I had to lie about my age. I was only 17 years old and you had to be 18 to drive the fuel trucks for Crow Inc., an FBO and Piper distributer/dealer on the Toledo Express Airport in Ohio. I had just moved back to Toledo from New Jersey and I needed a job. I had line service experience and worked as a mechanic’s aid so I was hoping to get the same position there. During the interview, Tony Barnum, the owner, asked me what kind of experience I had. I told him what I thought he wanted to hear and he hired me right on the spot. I would be turning 18 in just a few weeks so I thought no harm done. The friendship I developed with him lasted for over 44 years. He passed away on April 15, 2016.
They had a burgeoning flight school because there was one heck of a lot more small airplanes flying in those days. We usually had about 10 to 15 airplanes that were used to give instruction and serve as a rental fleet for all of the folks that were flying back then. Everything from Piper Flite Liners (if you know what they were) to Navajos. My job was to fuel them up and put them away at night. This was no easy task; it usually took two guys over an hour to get it all done.
Since I was a student pilot, I already knew how to start them up and taxi them to their tie downs. This saved me a lot of time and effort over dragging them around with a tractor, a process that involved mounting and dismounting twice to attach and retrieve a heavy towbar. One night, working alone, I would break the rules and it almost turned ugly on me.
I had already fueled them all up and then one by one I would hop in, start them up and taxi them to their tie downs. It was a cold winter night, and I was working by myself as I completed each task. Everything was going good until I jumped in one of the Cherokees and found the battery was dead because somebody left the master on. Since this was a fairly common occurrence, the company had equipped one of its courtesy vans to have a jumpstart plug installed on the front bumper. This made it real easy to pull up to an airplane, get out and plug one end into the van and the other into the airplane since most all of our airplanes had an external power receptacle.
So I got in the van and pulled up on the right side of the airplane, between the front and back wings. I plugged the airplane into the van and climbed into the cockpit. The panel was lit up in spite of the fact that the master was off. This was normal. The problem I had was, since I was working by myself, who would sit in the airplane, after the motor was started, as safety pilot while I climbed out and unplugged?
I thought for a spell, (it’s always bad when a pilot starts thinking) and decided even though I had been taught never to leave a running airplane unmanned, it would be alright this time because, heck, I was an expert! Besides, I was in a hurry, and the parking brake would hold it.
It started right up and I set the parking brake with a little bit harder tug than usual. I climbed out of the cockpit, onto the wing and down to unplug. After I did this I coiled up the cable, walked around to the back, placed the cables on the floor and shut the door. Then I walked back up front to hop in the driver’s seat. The lights were shining on the side of the fuselage as the airplane sat in the dark with the engine at idle. I turned my head to see if there was anything behind me before I started backing up slowly. When I turned my head back to look out the windshield, I immediately had a strange, disorienting, sensation. The van was slowly moving back while at the same time it was drifting to the left. At first I thought I was sliding on ice – then it struck me. The plane was rolling forward! Holy smokes! The airplane was heading right for a snowdrift about 20 yards in front of it!
Thinking fast, I slammed the van in park, opened the door and jumped out in hot pursuit of the runaway Cherokee. I ran as fast as I could and took a flying leap to land on the wing walk where I quickly pulled myself half into the cockpit and grabbed the parking brake and killed the mags. The plane lurched to a halt. I made it just in the nick of time. As I lay there, half in and half out of the cockpit, trying to catch my breath, I thought about how stupid I was to do what I just did. I was lucky it didn’t hit the snowbank. I felt a little dazed as I slowly stood up to resume my duties.
I turned around and thought to myself, “where the heck was the van?” Like a ton of bricks, it struck me that my problems were not over; in fact, they were just beginning. In my haste, I thought I had slammed the van into park. Turns out I must have slammed it in reverse because it was quite far from me now and getting further away as it rolled slowly across the ramp… in the night… with its headlights shining on other airplanes. The van drifted backward in a lazy arc toward the main hangar and the Grumman Mallard tied down in front of it.
The Mallard was Tony’s pride and joy.
My first brief thought was there was no way I could reach it in time, it was too far away. My next thought was the heck with that, I jumped off of the wing in the darkness onto the frozen asphalt. I ran a fast as I possibly could, hoping not to encounter any patches of slick ice hidden in the darkness that would surely send me tumbling through the night. I also had to plan my approach as I closed in on the driverless courtesy van. From where I was, I had to run from the right front and cross to the left side and open the door without getting knocked down by it, climb in, and hit the brakes. I could not fumble any aspect of the operation. It had to go precisely as planned or the outcome would be disastrous for the Mallard, the big hangar door, or both, and certainly for me.
I made it! I got it stopped before it hit anything. Next thing I did was look for the Cherokee lest it might come to life again like the monsters who never seem to die in horror movies. It sat quietly across the ramp, propeller stopped, door open, just short of the snowpile that was created by the airport’s plowed snow. Except for the low idle of the six-cylinder engine in the van along with the sound of the defroster softly whirring, it was very quiet outside. It’s funny how quiet the night can be in the dead of the winter. I searched the ramp and the office windows to see if anybody else was an audience to the drama that had unfolded moments before. Nothing. I was the only witness.
I sat there for a few minutes contemplatingthe outcome, smoked a cigarette (something I gave up years ago, thankfully.) I learned my lesson. I parked the van next to the line shack and got back to the business of putting the rest of the airplanes away, but this time I used the tractor.