Citadel, The Military College of South Carolina, where he planned a career as an Air Force fighter pilot.  At the beginning of his third year, a minor medical problem knocked him out of the Air Force Pilot tract.  Despondent, he dropped out of the Cid, and returned to Batesburg-Leesville and the icehouse.     

 

Fowler’s effervescent personality would not allow him to stay down for long.  He completed Wofford College and began a career in investments and finance with the Wachovia Corporation.  He went on to start what has become a highly successful investment company, CCM Investment Advisers.

 

The dream of “flying fast jests” was still there, deep inside his heart.  The “connection” was made when Fowler saw a newspaper ad, placed by Randal Hames, for rides and instructions in Randal’s T-33.  Although it was very early in the morning, Fowler called Randy at his home in Gaffney , SC , and booked “a demo flight.”  That one flight and Fowler was hooked!

 

When Fowler returned for yet another, then another flight with Randy, the idea of a partnership on the T-33 was broached and Randy and Fowler become co-owners of the jet.  Some partnerships lead to friction; this one lead to deep friendship and respect; a relationship Fowler describes as more a brotherhood then business relationship.

 

These two intense and highly successful businessmen flew the jet back and forth across the United States .  Flying airshows and enjoying the camaraderie of the fighter pilot community was a perfect antithesis to the stress business, but it also deepened Fowler’s respect for the men and women of America ’s Armed Forces and intensified this man’s pride in his country and its people.

 

Randall and Fowler developed into a highly proficient flight crew flying a crisp aerobatic routine in the T-33.  Working as a well-integrated team, Randy flew the maneuvers while Fowler acted as the WSO or GIB, operating systems, monitoring pull through altitudes and serving as a safety pilot.  Their professionalism in the air was hidden behind their ground-based persona, but once the “wheels were in the wells,” it was all business.

 

Maybe this was one of the reasons the news of Randall’s death, taking off in his Heilo-Courier from his private air-strip behind his house, was so hard for all of us to take.

 

The “connections” become complex when a personal note is added: Randall Hames introduced this writer to aerobatics in the late sixties when he allowed me to fly his home-built Franklin powered Pitts at a fly-in in Camden SC.

 

On the day of Randall’s memorial service in Spartanburg ,  I stood at show center at the Athens Georgia airport and watched as the T-33 made a slow pass down the runway and pitched out for landing at the conclusion of its performance.  I knew that Fowler was keeping a commitment made by Randy to the Athens airshow.  I also knew that Fowler had given the eulogy at Randy’s service, departed in the T-33 to fly a missing man formation at the service, turned and headed to fly the Athens airshow .  I was not surprised when, after engine shutdown, Fowler sat in the front cockpit an extra long time.  I was surprised that when Fowler slid off the wing of the T-33, the two of us embraced and we stood there and publicly wept, unashamed at our grief at the loss of a friend.

 

Today, that “connection” continues.  Big Dog readily admits that Randall is still with him as he flies the T–33.  At the next airshow, look at the front cockpit rim as the Vintage Thunderbird taxies to the ramp.  Neatly stenciled there, as permitted under USAF Regs, is the pilot’s name: Randall K. Hames. 

 


To visit:

VINTAGE THUNDERBIRd

and
Fowler "BIG DOG" Cary, Jr.

Click on the T-33