How I almost got shot over a courtesy car

Author’s note: This tale of woe occurred March 26, 2011. I wrote what’s below within 48 hours of the event. Other than recently adding photos and cleaning up typos/tense etc., I’ve left it as is.

I thought y’all might get a kick out of this. True story.

On Saturday night I flew from my home base at Houston-Southwest (AXH) to Boerne Stage Airfield (5C1), a small, public-use airport about 30 miles northwest of San Antonio, for the Tall Texan Triathlon in Boerne on Sunday morning. Simple flight plan.

In anticipation of the flight, on Wednesday I’d contacted the Boerne Airport office and spoken to the super friendly front desk manager there, Michelle, about a car to use. Small airports almost always keep handy what they call a “courtesy car,” usually a beat-up old thing they loan for free to pilots (as long as we replace the gas). Boerne had such a car: a 15+ year-old, beat-up, brown SUV. There was a grainy photo of it on the airport’s website, and I asked Michelle if I could have it for Saturday night until Sunday afternoon. “Yes, of course, I’ll leave the keys on the front seat, just leave the $25 overnight rental fee on the front seat if we’re not here when you leave.”

As an aside, and ironically, earlier that day I’d flown into the La Grange airport (3T5), where I’d left a message asking the airport owner if he had such a car available (I needed to drive to my cousin’s wedding two miles away in La Grange). He had called me from Costa Rica to let me know that he didn’t have a courtesy car, but instead he gave me the code to his hangar, which contained his Cadillac he let me borrow. When I described my plans to my friends that run our hangar at Houston Southwest Airport on Saturday morning, I gave a 30-second monologue about how refreshingly friendly and generous and trusting the general aviation crowd was…

The plot thickens. So, I landed in Boerne about 7:50 p.m. It was already dark. There were five cars in the parking lot, but none of them was an old brown SUV. I went into the airport office. It was unlocked. Some of the lights were on, but nobody was there. I rummaged around, but no note, no clue as to where the SUV might be. About 8:10, I sent an email and left a voicemail for Michelle; no answer.

Crew car
Is that the courtesy car?

I walked back outside and wandered around the corner of the office, thinking there might be another parking lot. Lo and behold, there was an open hangar door (actually a breezeway hangar with doors open on both sides) with a beat-up old brown SUV parked inside. Sure enough, the windows were down, and the keys were on the front seat. Oddly, though, there was a picnic table in front of it. Well, it was a nice day, maybe they barbecued. So, I moved the picnic table out of the way, got in the SUV, fired up the reluctant engine and turned on the lights to make my way the 125 feet or so from the hangar to the plane to unpack my bike and other gear.

Then… “GET OUT OF THE CAR! GET THE HELL OUT OF THE CAR! HANDS IN THE AIR, ASSHOLE! HANDS IN THE AIR!” Before I got moving, a huge, wild-eyed, burly guy about 50 busted out of a side door of the hangar about 30 feet from me, pointing the biggest silver pistol I’ve ever seen RIGHT AT ME, yelling at the top of his lungs. Holy crap! The best I could do was literally whimper: “Please don’t point that at me. Please don’t point that at me,” as I slowly (very slowly, hands raised) slinked out of the car. “I’m just here to borrow the courtesy car. Michelle at the airport said I could have it for the night.” He was waving the huge steel gun around wildly in circles then pointed it RIGHT AT ME and screamed: “GET ON THE GROUND! GET ON THE GROUND ASSHOLE! GET DOWN! GET DOWN NOW!!”

I was in no position to argue, so I hit the ground, positively terrified, spread eagle, cheek literally stuck to the concrete hangar floor, my flip-flops hanging off my feet and my “Scuba Bahamas” ball cap half knocked off by the floor.

“WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? WHO THE HELL ARE YOU, ASSHOLE? DON’T MOVE!!” With my face planted in the floor and my hat half on, I could no longer see whether he had the gun pointed at me, but even the 2A Gun Crowd doesn’t shoot folks when they’re helpless on the ground, right? Right?! “YOU GOT SOME ID, ASSHOLE? WHO THE HELL ARE YOU? WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING HERE?”

“My ID is in my pocket, sir.”

“GET IT OUT ASSHOLE, SLOWLY! SLOWLY I SAID!” At this point, the “asshole” bit was getting a little old, but he probably still had the gun pointed at me, right? So, I slowly (oh so slowly) pulled my wallet out of my pocket with two fingers and flung it in his general direction (I still couldn’t see him).

It was still dark, the headlights were glaring oddly, and the engine was still sputtering behind me. “I SAID DON’T MOVE!” As Gunman rummaged through my wallet, his wife (who I also couldn’t see) decided it was safe enough to get in on the fun and started yelling at me, too: “What the hell do you think you’re doing? What the hell do you think you’re doing? How’d you get here? How’d you get here?”

I pointed out the hangar door: “That’s my plane right there, ma’am. I’m just trying to borrow your airport courtesy car. This car looks exactly like the one I’m supposed to borrow. The keys were on the seat just like Michelle told me they would be.” Remaining unspoken: “My plane may not be fancy, but if you think I flew it in here so I could steal your moldy 1985 Mercury Mountaineer, you’re off your frickin’ rocker.”

Gun
Small town hospitality?

Meanwhile Gunman, apparently looking at my driver’s license, shouted: “YOU’RE NOT FROM HERE! YOU’RE NOT FROM HERE! YOU’RE A DAMN TRANSIENT!” (Mind you, that’s just the technical term for folks who land at an airport at which they’re not based, but he made it sound pretty bad.).

“Yes, sir, I just flew in. That’s my plane right there, sir. [Please, use your brain.] Sir, I’m just looking for the courtesy car. Sir, my phone is right here. I just sent Michelle from the airport an email and a voicemail about where I could find the car. Please, take a look.” Lots and lots of “sirs” came out of my mouth.

“WE’LL SEE ABOUT THAT, PAL! WE’LL SEE ABOUT THAT! ARE YOU ON THE BOERNE AIRPORT APPROVED PILOTS LIST?”

Unspoken: “Hey jackass, this is a public use airport that’s operated in part with taxpayer funds and anyone who can afford the $6 fee can land here whenever they damn well please.” Spoken: “I’m very sorry, sir, I don’t know what that is.”

“STAY RIGHT THERE. DON’T YOU MOVE. DON’T YOU MOVE!”

Anyway, to make a long story short, after a load more disparagement and haranguing with my face plastered to the concrete floor, Gunman got the airport manager on his phone and calmed down, his wife calmed down, and my phone started ringing: Michelle was calling me back to tell me an employee borrowed the (other) old brown SUV and that she’d be right back to get me a different car. I realized I wasn’t going to get shot or pee my pants. He let me up and (finally) stopped waving the gun in my general direction, wanted to shake my hand, and said to me, “You know, sorry about that, but our first instinct out here is to lock and load.” No kidding? I suppose that was better than “shoot first and ask questions later.”

I apologized for trying to steal their car and offered to help them move the picnic table back. I asked for their names, telling them I wanted to send them a pecan pie for their trouble or something (like find some regulation he’d busted by wielding a giant loaded pistol at a public-use airport), but they just shooed me out of the hangar. The whole thing seemed to go on forever, but looking back at the times on my phone, it was no longer than 15 minutes. So, I went on my way, got a different car from Michelle, no longer nervous at all about the race the next day, just delighted not to have a few holes in my chest.

After the race Sunday, another competitor came up to me and said, “Hey, I want to talk to you. Every time I saw you on the run course, you were smiling.”

I said, “That just means I wasn’t running fast enough!” But what I thought was, “Just happy to be here!”

As a post-script, I flew to Lubbock a few months later, in June 2011, for another triathlon (Buffalo Springs 70.3). The awesome folks at Lubbock Aero must have heard this story, because they made it super easy for me not to get shot…

And as a further (2020) post-script, of course I’d go back to Boerne Stage Airfield. By all accounts, it’s otherwise a friendly and well-run field. I don’t, however, recommend trying to steal a car there…

42 Comments

  • I’m sorry to say that doesn’t encourage me to visit the USA, in fact it does exactly the opposite. What a terrible situation….. 🙁

  • Wow Scott I think you were very lucky and as for Barney Fife that dude needed some re education training big time and now probably moved up to police commissioner

    • Living in Texas for quite some time I can say that I’ve never had an issue like that.Flying around texas on a regular basis and using courtesy cars once or twice a week never any problems.You had really bad luck.Most if not all folks at the airports have been to
      are super friendly!!

  • It’s called Southern Justice (Texas style)! Shoot first (about five or six rounds ought to do it), ask questions later!

    • I suppose it’s possible that the owner considered that the person stealing his car might also be armed; it happens. It is nice to think that all is peace and harmony but so far history, both recorded and unrecorded, doesn’t indicate that. Besides, except for the gun and confrontation parts, he was just following FAA/AOPA recommended airport security guidelines.

    • Ran a flight school out of Boerne Stage Airfield in its infancy from 1986 till 1995. Everybody was very friendly and helpful. Still know lot of people there including the owner. Hard to imagine this happening. Much apologies. I guess you surprised them. Still we dont act that way.

  • Well that story is a bit better than mine; years ago my fellow airplane driver and I borrowed a crew car at FXE to go to lunch. On the way back we were pulled over for an expired tag, and when I opened the glove box looking for the registration, out fell a Ziploc FULL of Marijuana! Needless to say it took a while to talk our way out of it!

  • I’ve been told by more than a few Texans that they have the biggest of everything in the US…guess that includes assholes too. Sounds like a good place to stay away from.

    BTW, Scott, I’m an Aussie too…living in Bulgaria these days.

    Safe skies everyone.

    • Yep, Tex-ass is full of those gun toten Hillbillies.
      It gives intelligent gun owners a bad representation. Michelle should be ashamed at how close you came to getting killed by that
      Nit-wit.

  • I had a similar experience with a gunman in the late 1970s. I was on a night flight, landing at the airport near my girlfriend’s house, and could not get the PCL runway lights to go on. I was a low time VFR pilot, almost out of gas and the weather was going downhill rapidly. I really needed to land! I thought I knew the landscape well enough that I could pick up the runway with my landing light in time to get correctly aligned with the runway (I know.. real bad idea). Suddenly the runway lights came on, and it was clear that I was going to crash into a hangar on my present heading. I corrected and landed normally. As I pulled off the runway onto the ramp a truck pulled up in front of me and blocked the plane. A guy got out, pointed his gun at me and screamed, “WHAT THE ***K ARE YOU DOING”. It turns out that he was the airport manager. There had been a recent NOTAM (which I didn’t get…second bad idea) that the airport was closed for night landings because it was being used as a drop-off point by drug traffickers. The airport manager, who lived at a house on the airport grounds, had seen my attempt to land and decided that watching me crash into the hangar would not be good, even if I were a drug trafficker, so he turned on the landing lights. After telling him that I was here to visit my girlfriend and was not carrying drugs, the airport manager was convinced that I was simply a dumb pilot who didn’t read NOTAMS. Having a gun pointed at you will reinforce the need to read all NOTAMS applicable to your flight!

  • We drove to an airport in Arizona where we were going to start taking some training the next day. They advertised on-airport camping. We arrived well after dark, and were driving slow circles in behind the hangars trying to find an appropriate place to set up the tent.

    As we are just starting to put stakes in the ground, an airport employee comes out at us with flash light out and handgun on is.

    “Just setting up our tents sir. We begin training here tomorrow.”

    “Ok. Camping is over there. Sorry. I thought you might be Mexicans.”

    Inside voice ….. ‘WHAT!!!!!”

    • Wow. Arizona is a little different world. My parents live north of Tucson, and every few years we fly out there for Xmas. A few years ago, the whole extended family went from Tucson to Tombstone for the day–some drove (2hrs) but I flew with some the 68nm over the mountains to the Tombstone airport (P29). Tombstone is 20 miles from the Mexican border, and it turns out there’s an ICE border control checkpoint on the freeway between Tombstone and Tucson. I didn’t know that until the drivers and the fliers met up in Tombstone, but as we later packed up to leave the deserted, tumbleweed-infested Tombstone airport (and fly right over the checkpoint), I was confident we were about to be raided at any minute…

  • What a coward this dip****t was. I caught someone actually burglarizing my SUV. I stopped the theft, never produced a gun nor raised my voice. Held the burglar until the police arrived. Did not call him names or make him get on the ground. I did make him stay seated in the driver’s seat and not leave. I had two friends arrive immediately after I confronted him, which re-enforced my calm but direct commands to him. Yours was not a lethal force offense and he should have been charged with reckless conduct with a firearm and a couple of other things I can think of.

  • Those of you disparaging Texas and Texans are welcome to stay away. I’m sure you’ll be very happy in Portland or Minneapolis.

  • I would have brought a lawsuit against that turd pointing a gun at you. Basically a reckless endangerment suit. You would have won. There is no excuse to point a loaded gun a someone not acting aggressive and 30 feet away.

    • Rich,
      You may not be aware of Castle doctrine law. Once Scott walked into this individuals hangar, he was in a space either owned or rented by the individual who owned the car. Once you have entered a private area, the owner can pretty much do what he feels is warranted to do to protect himself.
      As well, in TX it used to be, and may well be still, legal to point a gun at someone committing a property crime even though it is not your place, but a neighbors lets say.
      Not defending the attitude of the gentleman who pulled the gun, but also likely he was well within his rights to do so.

  • I’da IMMEDIATELY called the PD and had a piece of HIS a.. um … buttski. Unless he’s a police officer and had reason to believe that you WERE a perp, he had no business waving a piece at you.

  • As a lifelong Texan I find the actions of the vehicle owner entirely reasonable. It sounds like exactly what I would do. Why should I just stand there while someone steals a valuable piece of property.

  • Take a life over an inanimate object like a vehicle? That’s insanity. There are more suitable ways to indicate the fellow in the car made an error without endangering a life. I certainly would have pressed charges against that fat slob.

  • The comments are gold: I would have called the cops! Pressed charges! How irresponsible! Yeah, sure. Enter into private property, and do something that looks like you are about to commit a crime. It doesn’t work that way. The gun owner was within his rights of you were in his hangar, and in his car. The gun got pointed at you because he had no way of knowing your intentions, or if you were armed yourself. How do I know all this? Well, I have unfortunately been the guy holding the gun. Used to live in a rural area, like 20+minutes for a 911 call. Three gentlemen tried to get into my home. I’m quite certain the only reason my wife and I werent robbed, or worse, was the large caliber handgun I pointed at them. Like you, they became exceedingly polite. Thankfully that incident ended peacefully. I am from a small country with very strict firearms laws. And you know what? Really bad things happen there too, and regularly. Next time anyone finds themselves in a similar situation do this: Call out, knock loudly, do not knowingly enter any space that might me considered private property. The more isolated the area, the more cautious you should be. RT

  • I certainly agree that lethal force over an old Merc doesn’t compute. The problem here is unknowns. Lots of them. Scott appeared in a private hangar, took a private car… His grainy picture likely didn’t have a plate number, and from the article it appears the airport manager didn’t provide that information. Scott didn’t know the lay of the land so he can’t be blamed for entering the wrong hangar. Could have happened to any of us. What are the odds of all these things coming together? Not very great.

    But, stuff happens to good people. Unfortunately, there was no way for the very rattled hangar/car owner to know whether he was armed. Was he elderly? Dunno about you, but some of my buddies are in their 80’s and still airport bums. If a strappin’ young guy takes enters their hangar and swipes their car with a gun or no gun, it’s a serious threat. A tire iron, fists, or a knife can be very deadly. Yes, I agree his language was over the top. Ditto for his wife. I’d guess from Scott’s description that the guy and wife were also very afraid. It’s unfortunate that the airport manager failed to let Scott know the courtesy car was gone.

    I’m glad it turned out ok.

  • The majority of the comments are so disparaging of all gun owners or all Texans or all Americans. Kind of just like being a racist. Your prejudices are shining so brightly!

    The tone and unspoken comments come across exactly the same as your accusations against these people.

    These people found someone in their privately owned hangar, stealing their car. They were no doubt scared. If they had been policeman, in any state or any country, you would have been treated similarly.

  • “…The land of the gun-crazies…”. It is indeed comforting to know your mind is open to understanding the intense fear crime victims experience. Please show empathy for the victims.

  • Glad you were OK. People who are so paralysed with cringing fear that they’re afraid even to go to an airplane hangar or walk into a Starbucks without carrying a gun for “protection” are, well, too emotionally unstable to be allowed to carry guns.

    • Canuck, your comment is probably to most judgemental one in this tread. I hope you are never faced with a violent situation where you need something more than your quick wit to save you.

  • Just because some coward thinks he’s tough or important because he has a gun, doesn’t make him either. It merely shows he’s insecure. As a former Black Belt Karate instructor who taught police and security combat, I can say that someone who pointed a gun and was frothing at the mouth yelling threats and insults at me would have had the tables turned on him so fast he wouldn’t see it coming, and in a way intended to inflict deadly force to meet his unstable and deadly force. Those of you with gun and Texas attitude problems should beware of someone who can take care of himself, in and out of court. Even if you have no other motivation to be decent. And the author’s story showed that sometimes there can be misunderstandings.

    As a former champion pistol and rifle shooting competitor, I’m not anti-gun. I’m simply anti-bully, I’m for civility, and I’m for gun safety. Here’s a compromise, for those here with pro-gun/anti-gun comments: If there was a suspicious incident at night and one didn’t feel secure, then fine, the guy perhaps arming himself with it discretely concealed and calmly establishing the facts without the pointed gun, screaming insults, or rabidly proning out someone on the ground would have covered both the innocent situation and protected himself from anything more – if the police were not available, and he couldn’t manage without a gun. William Campbell’s comment, above, shows it can be done and he’s entirely correct – not surprising because he is somebody who has the real goods and doesn’t need to hide behind a gun or an attitude. Those who lack the training to handle a gun responsibly should get it, now, before coming near a gun again. Same for those who need psychotherapy. The safety of everyone around depends on it, including that insecure gun jerk’s, too. Don’t be that guy. Don’t meet someone like me that way, who you then push into defending himself. And don’t spoil the image of responsible gun owners by writing any more oafish macho comments, please. You wouldn’t want similar comments to tarnish your aviation industry, would you, so be responsible in every aspect of gun ownership, too.

  • Oops, just read my hastily-typed comment, above. I did not mean to imply that William Campbell had a gun – just the opposite – neither he, nor I, nor many other people need a gun. That was the point. And concealed carry laws vary state to state for those who feel unsafe and can’t manage to dial the police. Be civil, calm, smart, and legal.

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