Local veteran donates items for Foster Field photo display
When Steve Novotny joined the U.S. Air Force, he came to Foster Field for training in 1954, where he learned to fly an F-86 Sabre jet fighter. Now, the 91-year-old veteran has brought some memorabilia from his time at the field to be part of a photo exhibit at the University of Houston-Victoria.
“A Walk Through Foster Field” is a historical photograph exhibit hosted by the UHV Library and presented by the Victoria Regional History Center, a joint collaboration between UHV and Victoria College. The exhibit opened on May 16 on the third floor of the UHV Library and will remain until June 16. It features pictures and other items from the former military base, most of which are from the 1940s when the military was flying prop planes.
“Victoria was proud to be home to Foster Field when it was open, and we are excited to offer a look into this period in the area’s history,” said Brittany Rodriguez, special collections librarian. “With the pieces brought by Mr. Novotny, we will be able to offer a second exhibit in the future that focuses on the jet age. We are always happy to accept photos and other materials from residents who wish to contribute to the center’s collection and archive of the region’s history.”
When he visited the exhibit Thursday, Novotny brought some photographs of the base as well as a pamphlet with information about the base and a yearbook from 1955. He also included a roster from 1985 of the Sabre Pilots Association.
When Novotny first came to the field in 1954 for flying and ground school, the Pennsylvania native was not used to the Texas summer heat. He remembers having to wear gloves when he first went out to examine his aircraft to protect his skin from the hot metal. He had trouble getting used to sleeping during the hot summer nights as well.
“Air conditioners weren’t common then, so the barracks were very hot during the night,” he said. “I ended up buying a mini refrigerator. I’d plug it in at the foot of my bed and lay down with my feet inside the refrigerator to help me stay cool and go to sleep.”
Foster Field was also the site of one of Novotny’s scariest experiences when his plane crashed during takeoff. During training on June 8, 1955, he was flying wingman as he and another pilot were practicing taking off in formation. Just as the planes were lifting off at 150 mph, the lead plane kicked up a rock that went into Novotny’s engine, he said.
“At first, I thought there was a problem with the fuel lines, so I threw the switch for the emergency fuel supply, but that didn’t fix the problem,” he said. “Then it became clear that I was going to have to ride this out as it crashed.”
During the crash, Novotny’s plane hit a ditch on the opposite side of U.S. Highway 59 and struck the railroad tracks before coming to rest in a field. The plane hit the tracks so hard that the rails were pushed together for about 40 feet. The plane was on fire when it stopped in the field, and when Novotny pulled the lever to open the canopy, it opened, but the canopy’s plastic was melting from the heat of the burning jet fuel.
“I think it’s a miracle that I’m here,” he said when thinking back to that day. “So many things could have gone wrong. I’m amazed the batteries for the canopy were still working despite that fire. But the good Lord had other plans for me.”
Once he was clear of the wreck, Novotny sat on his parachute pack waiting for the fire trucks to arrive. The truck came five minutes later and smashed straight through the gate to reach the burning plane, but the danger wasn’t over. While the firefighters were putting out the flames, four rounds of ammunition from the plane’s guns cooked off from the heat of the fire and struck the fire truck. Novotny was taken to the hospital to be checked out and, after a basic check-up, was declared fit to fly again.
At first, Novotny thought he had survived with only a wound on his hand from where it had struck the throttle lever during the crash. However, two days later, he was flying another plane when he suddenly felt pain in his back. He reported it to base and was told to return to the field. They took him to the hospital again, and it was discovered that he had two cracked vertebrae. For the next three months, he wore a back brace and had to finish his flight training in a helicopter so he could get his flight hours.
When he and the other pilots were not flying or in ground school, Novotny said they liked to go to Riverside Park to play golf and go to the dance hall in town. They often ate at Jet Drive-In.
Novotny ended up marrying a local woman, and when his time in the Air Force was up, he began working for Union Carbide as a computer supervisor. He worked there for 36 years before retiring. Today, he has a grandson who is a fighter pilot in the Air Force.
Looking at the display, he was reminded of the experiences he had at Foster Field all those years ago, especially when he saw the picture of the chapel where he married his wife, Sue, in 1955.
“Foster Field was an important part of my life,” he said. “It’s where I met my wife, and it’s where I learned so many important things. I’m glad to see this display and know that people are working to preserve its memory.”
For more information about the display or if you wish to contribute materials to the Victoria Regional History Center, please contact Rodriguez at 361-570-4169 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
The University of Houston-Victoria, located in the heart of the Coastal Bend region since 1973 in Victoria, Texas, offers courses leading to more than 80 academic programs in the schools of Arts & Sciences; Business Administration; and Education, Health Professions & Human Development. UHV provides face-to-face classes at its Victoria campus, as well as an instructional site in Katy, Texas, and online classes that students can take from anywhere. UHV supports the American Association of State Colleges and Universities Opportunities for All initiative to increase awareness about state colleges and universities and the important role they have in providing a high-quality and accessible education to an increasingly diverse student population, as well as contributing to regional and state economic development.