Tuesday, May 14, 2019

And So It Began...and Ended

One joyously beautiful Saturday morning at our little airport breakfast was being served by the local high school band boosters club and many planes from other fields had arrived to partake. I spotted small group that had assembled outside, and I, being relatively new to the airport, ambled over to hear the lies and tales, not suspecting my life was about to profoundly change.

All eyes and ears in the circle were focused on a tall, imposing figure with bushy eyebrows and a voice that was soft yet compelling—a fellow they called “Bosch.” He had recently returned from a business trip to Russia. While there he had chanced upon a man who was selling surplus Russian airplanes, Yak-52s.

I had known about the Yak-52 since my fighter pilot days when we had to memorize profiles and capabilities of Soviet aircraft. Only scant mention of the -52 was made because it was a slow propeller trainer that we hardly expected to be a threat. But some of us would have gladly made it a target.

According to Bosch, the new Russian government was short of cash and had decided to grant independence to some of its old airplane factories. Those places were now free to generate their own operating revenues by selling planes to buyers in the West. Bosch’s contact said he could deliver as many Yak-52’s as we wanted for $15,000 apiece. The caveat: they would be shipped disassembled. Bosch told the group of us that if we pooled our resources and talents we could assemble them ourselves. He concluded by asking, “Who is interested in this?” Immediately a couple of hands went up along with two or three “Count-me-ins” and one “Hell yes!”

The idea was immensely appealing to me. After many years of flying straight I had lately begun to long for a return to the days when I went straight up, straight down, upside down and made the sun whirl around me as if I, not it, were the big boss of the solar system. 

Then I thought about my Grumman AA-5 Traveler—my beautiful and faithful family plane. I had owned it for 16 years. It had taken care of us on numerous trips and always brought us home intact. But lately it had become a burden with its constant fuel leaks. Shortly after I fixed one another would start. I had begun to dread approaching the plane and seeing that ugly blue stain of fuel on the concrete below one wing or the other. As I listened to Bosch I wondered if the time had come for a change. 
“Well,” said a fellow whom I was only casually familiar with, “I’ve already got two planes. I can’t see getting another one unless…” He looked around. “…unless I can go in with someone as a partner.” Looking back on that conversation it seems odd he would throw out such an invitation in a group. Would he not be better making that proposal to selected individuals? In private? I supposed he trusted all of us standing around him. Like Dr. Strangelove not being able to control his arm, mine went up. “I guess I’ll throw on in with you, George.”

His response? “Okay.” And just like snapping your finger, George and I became partners.

The weeks went by and Bosch was not able to get his man to follow through, but no money had been put up yet, so most us who had heard the proposal shrugged the idea off. Then came another breakfast Saturday, and among the planes that came in was a Yak-52. Everyone swarmed around it. Questions assailed the pilot. George and I were among a few he selected to go for a ride in the back cockpit. We came down with a determination bordering on fanaticism and George said, “I’m gonna get me one of these. Are you still in?” Boy, was I.

But again the tempering touch of time doused the flames of fervor and I consigned the Yak-52 ride to a pleasant memory. Not so George. He called me from the big Sun-in-Fun airshow. He had met a guy named Marty from West Virginia who said he could get us a -52 fully assembled for $35K. In fact at that moment he had two of them in crates aboard ship headed for the states. One was spoken for; the other was available. George told me he committed on the spot. Marty wanted 10% down. I wrote George a $1750 check, figuring in all likelihood I would see neither that money again nor a Yak-52. I was almost right. Months passed. Marty had delays. Marty had excuses. Our passion for the Yak waned.  

But the day came when Marty was on his way to our field riding atop our Yak, and it was another breakfast Saturday. Word spread like wildfire. People had cameras out. George and I were like kids on Christmas Eve. Finally we heard a rumble, then got sight of it coming in fast. Marty came overhead as fast as the Yak would go—150 knots. It looked to us like he was going Mach 1. The heavy, heaving roar of its radial engine rolled across the airfield. People yelled and pumped fists high in the air. Marty set the ungainly machine down and taxied to the fuel pump. (A Yak-52 never passed a fuel pump it didn't want to suck.) George and I caressed the bare paint-stripped metal and felt the heat on the cowling. We climbed up to the work station and smelt the pungent aroma of old military airplane interiors, stained and saturated with, gas, oil and countless episodes of air sickness. We loved it.

I don’t remember who went first, but Marty gave each of us a front seat orientation ride and gave back seat rides to a few bystanders. One of them immediately ordered a Yak from him. Marty left after a few hours to catch a flight home and we towed our Yak to its new hangar where George had his other two planes. They all fit in there nicely.

A few days later a sizeable crowd gathered again when we pulled it out for its first local flight. I was to be the test pilot. I had studied for days. It had been a long time since I sat in a fighter-like cockpit, and this plane, despite its slow speed, was very fighter-like in its other performance parameters. I was a bit apprehensive until I got it up and pulled up the gear and let it climb like a sky tiger. Within minutes I felt like I was born in it. I did a few rolls and brought it down. Then George had his turn, although he wanted me to go with him for his first flight. He did fine.

Soon I relearned aerobatics and, as more people at our airport and others nearby got Yaks or Nanchangs (a similar bird built for the Chinese Air Force), I again returned to formation flying, which I had not done in twenty years. It came back quickly and naturally, and I was again at home on the wing.

George and I violated every rule in the book of fractional aircraft ownership. We didn't consult a lawyer. We had no written agreement. We didn't discuss it. In fact, we hardly knew each other. But in the ensuing 14 years of owning the Yak together there was never a dispute, never a raised voice, a serious disagreement or a problem. I remember he called me one day and confessed he had hooked a new battery up backwards. The reversed polarity had fried the fuel quantity indicator. He had ordered a new one for $500. He apologized and said he would cover it. I was on scene within 15 minutes with a $250 check to him. And that's how we made it work. Just trust. George became one of my closest friends and confidants. I deeply miss him. And it too. 

Thus began an era at our airport, and around our region, that was, is, and will be, unexceeded and unprecedented in its excitement, satisfaction and camaraderie. We called ourselves The Rat Squadron, for no reason other than it sounded cool. I have written about those days in past posts of Decision Height, including the sad day that marked the beginning of the Rat Squadron's sunset. Those links are listed at the bottom.

But what about One Alpha Charlie, you say? Man, did I love the way that call sign rolled out of my lips. They were beautiful words, for a beautiful airplane. I found a buyer for her quickly. I delivered her to north Mississippi and the new owner ferried me back home in her. He let me fly her that last leg. Standing holding a check in my hand that seemed a poor substitute for what I traded for it, I watched him fade into a dot and disappear in the sunset. It was fitting that he departed late in the day when no one else was around.  It made crying easier.

 The Rat Squadron

George "Bud" Myers




Tuesday, April 30, 2019

You're Dangerous!

The real reason I decided to put an end to my military career is not so dignified. I had 21 years of combined active duty, Guard and Reserve service. It was a year more than needed for retirement benefits. There was no compelling reason to exit and there were some really good reasons to stay on. But the decision to “depart the fix” came not from any of these ponderings, but from an impulsive outburst of ire and angst. It was about the empty gas cans.

I owned a stunningly beautiful Grumman-American AA-5 “Traveler.” It was a 1975 model, a unique production year that produced AA-5s that had the both the eye-pleasing features and of the older models and speed mods of those of the next generation AA-5s, which were to be called “Cheetahs.” It was not a true 4-seater, but would haul two adults and two kids nicely and do it faster than its 4-seat competitors with the same engine. And, as mentioned, it had ramp appeal that Misters Cessna and Piper couldn’t dream of.

I had bought the Traveler for family trips, which worked well until the family went from four to five. No more family trips. But the beautiful machine found a resurgence of utility when I moved far away from the Guard base. It offered a two hour flight versus a six hour drive to my duty station as a weekend warrior. (Weekend Warrior was, and is, a colossal misnomer. Pilots and crew members in the Air Guard and AF Reserve fly a lot. If you want weekends only—and only one a month at that—join the Army National Guard or Navy Reserve.)

And so I began flying the Traveler to Jackson, MS (KJAN). But parking it at the opposite end of a big airport and begging for a ride around to the military side got old the very first day I did it. So I ventured a visit to the Group Commander’s office and secured immediate permission to park the little bird on the massive ramp belonging to the “Magnolia Militia.” 

After supplying them a copy of my insurance and nodding my understanding that I must file a flight plan for each arrival indicating in the remarks section that I would be parking on the Guard ramp, I fired the Grumman up to go home, looking forward to my next return.

Predictably, on the next trip into KJAN, ground control did not trust me when I told them I had permission to park on the “mil ram.” They had me hold position until they made a phone call. Then they cleared me in. I was met by a pick-up with a “Follow Me” sign. I taxied past rows of C-141s—airplanes that weighed 200 times more than the Traveler, and, in fact, could have held eight Travelers with their wings off.

The truck took me to a far corner of the ramp, well away from jet blast, where I had to stretch ropes a huge distance to the tie down rings designed for long wings. As I was tying down the Traveler the sergeant who parked me pointed to the 12 inch registration numbers on the side of the plane: N141AC. “One Four One!” he cackled. “Perfect!” When I had the plane painted a few years prior, I applied for, and was granted, that number by the FAA, because I loved the C-141. The sergeant thought the “AC” meant aircraft commander, which I was, but they were actually my initials. I didn’t tell him that.

I couldn’t buy AVGAS, of course, on a military base, so I brought four five-gallon plastic gasoline containers with me. The Grumman was certified to use automotive gasoline, so I would simply fill the cans at an off base station and pour them into the plane when ready to leave.

The airmen who took care of the C-141s quickly adopted N141AC. They came out frequently in groups to admire it and always smiled agreeably at the registration numbers. But when I returned from one trip in the Starlifter, “One Alpha Charlie” was gone!

What had happened? Had they hauled it away? Had a thunderstorm blown it away? The van driver who picked our crew up swung by the open door of the massive hangar where they worked on the C-141s. There was N141AC sitting happily in a corner. They had brought it inside because of threatening weather during my absence. I was awed by that. Whose private plane had ever gotten so much TLC by military technicians?

This happy arrangement went on for several months until—predictably, when a bureaucracy is involved—a raised palm appeared in my face: cease and desist.

I returned from a mission to notice that my canvass canopy cover was loose and flapping in the wind. Curious. I was always careful to secure it. I walked to the plane. A pink piece of paper was taped to the canopy. I looked at the checked boxes. I was in violation of government ground safety rules. My plane did not have a static line attached to it. And—horror of horrors—it had gas containers inside. A note in the remarks section indicated that the plane would have to be removed from the base immediately.

I noted the signature, didn’t recognize it. Some second balloon at headquarters had signed it. I ripped it off and secured my cover, then marched to the headquarters building to find the guy. The sign over his office read Ground Safety Officer. With a demeanor that smacked of insolence he proceeded to lecture me about my hazardous sins. I stopped him. “You tampered with my plane,” I said. “You pulled off my canopy cover and didn’t even bother to re-secure it after you spied on me.” He assured me he had authority to inspect any private vehicle or plane that came onto the base, and said he couldn’t figure out how the straps went back together. At this point I was precariously close to an abyss that fell to court martial canyon if I didn’t maintain my composure. As I turned to leave he dispassionately said, “I’m sorry I had to do this.”

I whirled around. “I’m sorry, SIR!” He uttered a condescending, "Sir."

I found a quiet place to ponder this very unwelcomed intrusion on my comfortable arrangement. I considered going to the base boss to ask him to sweep this guy aside. The commander, a pilot himself and a friend, had a duty to support his staff. I didn’t want to put him on the spot. I finally bucked up and headed back across the parade field to base headquarters, but not to see the boss. Instead I went to the personnel office, and I remember distinctly what I said. “Give me the quitting papers!”

The NCO in charge scratched his head. “The what, Colonel?”
"I want to retire."

Later, after I had a chance to think it through more thoroughly, instead of retirement, I requested transfer to the Air Force Reserve in the role of a U.S. Air Force Academy Liaison Officer. That was approved and from then on, my military flying career was over. I served an additional two years counseling AF Academy candidates in my hometown, only needing to attend an official meeting with my boss and peers once each quarter. Later, due to reduced funding, that was changed to once a year. Then I decided even that was too much. I applied for retirement.

But the Magnolia Militia treated me very well. On my last drill weekend they gave me a retirement ceremony, even though I had not officially retired. It was a grand send-off and I have great affection for my old unit and all the friends I made there. Except for one. 

 Two fabulous beauties, but the Starlifter had to go.


Next time: The day I gave One Alpha Charlie up. (Have your tissue box ready.)

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

The Time Machine

I have always been a fan of Jules Verne, especially his "Time Machine," but I never thought I would get a chance to ride one. I did. It was a costly mistake. I am writing to you from the past. I hope you get this. Be careful of these machines. They tend to be clustered around airports and are easily accessible. They are built in Brazil by Embrerar and they only go backwards in time, never forward.

Here’s how it happened. A few of my old Air Force friends suggested a get-together for the Wichita airshow. Sure, I would go. Due to weather I would have to leave 7SW in its hangar, but no problem, I have virtually free flying privileges on Uncle U and his spartan nephews for the rest of my days. I fired up the United app to list for a flight. After an hour figuring out how to use it I found there was one seat available on the 50 seat spam can going to my old base, Houston (IAH). Back when I was jump seat eligible, that was no concern, but now it is slim pickings. I used one of my eight annual vacation passes to elevate my boarding priority and got the seat. (Don’t get snarky; I get eight vacation passes, not eight vacations. Two people going to Hawaii on a two leg trip will use all eight.)

The second leg from IAH to Wichita (ICT) was a little easier. I got there in time to join my old buds for dinner. Not a bad day. I thought this retired “non-rev” flying, or rather riding, wasn’t that bad.

The mini-reunion was great but the airshow was a pain. Don’t go to an airshow at McConnell AFB unless you enjoy standing in abysmally long four-abreast lines for hours both to get in and to get out. But the Thunderbirds provided some welcome purpose for the suffering. On the day I was to return there were ample seats going out all directions from ICT so I thought I would sleep in. Bad idea.

I got to the airport at noon to get a seat back to IAH, to find the plane had filled with paying customers. My vacation pass would do no good. It only gives me a boost above the other non-revs. Same for the Chicago and Denver flights. I checked American and Delta. I can ride them space available for a small fee. But several seats were available on the afternoon flight to IAH, so I chilled for a few hours.

Then came that so disgustingly familiar announcement that the flight would be an hour late. My mind lit off and spooled-up, crunching  the ramifications to this morbid announcement. I rechecked the schedule from IAH to home. If I got to IAH later than 8:45pm, I was—how should I say it? I won’t say it.

The plane finally got in and they handed me my boarding pass. Then the next announcement. The plane had a problem. Maintenance had been called out. I heard a collective groan go up from my fellow “fliers.” Another delay, and possibly a cancellation. I checked all my apps. No other flights would get me home tonight except for that one. Had to have it. The decision now was to let that flight go if it went beyond 6:45pm, or be stuck in IAH overnight. At least I had relatives in Wichita to bunk up with.

At 6pm they announced the problem solved and we boarded. I tried to relax as well as possible with my knees in my chest as we headed south. Then came a PA announcement from the front office. We would have to land in Dallas for a problem.

Problem? What problem?

“Ah, folks that light that came on in Wichita, that shouldn’t be on, well, it’s back on again. Don’t worry. It’s not critical, but we have to get it looked at. Sorry for the inconvenience.” My half closed eyes popped open. My brain spooled to maximum rpm. I stared at my watch. If the stop at DFW lasted more than a half hour, I was—. That word again. I would miss my second hop to home, assuming we even reached IAH.

At DFW I sat like a nervous Nelly looking at my watch while mechanics went in and out of the cockpit. I was close enough to hear some of the conversation between them and the crew. Finally, a PA call. “Good news, folks [I never used the ‘folks’ word on the PA. It sounds too…folksy], the light is out and we are about to be on our way again.”

I studied my watch and thought it might actually work. I would have only 15 minutes to get to my next flight, but it was a short walk, or in this case a sprint, to the next gate. Now if I could only trust this new development and relax, I might get through the night without a heart attack.

Then, the PA again. I was beginning to loath hearing that clicking sound when the captain keyed the mic. “Well folks, we need to put on a little bit more fuel, so we have called for a fuel truck. Shouldn’t take long.”

WHAT? FUEL? ARE YOU [that word] KIDDING ME? You knew you were going to need more fuel the minute you realized you were going to stop in DFW! Why wasn’t it being put on while your mechanic worked on the “little light” problem? I fumed. I wanted to go to the cockpit and grab the 'captain' by the lapels and slap him around, but the company frowns on retirees doing that. I looked out and saw a fuel truck arrive. I counted every minute. Then I heard someone in the cockpit say, “Uh oh! Look! It’s back on again.”

That was it. I threw off my seat belt. I would get a $200/night room at the DFW Hilton and try for a ride on American next morning to get home. Then I heard the co-pilot again saying to the captain, “Oh, wait! It’s out again.” Then laughter. Now I was wondering if I should get off to spare my life. SLAM! The door shut; the engines were spooling. I looked at my watch for the 500th time. Too late. Making it home that night wasn't the issue any more. Living to see home now trumped it.

In the air the flight attendant announced that rooms and meal vouchers would be provided by all those who missed their last connections. Fat chance, I thought, that would apply for me. None-the-less, I got in line with the rest of them at the service counter at IAH. I gave the woman my boarding pass. She smiled and said, "Let's see where I can put you." I relaxed. Then, “Oh!” she said. “You're a non-rev. Sorry, non-revs don’t get anything.” 

I suddenly had a vision of a retired United captain lying in a fetal position on a seat row in the Houston terminal at 4am. Not me, my friend. I thought about my old haunt outside the IAH airport—the Comfort Suites. I still had their number in my phone. I called. They came within minutes and gave me my usual airline discount. It seemed yesterday since I checked in there every week, sometimes twice a week to wait out short-call. It felt as if nothing had happened. I had not retired. The Embrear time machine punted me back into the past, and here I will stay because of a "little light" that’s not supposed to be on. 

I’ve got to get to sleep. The crew desk will likely be calling at 0200 in the morning for an 0700 launch. And I don’t even have my uniform with me.


This made it all worth it. Click on the image
 and turn up the volume.

We gather every couple of years to watch the bomb burst in honor or old friend, 
Willie Mays, Thunderbird Two, (1949-1982), Vance AFB Class 73-06.