Gear Up: Taking a Hill Country Spin

A trip to a barbecue mecca at a Texas airport.

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Clay Ellis Photography

The guy on the phone was a little vague about the availability of a crew car. "We got some T-6s coming in" was the only explanation forthcoming. Undeterred, we set off; there wasn't much to lose. We were in a Cessna 210 and we were in Texas. By we I mean friends Rob and Kathy (it is their 210) and my wife, Cathy, and me. By Texas I mean we were flying from their home on a 3,000-foot strip near Kerrville. By 3,000 feet I mean I don't think it is anywhere near that length. It is 2,000 feet above sea level, however.

Our destination was Llano, Texas, some 47 nautical miles to the northeast. Our purpose was to eat barbecue at Cooper's Old Time Pit Bar-B-Que, a world famous emporium that you could only find in Texas. What lay in store, none of us could have predicted.

We hustled out to the airplane, eager to beat the T-6s and their claim on the crew car. The temperature was in the 90s already. With four of us in the airplane, the density altitude made for an interesting takeoff, but 210s are reliable airplanes that are known for their ability to carry almost anything you can cram into them. Rob leveled us off at 5,500 feet, and we were soon listening to the AWOS. As a Cub called left base for the grass strip (Runway 13), we joined the left downwind for the magnificently paved 17. Jostled just a little by the heat on final, we were pleased to see only one other airplane on the ramp. Even better, he was just leaving.

As we tumbled into the air conditioning offered by the airport/FBO one-story building, "Larry" came out of his lair to greet us. Sure, we could have a crew car — a big van, actually. Yes, we'd be pleased to bring him an iced tea on the way back. Soon we were out the door and driving into town with about 10 empty seats in a massive white van, which was only slightly smaller than the blue one that had been parked next to it. Rob said, "I think these vans are owned by Cooper's barbecue. They know that so many people fly in here that the availability of transportation is in their best interest." He paused and then said, "Wait 'til you see this."

He was right. Cooper's is a huge establishment, with huge cooking pits the size of Volkswagen buses lined up to the left of the front door. A gaggle of anticipatory patrons snaked along the front of the building while trucks and SUVs were parked in careful abundance. The cowboy boots and belt buckles were not fashion statements; they were just what folks in Llano wear. The line parted when the elderly man wearing a World War II veteran's cap approached driving a walker. He went first.

The line stopped at a huge outdoor grill, maybe 16 feet long, where a young man was gesticulating at huge pieces of meat with a long knife.

"You want the brisket?" he queried in an efficient effort to keep me from standing there forever with my mouth agape.

"Sure," I said.

"Like 'at?" he said, marking off a slab maybe 1,500 calories thick. "You want the pork ribs too?"

"Sure."

This went on for a few minutes after which he piled the meat onto a school lunch tray and directed me in the door. Inside, another of Cooper's employees took the tray, weighed the meat and shooed me along the line toward the cashier, where I lingered long enough to add peach cobbler to the manifest. Soon I was handed another (I hope) lunch tray with the meat all wrapped up in paper with little stickers with bar codes and prices affixed. Four sheets of waxed paper, what pass for plates here, were stuffed under my arm as I was spat out of the queue into the "dining room." Under a sign announcing tonight's rodeo, the people at the picnic tables were all business. The enormity of the portions, the amazing taste of the food and the solemnity of the patrons left me breathless. A half-hour later I was ready for a shower and a nap. This was not to be.

As we gunned the van back to the airport, we saw a formation of four T-6s, or so we thought, overflying the airport and breaking left into a standard military approach. We went out front to watch and were stunned to see a Bear Cat, a Hell Diver and various SNJs (T-6s) already parked. And they kept coming. The arrivals parked themselves neatly, and those who could folded their wings, whether for efficiency or just because they could, I was unable to discern.

As pilots jumped from these amazing airplanes at this small airport in the middle of the Texas hill country, I spotted Larry tearing around the tarmac in a golf cart. He was a one-man chamber of commerce.

"You see, we bring in 6 million dollars' worth of business to the city. The city gives us about $250,000 and the airport brings all this in. People don't know how to support their airport. Hell, they don't even know they got one. But if you pay attention, an airport is a really good thing for a town. You should ask what you can do for your airport, not what your airport can do for you, with apologies to John F. Kennedy."

I wanted to call the ad agencies for Cessna, GAMA, NBAA and AOPA and hook them up with Larry.

"They call me Llano Larry," he said. "We used 6R9 but then we got the AWOS and they changed us up to AQO."

We walked around the airplanes. They were lovingly restored. A Tiger Cat, with its folded wings and massive landing gear, had wheel wells you could eat in. It is hard to believe that this monster could do 435 mph at 22,000 feet, yet there are now said to be only six still flying. Gordon Richardson and Jason Griffin arrived by T-6. They told us that the group assembled at Fredericksburg, just to the south, and organized the flight to Llano for (you are correct) barbecue at Cooper's. What had been a lonesome hot apron in front of a modest airport building was now a flight line. About this time, an Army Blackhawk fluttered in, and out popped a group of hungry airmen. We learned that the crew chief was from Llano and he had impressed upon his warrant officer captain the importance of a training mission from Fort Hood so as to avail themselves of some meat.

The T-6s were most abundant, but others were allowed equal place of pride by the group. The leader mustered everybody indoors, and then they filled the two vans and headed for their culinary treasure. With the newly formed flight line now quiet, we toured again the magnificent airplanes that helped change the course of history and allowed these enthusiasts the freedom to pursue their passions. And the money too. One told us that the Tiger Cat had cost several million and that the T-6s probably around several hundred thousands each — at least.

Gordon Richardson told me later that "two of the best flying destinations in Texas are the Hangar Hotel in Fredericksburg and Cooper's barbecue [and cheap avgas] in Llano." He went on to say, "I like to incorporate both in the formation clinic that I organize each year. We schedule training flights throughout the weekend in Fredericksburg, and the whole crew flies over to Llano for the great barbecue lunch and a top-off. We have the clinic for several reasons: to hang out with our buddies and have fun, to practice and remain proficient flying the AT-6 in formation, and to train new pilots and owners in the art of formation flying."

He reassured me that 17 T-6s participated, but that friends had brought other types of warbirds, including the Bear Cat, the Tiger Cat, an Avenger and the Vultee Vibrator, so named for its smooth ride. Airplanes and pilots came from El Paso, Muskogee, Oklahoma, Dallas, Houston and points between.

When I announced to my hosts that they could come back and pick me up later, they laughed. Too soon we were pushing the 210 back in order to get room to taxi out without dinging any antiques. For that matter, we didn't even want to get any prop blast on them. Number one for takeoff, I counted 23 originals baking in the sun waiting for their pilots to saunter back, stuffed with brisket.

The hill country tour had lots more in store: Luckenbach, our own barbecue and a visit with neighbors who had done well in the oil business (very well, judging by their fantastic home).

Of it all, what stuck in my mind was how you can wake up one morning and decide to take the 210 for a spin, pick a barbecue mecca and run into a devoted group of pilots, restoration nuts and mechanics. What was happening in Llano is exactly what needs to happen at all our airports if general aviation is to grow and change with the times. As Llano Larry says, "A mile of highway can take you a mile. A mile of runway can take you anywhere." Airplanes and airports are at once about our past and about our future. What wondering young soul wouldn't fall for all that noise and exhaust and power and majesty?