At My Age...
At my age, I should have known better. Jack needed to take his plane to the radio shop and wanted me to follow him and bring him back. I thought the weather looked a bit iffy, but it was only about a hundred miles, so I agreed.
He has all the fancy electronics, so I thought I would follow him. His plane is faster and it was a bit of a job to keep up, but things went pretty well for a while. I tucked down low to his right so I could see him above the nose. But the weather kept getting worse, with the ceiling dropping and gray clouds popping up in my path.
Finally he disappeared into the haze and I was on my own, without the benefit of a fancy instrument panel. The only option I saw was a quick diving 180 to the right, and to try and find my way back home. Luckily, in this part of the country you just have to stay between the ocean and the interstate, and you can’t get too lost.
Did I say lost? I’ve never been lost in my life. However, I was having a reduced sense of situational awareness. I wasn’t worried, because I could still see the ground and it doesn’t take a lot of ground to park my airplane. But the ground was getting closer as the clouds continued to lower, and I kept thinking about all the tall TV and radio antennas scattered around.
All of a sudden, a large straight stretch of concrete showed up dead ahead. Given the circumstances, it looked pretty good. It occurred to me that I was not really where I was supposed to be, but since I was this close, I was already in trouble. I didn’t think it would be much worse to go ahead and land.
It sure was a long runway. I made it down okay, although these days I’m more used to a grass strip. I took the first turnoff to get out of the way, although there didn’t seem to be much traffic. I thought it was because of the weather.
After I taxied around for a while, I saw a line of airplanes in precise order. They were F/A 18’s. I then knew for sure I was not at an airline site. I kept on taxiing and lined up at the end of the row, kicking left rudder and brake as I spun around. I made sure my prop spinner lined up exactly with their noses. I have my pride.
I expected a reception committee, and it arrived just after I had shut down and taken off my goggles. A pickup truck roared up, with a full complement of irritated troops. They quickly surrounded my airplane, M-16’s at the ready.
Dealing with a bunch of aggravated armed Marines is a lot like dealing with a stray dog: Move slowly, speak softly, and don’t be stupid.
“Hey, Buddy, what the hell you think you’re doin’?” came the call.
“I’m getting out of my airplane,” I replied as soothingly as possible.
“You didn’t contact the tower!”
“Well, I don’t have a radio.”
This seemed to startle him, and he paused a while. This gave me time to get off the wing and on the ground. I tried to look as small and non-threatening as possible.
About this time another truck pulled up and an officer got out. I’ve been out of the military for over six decades, but I still compare collar devices. As he had a single silver bar, I was up one rank on him, if Army Air Corps ranks still count. But he was also wearing wings, so I knew I had a chance.
“What’s going on, Corporal?”
“This guy landed this weird airplane with no notice! He might be a terrorist!”
The lieutenant looked at my airplane for a few minutes. “I don’t think so,” he said.
He went over and climbed up on the wing, looking in both cockpits. He was careful to step in all the right places, which made me feel better.
He looked over at me and said, “This is a Stearman, right?”
I stood up a little straighter and replied, “A PT-17, to be exact. The first type I ever flew.”
He got off the wing and walked around the whole airplane. He looked at it in that way a pilot looks at an airplane. It’s hard to describe, but I know it when I see it.
“What else did you fly?”
I had to stop and think for a while, then I started slowly listing them. “BT-13, T-6, P-40, P-38, P-51…”
When I paused, he barked, “Corporal, get this aircraft chocked and tied down!”
“But .…Aye, Aye, Sir.”
I kept going, “B-17, B-24, C-47 …” The flurry of activity around my airplane distracted me for a while. “And I ferried some B-29’s back after the war was over.”
When I finished, the lieutenant ordered, “Corporal, get a drip pan out here! Real airplane engines drop oil.”
Now that, I really appreciated. This younger generation may be useful after all.
While we waited, he kept looking at my plane. Finally he said, “You know, I’ve never flown a tail-dragger.”
I looked down the long row of low visibility gray Hornets. “That’s OK”, I said. “I’ve never flown a jet.”
After a while everything was cleaned up and secured, and the lieutenant sent everybody back to wherever it is they stand their daily duty.
He walked over to me. “Sir! My relief will be here in a few minutes. May I offer you a ride to the club?”
“Thank you, Lieutenant. That would be very nice.”
And I returned his salute.
Copyright © 2010 Bob McKellar