Airmen’s [i.e. Airman's] Cave: An Early History
Some time in March 1971, two anonymous airmen stationed at Bergstrom Air Force Base, located just southeast of the City of Austin, Texas, decided to dig out a small hole they noticed in a cliff face along the Barton Creek. Working by themselves, they excavated over a ton of silt, packing it into military-issue sandbags which they carefully stacked near the growing entrance. By the 1st of April, they had broken into a real limestone cave that opened up into a large room of pleasant horizontal dimensions and featuring a few modest formations. At this point, they stopped and, apparently, never visited the place again.

Somehow, whether through my contacts at the base, or through the caving grapevine, Linda and I found out about the discovery around the 6th of April. I contacted Bill Russell, Tracy Blashill and Mike Bradley, and Linda and I headed over to Barton Creek municipal park to see if we could find the cave’s location. Bill was at first skeptical that any cave worthy of any attention could exist right in our own backyard.

Linda and I found the cave entrance that evening and worked our way through to the big room. We returned with Mike Bradley and Tracy Blashill on the 8th of April (a Thursday) and began surveying. We quickly worked our way through the squeeze, surveyed over to an adjacent silty room, which at that time had a pile of rock or dirt in its center that reminded us of an altar. We named that space the “Sanctum.” We verified that the one could get out through its smaller entrance, then proceeded to survey into the big room. A strong current of air was coming from the right. We knew that the stronger an air current, the more cave there had to be. Resisting the temptation to immediately follow the beckoning breeze, we worked to the left, completing a survey of the big room that night. The left end of the big room ended in dirt mixed with tree roots. It obviously offered no future except maybe a new exit.

We returned the next day, dug out enough floor sediment to get into the maze, and pushed on into virgin territory. The maze proved confusing, and my original decision to scale the drawings to 1/16 inch-to-the foot proved helpful in keeping track of the survey points and details. The more vertical passage headed straight ahead. I pushed this, only to have it squeeze out. This passage, which Bill named “Wes’s Jam,” never went anywhere, although another, even-narrower, passage that we could see through, but not fit into, reconnected to what proved to be the main passage.

I was a captain in the Air Force and stationed at Bergstrom at that time. My wife and Bill Russell were both working as temps with the IRS in Austin. She filled him in as to what was happening and Bill started joining us in our almost nightly visits to this growing cave. We would get off of work, grab a supper and our gear and head over from our apartment on Riverside Drive. By the next weekend we had finally mapped our way through the maze only to run into a point where the passage was completely blocked by breakdown. We could feel the air whistling through these rocks but had neither the strength, nor the room to move them. Checking off to the right, one of us (probably Mike Bradley—the skinniest spelunker in Texas) found what we named (and is still called) the one-legged man passage.

By this time, we had all agreed that the name would be “The Airmen’s Cave” in honor of the two nameless servicemen who had both discovered and made this accessible. I did not exclude myself in the process, since I also was an “Airman.” As it proved, other airmen from Bergstrom were soon to be part of the crew. No other cave in Texas was ever had more air force personnel involved in its initial exploration than “Airmen’s.”

The One-legged Man Passage proved to be no obstacle at all once a certain technique was mastered. Standing on one leg, one would stick the other leg out behind and out of the way and hop forward, using one’s hands for balance. Total time through varied, but we timed Mike Bradley running it in less than a minute!

The One-Legged Man Passage opened into the Blade Room and from there things got even more interesting. That same night we made it to the Walking Passage, but another maze of small passages opened up to the left and Bill insisted that we had to get those surveyed first before we pushed on. The initial surveying had reached 56 sites. We started a new “W” series at this point. Finishing William’s Maze, we pushed the end of the Walking Passage—following the current, as always. This involved squeezing around a projecting rock spread-eagle fashion that promptly got named “Crucifixion Rock.” Carol Russell discovered a lower level here and we surveyed that as well.

Throughout Airmen’s, the ceiling remained uniform, the main passage marked overhead by a narrow crack that always ran down the center of every passage. Floor depth determined whether we were walking, crawling or squeezing. Usually we were crawling, since the floor seldom ranged more than three feet below the ceiling.

By mid April, we had explored all the way to what the maps now call “Karen’s Crawl.” Who Karen was, I do not know. Other spelunkers from the University had gotten the word and a group of them pushed on, reaching the end of that crawlway.
Chuck Carpenter in Walking Passage

 Airman Chuck Carpenter standing in the “Walking Passage.”

Caving & camera Gear circa 1971

Caving gear used in 1971. Ammunition can protects the Nikon S2 with 35mm f2.5 Nikkor lens. We used flashguns because strobes were too fragile, smaller sizes gave little light and their coverage was too narrow for wide-angle lenses. Most shooting was done on ‘B’ with open flash. Home-made mount on the tripod holds a brunton compass used in mapping. Carbide lamps were standard. Their coverage was wider and often brighter than electric and they could be recharged in the cave. I guess they’re collectables today.

Entrance to Airmen's as it appeared in 1971

The entrance to Airmen’s Cave as we found it in early April, 1971. Linda poses.


Link to page 2 of this narrative: The Newspaper Trip




 

Linda and Tracy in the “big room,” the only room with any formations. Open 'Bulb' was standard practice for cave photography.

Tracy messing with his carbide lamp

Tracy Blashill messing with his carbide lamp in the “big room.” 8 April 1971. Tracy was then eleven or twelve years old and one of the most enthusiastic cavers I have ever met.
More cave survey notes
Original mapping notes from the “Maze” area and “Wes’s Jam.” All the angles are in “Mills,” since we were using a military brunton. We converted them to degrees later.
 
More Cave surveying notes

Survey of the “One-legged Man Passage.” The critter in the upper right corner is a “Monoptic-unipod,” a creature often seen but seldom photographed by long-time spelunkers. I do not remember what “Ginger” refers to.

Survey of the Walking Passage. Original cave dirt still hangs in the creases. Cave mapping is both a science and an art.

Mike Bradley resting
 Mike Bradley taking a breather while we surveyed. Carbide lamps were still the only way to go in 1971.
All text and images are copyright 2004 Michael Wescott Loder. Publication or use without permission of the copyright owner is prohibited.
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