In 1967 my flight crew was sent to Nimes, France, to participate in a joint exercise with the French Navy. The city of Nimes is thousands of years old. Roman ruins can still be seen throughout the area. Most famous of all is the Pont Du Gard, a 2,000-year-old bridge and aqueduct, the tallest ever built by the Romans. When my crew had a break between flights, I suggested we visit the historic site. The aqueduct spans a half-mile gorge between two hilltops and at its high point the stone edifice is 200 feet above the valley. The structure has three archways, one on top the other. Many tourists were strolling across its various levels. Our crew joined them on the top tier. Unlike national parks in the United States with safety railings and precautions, this attraction was without barriers and in serious disrepair in many places. The arches supporting the above structure left only a narrow ledge to pass around the supports
The further we advanced across the bridge the more precarious the walkways became. Having passed the midpoint, it seemed worth the risk to continue moving forward rather than turn around and repeat the dangerous passages we had just successfully negotiated. I didn’t notice that we were alone in that section of the bridge and that all the other tourists had turned around. I’m not good at heights–odd you say for a pilot. The 200-foot elevation had my knees shaking and my shirt drenched with nervous perspiration. Some ledges around the arches offered no more than 10 inches of footing and I had to press myself flat against the arch. I wasn’t going to be able to handle much more of that tightrope act. With only 50 yards to go before reaching the other side, Denny Lukity, our ordnanceman who was leading our group, reported “Mr. Stark, the stones are completely broken away up ahead and we can’t get across on this level. We have to go back.”
I was in trouble. I would not be able to repeat my slow creep around those crumbling arches again. Threatened with a series panic attack, I did a stupid thing. I started sprinting back the way we had come, leaping across the narrow passageways around the arches. The crew was stunned and said later, all they could do was stand, watch, and wait for my inevitable fall into the valley below.
Somehow, I made it. My guardian angel must’ve been working overtime. I still get shaky knees remembering that visit to the Pont Du Gard.