Eugene Patterson: The Best Copilot I Ever Had
But it was a flight from New Orleans to Tampa soon after 9/11 that set the bar. I had taken the plane to KMSY for a two-day visit at the surgery department at the Ochsner Clinic. Cathy and Gene and another couple were to airline to New Orleans on a Saturday morning and ride home in Cheyenne comfort on Sunday. Fearful of the long lines common after the 9/11 disasters, they all arrived at the airport with ridiculous time to spare, only to find that the bar had a two-for-one offer before 8 a.m. Apparently, this could not be passed up. When I caught up with the revelers around noon, it was clear that they were just getting started. The ensuing 28 hours were said to cause damage second only to Katrina. I went to bed early; I couldn’t keep up.
The next morning, a hurricane was bearing down on Tampa and I wanted to get going. It was not an easy crowd to wake up. We had virtually no weather until the last 10 minutes of the flight. Gene wrote wonderful thank-you notes, and I have kept this one from that trip: “As you know, Joyce paid my way on Southwest and you paid my way back on Air Karl, so I feel I’ve enjoyed the cheapest transportation. More important, I got to fly co-pilot to a basically unemployed captain who keyed a few numbers in the autopilot and drank coffee.”
Gene took great interest in my learning the Learjet, though he was worried that a guy my age couldn’t keep up with the speeds. After reading a draft of a column about my first revenue flight as a first officer for Elite Air in St. Petersburg, Florida, on a Lear 31A, he wrote me a treasured letter.
“I remember years back when you told me you’d like to fly jets and I cautioned you about reflexes at your age. So you wait until you’re 66 to clock V1 and rotate wearing three bars. Damn.” Who wouldn’t want a mentor who wrote such laudatory missives and believed in you?
The day before he died, Gene sat up in his bed and asked me with focused interest how an ancient Learjet could crash in Mexico with a popular singer and an octogenarian captain on board. With less than 24 hours to go, he was still into airplanes.
Gene Patterson’s funeral service in St. Petersburg was a pageant. I found myself as one of three eulogists — the other two were famous newspapermen known for their way with words. Phil Gailey, a retired editorial-page editor at the St. Petersburg Times, said, “I will remember Gene Patterson as a mighty man who loved everything that is precious and fragile in this world. He had no use for the hard souls among us.”
Howell Raines, formerly editor of the New York Times, said, “It is a daunting task to sum up this great American life in one eulogy, even if it could be an hour long, rather than the five minutes Gene, ever the editor, prescribed. As you all know, he was a man of many parts: farm boy, soldier, scholar, journalist, bon vivant, singer of hymns, raconteur, passionate, if not particularly lucky, fisherman.”
As you can imagine, I was petrified to speak, sandwiched between such eloquence. I went back to a favorite passage of mine from St. Exupery, that airmail poet of the early days of aviation. Writing about pilot friends who died in then all-too-common airplane accidents, he wrote, “Bit by bit it comes over us that we shall never again hear the laughter of our friend, that this garden is locked against us. And at that moment comes our true mourning, which, though it may not be rending, is yet a little bitter. For nothing, in truth, can replace that companion. Old friends cannot be created out of hand. It is idle, having planted an acorn in the morning, to expect that afternoon to sit in the shade of the oak.”
We buried Gene in Arlington in March. It was a clear day, and Reagan National was operating to the north. As the Army band serenaded us with what my father called “shipping over music” and the horse-drawn carriage made its way to the Patterson grave, I watched with emotion the steady stream of sunlit shiny airliners as they strained for the sky. It seemed fitting.