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

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2 comments:

Tack said...

Of all the adventures I have had around the world, riding back seat in that Yak with you is an all time favorite. I love explaining the Cuban 8 to wide eyed listeners.

Anonymous said...

Given and taken away. Moontown in the "golden era" sold me on this town. It started for me with that first tailwheel touchdown on grass with Emily, and ended with George and Chris.

Then, part of me says "Do we let it end?" Our friends that passed enjoyed the crap out of it all and knew the risks...did it anyway. Should we remember them while we wait for our own "more timely" ends? The only thing that holds me back personally is that little 7 year old girl that calls me Daddy. For now, I'll hope that others less encumbered go forth and throw airplanes about the sky for the heck of it. I hope they do...I wanna watch.