Airport stories: I don’t know but I’ve been told

Hang around aviation long enough and you will hear some strange things.

Do You Want to Fly Twins?

During my pre-teen years I’d ride my bicycle out to a local airport north of Detroit operated by the Berz family. Pappy Berz was the patriarch. He went all the way back to the rotary engine days. His son Milt ran the operation and managed a bevy of (ex-WWII) instructors and charter pilots based at the airport.

The most grizzled by far was Chuck. Competent and abrupt, Chuck did most of the twin checkouts in a beautiful, new Piper Twin Comanche. One day I heard a student complain to Milt that Chuck had him set up to demonstrate a departure stall, then just as power was brought up Chuck pulled back the mixture on one engine. The TwinCo immediately rolled inverted, then proceeded through a series of violent gyrations before settling into a fully developed spin.

Milt was not happy but, as far as I know, he didn’t order Chuck to stop. For his part Chuck was unapologetic—even though half his students quit their twin engine training. Looking back, that was probably the point.

Airplane Attacks Owner’s Wallet

My acquaintance Mike owned a very pretty, sweet flying Aeronca Champ (I’d been up in it with my friend Bill). But Mike and the Champ shared a dark secret. When Bill knew me better he unveiled it.

Aeronca
The Aeronca Champ is a simple airplane, but when unrestrained it can attack.

Early one morning Mike had pulled the Champ out of his hangar and hand propped it. The engine obediently started and, shortly after, the Champ overcame its restraints. Mike backed up. As the Champ gained speed so did Mike. Soon Mike’s back was against the hangar wall.

In desperation, He locked his elbows and pushed against the prop spinner as hard as he could. That arrested the Champ’s advance but his situation was untenable. Seconds later he dove for the ground. It was almost the right decision. On his way down the propeller tip struck the back of Mike’s jeans, tearing off the rear pocket and completely shredding his wallet.

I’d give the first two rounds to the Champ. But Mike gets the decision for stopping the engine cold with his gluteus maximus. Still, the Champ emerged with not a mark on it while Mike limped away with a horrifically bruised buttock and second degree burns on the palms of both hands.

Control Check

Another denizen of that field was a gentleman named Conrad. Unlike many of us, Conrad favored high-performance airplanes and owned a series of Bonanzas and Cessna 310s. Although we worked at the same location, it took many years for Conrad to reveal this breathtaking lapse in judgement.

He’d had his Bonanza’s ruddervators reskinned at a remote repair facility. The shop had continually increased the bill and pushed back the schedule. By the time Conrad picked up the airplane he was totally disgusted and eager to be rid of them. He quickly ran up the engine and took off. Approaching flying speed he eased back the controls and nothing happened… eased back more and the nose strut compressed. He relaxed the pressure and, to his amazement, the Bonanza leaped into the air—from that point until reaching a safe altitude he touched nothing.

A little experimentation revealed the ruddervator had been mis-rigged, reversing the elevator function. In the hour or so it took to fly home Conrad fooled around with power and trim until he thought a landing could be safely made. He admitted it was pretty bad but nothing got broken. True to form, Conrad never allowed a mechanic to touch the control system but worked on it himself until he was satisfied that it was right.

I had a bunch of questions:

  • Why hadn’t he done a functional check of the controls?
  • Why didn’t he contact ATC to declare an emergency?
  • Why hadn’t he attempted his landing at a larger airport with a longer, wider runway and fire equipment?
  • Did he report the control malfunction to the FAA like the regulations require?

Conrad responded with irritation: “This is why I don’t tell people.”

Michelin Man on the Doorstep

I attended a small engineering college in New England during the 1970s. There, I shared an apartment with three pilots (also working on their engineering degrees), two of whom, Mark and Steve, were actually getting paid to fly. Mark was a seasoned glider pilot who instructed for the school’s soaring club as well as flying its L-19 tow plane.

Ag Cat
Ag Cats didn’t typically leave the factory loaded with avionics.

Our school had an extended break between the fall and spring semesters to create an Independent Activities Period during which we were encouraged to take short courses or engage in research. Mark spent it earning walking-around money by ferrying Ag Cats from the factory on Long Island to customers all over America.

Ever the utilitarian, Grumman eschewed frivolous accessories like a radio, heater, or a tightly sealed cockpit. Thus, Mark shepherded those ungainly things across the frigid great planes using nothing but a sectional, a watch, the Rand McNally road atlas, and all the warm clothing he could fit in.

One contract required him to deliver the plane to a towered airport in the Midwest. After burning most of his reserves trying to attract the tower’s attention, Mark gave up and formulated another plan. Not too far from the airport was a farm house on a packed snow road. He set down on the road and taxied up to the house, then dismounted and trudged through the snow to the front door.

If the lady who answered was at all surprised by the airplane blocking her driveway she gave no indication. What did surprise her was the pilot’s appearance—insulated boots, thick wool pants, ski gloves, and a new 100% goose-down insulated wilderness parka which vaguely resembled a stack of orange inner tubes (the height of fashion in the 70s)—prompting her to say she wasn’t expecting a visit from the Michelin Man.

Mark used her phone to call the tower. The controller asked him where he was departing from and Mark replied “a mile or two south of your fence.” After a moment of silence the controller said they’d have the light gun ready.

Me and Mrs. Jones

Steve, my other roommate, was the son of “Red” Dodge, a notable Alaskan aviator and then senior captain at Western Airlines. Steve was earning a Master’s degree in aeronautics and his research touched on accident investigations. In 1974 the descent of an Eastern Airlines TriStar into the Florida Everglades was very much in the public consciousness and Steve had access to a lot of behind-the-scenes information from that investigation. One item was particularly poignant in that it neatly encapsulated the irony of that decade.

Flight 401 departed from New York for Miami on a Friday evening in the dead of winter. It was the perfect trip for a warm, romantic getaway with your spouse, or someone else. Many of the couples on this trip were married. But, it being the 1970s, not to each other.

This nightmare fell into the lap of the next-of-kin notification team. They quickly realized that the list of survivors couldn’t be reconciled with the passenger manifest. They raced to find other ways to correctly identify casualties. It was sorted out in time, but not before some very awkward conversations transpired, e.g., “We deeply regret we must notify you that Mr. and Mrs. Smith were killed in the crash of flight 401.” And the reply: “That’s not possible. I’m Mrs. Smith!”

You Tell Me

Over time I’ve encountered a number of people that knew or worked with Steve’s dad, Red Dodge. Each had their own story. One of my favorites came from a retired Delta captain who started out at Western’s Anchorage base in the ’60s.

Flight engineer
Flight engineers have a rich history in aviation, but not all FEs made the move to the right seat.

This was a time when the airline was converting to an all-jet fleet and management saw the need for flight engineers quickly diminishing. Select FEs were given the option to upgrade to the right seat or be furloughed. Steve’s dad inherited one of the unlucky FEs who confessed he wouldn’t pass the upgrade checkride. The young fellow promised to help with cockpit chores and do anything the captain asked, but made it clear he was only there to run out the clock.

Red Dodge would have none of that! When his copilot asked about a detail on the dispatch papers, Red replied, “You tell me.” And so it went for the following weeks. His copilot flew almost every leg, checked every dispatch document and every forecast. Through encouragement, cajoling and, when necessary, by demonstration, Steve’s dad instilled in his colleague the will and confidence to take his place in the right seat of a jet. And that is what he did.

Now Do This

I’ve known several ex-military pilots. My friend Tom, for example, flew F-4s and F-8s with the Marine Corps in Vietnam. Fifteen years ago he related an incident that will resonate with anyone having prior military service.

A flight of four Navy F-4s was returning to their carrier from a mission. The flight leader habitually approached the ship at low level and, on this occasion, he commanded the flight to perform a formation roll passing the ship. The outside aircraft dug in a wing tip and disintegrated.

What wreckage could be recovered was sent to the Marine base at Da Nang. It wasn’t much, Tom recalled. All he recognized were the remnants of an ejection seat harness shredded in pieces like tissue paper.

I assumed that had ended the flight leader’s career. “No,” Tom said. “Absolutely not… he went right back on flight status. Understand, we were suffering awful attrition and experienced combat aviators were a precious commodity.” A second later he added, “and that squadron was down a pilot.”

Disclaimer

More than five decades have passed since I last rode my bicycle to Berz airport. You’ll understand that conversations are recreated from a less-than-perfect memory. In some cases I’ve used license to fill in details I that was not present to observe.

You may also detect a romantic longing for the lost era when pilots exercised extraordinary freedom with few restrictions. That is true, but I’m a realist. I know how private aviation came to the place it occupies today. And I know why. Three of the pilots outlined in these sketches subsequently perished in their airplanes—including my friend and college roommate Mark.

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