Joy of Flight: Prison landing

January 23, 2009

Joy of Flight: Prison landing

By Bob Jordan

I have always enjoyed weekend trips in my 1974 Cessna 150L and started planning my sixty-eighth-birthday, five-state journey several months in advance. I took off early that morning on the first leg of my five-day trip and headed south into Louisiana with my first overnight stop to be the private airstrip of a state prison! After a refueling stop in Natchez, Miss., I landed at the Dixon Correctional Institute airport, located just east of the small town of Jackson, La.

Have you tried to land your plane in a prison since the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001…at a nontowered 3,000-foot paved runway within sight of the prison guard towers dotted around the razor-wired fence? No easy task!

Years ago this was a public-use strip, and I kept my Skyhawk there, as did several friends. But over the years, the airplanes left one at a time, the strip fell into disuse, and I guess Louisiana tightened up on the free use of this little airport. Now no ones uses the strip to my knowledge, and I was warned about the buzzards roosting in the trees adjacent to the runway, the grass between the asphalt cracks, and the rocks that might be scattered about due to the graveled prison road paralleling the runway. I was advised to overfly the runway just before landing in order to scare the buzzards away!

I know that the only reason I wasn’t cuffed, my airplane wasn’t impounded, and I didn’t end up on the other side of that fence, was that I asked permission ahead of time to land and use the airstrip overnight. I just picked up the phone and called the prison and asked if I could fly in overnight, have a friend pick me up, and fly out the next morning. They said yes, but asked that I fax them a little advance information: my aircraft registration, a description of my plane with the tail number, a copy of my insurance coverage, a copy of my pilot’s license, a copy of my medical certificate, the date and time of my arrival, the name of the person picking me up (including the license plate number and description of the vehicle), and the date and time of my departure!

I have a land development business partner who lives just four miles from the airport, so this is a great convenience to be able to fly there in a third to half the amount of time I would have spent driving there. The prison has been nice enough to allow me to fly in and out of their strip several times over the last two or three years. Now I call and ask permission, having given them the previously mentioned information, and the warden’s office calls me back with an approval.

As I mentioned, I’ve been fortunate enough to be able to use their private airstrip over the last few years now, but this particular trip was a little different. When my friend and I drove up to the airport the next morning to depart, I noticed several prison guards on horseback with rifles about halfway down the runway and off to the right. The strip has a little rise in it midway, and all I could see were the armed guards. I’ve seen that may times in and around the prison, so I didn’t think anything about it. With all this security, I never worried about my airplane being parked there overnight! I said goodbye to my friend and did a thorough preflight checklist for my flight ahead that day.

After my runup and takeoff checklists were completed, I started down the runway at 9 a.m. Just as I reached the halfway point of the runway and had cleared the slight rise midway, I looked off to my right as I rolled by at full throttle. There, just down the embankment, stood about 100 orange jump-suited prison inmates. All had stopped working, looking shocked and staring at me as I flew by! It surprised me as much as it did them!

I climbed out and departed to the left and overflew the runway to get lined up for my heading to Hammond, La. I looked down as I flew over the runway and there they were, all 100 or so of them, still stopped working, leaning on their shovels, looking straight up at me as I passed overhead!

I flew to Hammond, literally enjoying the freedom, and landed 45 minutes later, refueled, and visited some friendly folks before departing further down toward the Gulf Coast, in sight of the Gulf of Mexico all the time, and landed at the St. Tammany Regional Airport (L31). After a brief visit with nice FBO folks there, I took off again and headed north back into Mississippi again where another really nice surprise awaited me!

Bob Jordan, AOPA #05460768, flies his airplane for business and pleasure. His five-state birthday trip added up to 16 hours of flying time, covering more than 1,000 miles with stops at 20 small airports.