Eugene Patterson: The Best Copilot I Ever Had
Eugene Corbett Patterson died last January. You may have a flicker of name recognition, as his obituary was in almost every newspaper in the country. The New York Times announced his death on the front page and devoted considerable space to this farm boy, soldier, scholar, journalist and editor. To me, he was the best copilot I ever had. More than that, he was a mentor and friend who showed me how to live and, in the end, how to live life out.
Gene Patterson was a lieutenant tank commander in George Patton’s Third Army. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge. He was awarded a Silver Star and two Bronze Stars for valor in the battlefield. That wasn’t the half of it.
From General Patton he learned two important lessons. First, “Good generals make plans to fit the circumstances; bad generals try to make the circumstances fit their plans.” These words can equally be applied to pilots in command. And, second, “Never take counsel of your fears.”
Thus emotionally armed, Patterson served as an Army aviator after he survived World War II. In Texas he flew Stearman biplanes. He used this airplane to sort through possible female company made available by a local Army hospital. “The nurses who squealed with delight during stalls and spins were generally good dates,” he once told me. “The ones who cried and hid their heads in their hands weren’t so good.”
Sensing that an Army career could be backed up for years due to the postwar glut of officers, Gene took his leave. Mustered out in Texas, he went to the nearest town and got a job at the local newspaper. The South would never be the same.
After working for the United Press in New York and London, in the 1960s Patterson became the editor of the Atlanta Constitution, where he wrote a column every day for eight years. He stood tall against the segregationists and for the common man. He told me that after Patton, the Atlanta bomb threats and the shooting of his dog were small potatoes in comparison.
When a church bombing in Birmingham left four young girls dead, Patterson wrote: “Let us not lay the blame on some brutal fool who didn’t know any better. We know better. We created the day. We bear the judgment. May God have mercy on the poor South that has been so led.” Walter Cronkite had him read the entire piece on the national news (only 15 minutes in those days), and the Pulitzer Prize soon followed.
I knew none of this when I met Gene Patterson. I just knew that he liked airplanes, seemed to have a strong moral compass and wrote like an angel. I was drawn to him in an instant. That was 30 years ago.
When I approached him and said I’d like to write, he said, “Well, write something.” When I handed him 800 words in a sealed envelope, I had no idea how my life was going to change for the better. You wouldn’t be reading this if it were not for Gene Patterson, and I would not have the privilege to submit a monthly column to Flying magazine, that most venerable of titles.
With Gene, my wife, Cathy, and another couple, we carried out several escapades. Gene always flew right seat in our Cheyenne. I always learned something from each flight. When we flew from Tampa to Savannah, Georgia, with lots of thunderstorm activity about, Gene marveled at the courteous tone of both pilots and controllers. There were heading requests by frazzled crews and several “direct to destination when able” replies from Jacksonville Center’s cadre of experienced storm-avoidance experts. Once we were on the ground and at the bar, Gene called the cadence he heard on the frequencies “civil music.” I have thought of it as just that ever since.
On one trip to Charleston, Gene and I knew that we had a balky flight director. Without warning the command bars would lurch upward, which was no big deal when hand-flying, but posed a certain excitement when on the autopilot. Sure enough, soon after we leveled off, the champagne hit the ceiling in the back while Gene and I laughed.
When landing at Naples, Florida, I flared too soon, dropped the nose just a little, feared hitting the nose wheel first, pulled back again and repeated the entire dance for what seemed the entire length of the pavement. “Hey Dick, that sure was a wavy runway,” Gene congratulated me.