The story you haven’t heard about the last night at Mueller airport

Ernie Saulmon turned out the lights at Robert Mueller Municipal Airport.

Saulmon, who called me after my recent news article about the lonely control tower marooned now in the bustling Mueller development, was an air traffic controller for 40 years. He retired in 2010 as manager of the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport tower.

The night of May 22, 1999, when Mueller airport shut down after about 70 years of service, he was the man at the mike in that tower.

Talking to Saulmon, among other things, cleared up a misunderstanding on my part. I had thought I was in the last aircraft to take off from the old airport. Not even close. Turns out there was something of a good-natured competition that night to make history.

I know this because Saulmon played me the tape from the tower’s last half-hour or so that night, transmissions that would have been lost to posterity about two weeks later had he not made a copy. It might be the only one in existence. He had to go online recently and buy a cassette player so we could listen to it together.

I was on a Southwest Airlines jet, one loaded with local luminaries (just to be clear, I’m not putting myself in that category) such as former U.S. Rep. Jake Pickle and then-Mayor Kirk Watson, for a ceremonial flight across town from the dying airport to the one being born. I was assigned as a reporter (the American-Statesman threw everything it had at the airport transition) to hitch a ride on that plane and write about it.

We took off not long before midnight, made a bit of a sightseeing tour over the city and then landed at Austin-Bergstrom on a runway named for Pickle. Fun assignment.

What I hadn’t known before hearing the tape was that over at Mueller, the runway and Saulmon in the tower remained busy for a while. He made a sacrifice to be there, by the way, forgoing a trip back to Virginia for his mother’s 85th birthday celebration because the Austin-Bergstrom opening, and thus the Mueller swan song, had been delayed a couple of weeks.

After my Southwest flight had left, three small, single-engine planes containing guys calling themselves the “100 Mile Per Hour Club” (doesn’t carry the zing of the 40,000-Foot Club, does it?) queued up on the runway. That group included, as it turns out, local radio icon Bob Cole.

After one of the pilots celebrated the occasion over the control tower frequency, talking about the closing of a “magnificent airport” and thanking the Ragsdale and Browning families for running general aviation hangars at Mueller for decades, Saulmon cleared them for takeoff. Their intention was to “wander around” in the air for a bit, as Saulmon told the Bergstrom tower folks, and then be the first to land there after the new airport officially opened for business at 12:01 a.m.

Cole, a passenger in one of the three planes, told me last week they were in fact first — beating out a very frustrated flier who had taken off from the Georgetown airfield — and that his pilot then handed him the mike to commemorate the moment. An awkward silence ensued, followed by what Cole remembers as a kind of gibberish.

“I froze like I was 14 and had just been launched on the radio,” Cole said. “The gravity of the moment just overwhelmed me.”

Back at Mueller, soon after the 100 Mile Per Hour boys had departed, Saulmon ushered through an American Airlines plane with no passengers that was being ferried to Bergstrom for an outbound flight in the morning. So that was the last plane to use the airport, right?

Well, no. An inbound Cessna Citation was calling in from out there somewhere, wanting to land at Mueller before midnight and taxi out to the Browning Aviation hangar for private planes. General aviation planes were able to use the airfield for a couple of weeks after the closing, Saulmon said, taking off and landing without the aid of a tower there. The Cessna made it in a minute or so before midnight, becoming the last aircraft to officially use Mueller.

Wrong again.

A helicopter was out there at the time, looking to fly above a caravan of fuel trucks, baggage carts and aircraft tugs that overnight made the several-mile trip down Airport Boulevard to the new airport. The chopper pilot, seizing the moment, went into a hover after the Cessna landed, then settled to earth shortly before the witching hour.

That guy, whose name was garbled in the radio transmission but sounded like Shannon Something-or-other, might have been with one of the local television stations, Saulmon said. He gets the last-at-Mueller prize because seconds after he set down, Saulmon took to the mike.

“Attention, all aircraft,” he said. “Austin Robert Mueller airport is closed. Austin tower is closed. Tower out.”

(I noticed, by the way, that he pronounced it “Mule-er,” not “Miller,” for what that’s worth.)

“Night, guys,” the helicopter pilot said. Then someone chimed in with a Dandy Don Meredith take: “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

Which Saulmon did, dousing the runway and taxiway illumination. For the first time in his almost quarter-century of handling flights there, Saulmon was gazing out at a dark airfield.

I asked him if he was moved at the time by the finality of it all, at the rare opportunity to close a relatively major airport. Not so much.

“I didn’t think about it at the time,” he said. “I was working.”

But he saved that tape and some photos, too. And when Mueller development manager Greg Weaver with Catellus has time in a few days, Saulmon will get the same tour of the moth-balled tower that I received recently.

So it turns I was in the seventh-to-last aircraft to officially land at or leave Mueller. Dang. That may be a war story I need to stop telling.

I’m hoping Shannon-Something the helicopter pilot will call, too. He and Saulmon made Austin history together.

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