Roy Exum / September 4, 2010

A Skywriter’s Story

Every year about this time I still get a bunch of e-mails and telephone calls asking if the old stories about the SEC Skywriter’s famous trips are really true. Just last week a guy in Florida called to ask if I actually flew the old lumbering Convair 440 charter airplane that used to take the top sports writers around the South every fall.

Every year about this time I still get a bunch of e-mails and telephone calls asking if the old stories about the SEC Skywriter’s famous trips are really true. Just last week a guy in Florida called to ask if I actually flew the old lumbering Convair 440 charter airplane that used to take the top sports writers around the South every fall.

So as a prelude to what promises to be another great college football season, let me set the record straight before this chapter of the most fun-filled adventures gets inscribed into lore. The annual pilgrimage was admittedly a zany mix of “Animal House” and “Caddy Shack,” the most noble writers in America morphing into crazed comedians who constantly tried to “one up” each other every August for two weeks.

There are thousands of stories, from once stopping the bus so one badly hung-over scribe could actually replace a pair of hopelessly-lost shoes in Tuscaloosa to literally covering another heat-exhausted confederate with chilled cucumber slices, of all things, until an ambulance could arrive in Starkville on another hysterical occasion.

Unfortunately, my name is curiously connected to many of the bawdy tales today’s much-older sports writers now tell at Touchdown Club gatherings around the South and apparently some old wordsmith got a little chirpy down in Florida a week or so ago and told of the day I flew the ever-boisterous airplane.

What really happened was that during every two-week journey our mission leader, Elmore “Scoop” Huggins, wisely deemed that on Sunday, at the midway point each year, it should be a day-of- rest, or “recovery,” as the case may be.

One particular year we took our halfway sojourn in Ohio, where we were hosted by the College Hall of Fame when it was still located at King’s Island. They threw a big bash, which should have sufficed, but for a true-blue Skywriter it was a mere warm-up, particularly with no pressing story to write.

With Cincinnati not far away, several carloads of us revelers then ventured into the more tawdry parts of the city until the wee hours. The plane’s co-pilot, as I recall, had a marvelous time trying to keep up with us professionals but when we arrived in the lobby around 11 o'clock the next day to continue our journey, we were alarmed to find he had just been rushed to a nearby hospital with chronic alcohol poisoning and would not be able to continue.

Well, the FAA decreed any plane that carried that many people must have a co-pilot and, because the Skywriters were always a diplomatic group that voted on everything, I was nominated to take his place. Of course, I knew nothing at all about aviation, much less an ancient airplane that constantly dripped oil from both of the big engines.

In the meanwhile, the charter operator found a “real” pilot who was waiting arraignment on drug-smuggling charges down in Miami. But during the middle of a very wet brunch, somewhat extended because we awaited our substitute aviator, the idea was hatched that during the flight I would actually take control of the plane.

Immediately seizing the moniker of “Baron von ROY-bocher,” the plan was for me to sit in pilot “Crash” Wilson’s seat while appropriate pictures and camera footage could be taken. “Crash” said we’d go up to about 18,000 feet and then explained he would be in arm’s reach “just in case.”

Not long after the “drug runner” arrived via Delta and finally we were airborne. We flew along for about 30 minutes and then, among much excitement in the cabin, I went forward to drive the big bird. The mystified co-pilot gave up his chair for a TV cameraman and then “Crash” got ready to slip out of the left chair. I was holding a can of chilled beverage – it was just a prop – and then I made a slight mistake.

“Crash” was understandably a little more nervous than he’d been on the tarmac and when he asked was I sure about this, I told him there were just two more questions. “Is 18-thousand feet high enough to do a loop, and, if I take the airplane into a dive, how far down can we go on the altimeter before I should pull the nose back up?”

Well, I never got in the seat. The real truth is that not even the “drug runner” trusted me after that. The stewardess – that’s what we called them back then – still thought I was heroic. Then again, it has also been said that every flight attendant who ever accompanied the Skywriters during the 25-year odyssey later sought psychiatric intervention.

I know we never had the same flight attendant twice and three bolted before the end of their trips, having to be replaced by a bewildered darling who was promptly shouted down lest she try to make an announcement. The standing orders were always, “More ice, just keep bringing ice.”

Anyhow, that’s the true story of my flight log. As unbelievable as it may seem, that was just a mild incident of what really happened every day for all those years. Every once in a while a well-meaning preacher will mention one of our recently-departed brethren was a “Skywriter,” which always brings gales of laughter from the surviving veterans who are now scattered around the country.

So every year around late August when somebody calls to ask about this caper or that, I hearken back to the days when we were young and foolish and used to merrily travel the football circuit in search of good stories and other such amusements. What grand days those were.

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