Around the Airport

Saturday, April 2, 2011

Barnstormer Anonymous - Chapter 2

Chapter 2
I remember the first time I flew a plane, actually working the controls. Up front my brother, twisted and bent, strained to get “the shot”. Below us a county park baseball game spun like a pinwheel. If I flew the turn properly, the action would stay in place and he would use me again as his pilot. That was my challenge. Yet in my mind what I was doing didn’t feel that hard. These thoughts were verified when I rolled wings level in the direction of home. John, my senior by seven years, told me I had done a good job and that I seemed to know just what to do.
Arriving in Old Bess’ hometown, Oakdale, California, my mind went back to that day above the park. When I set out to start a biplane ride business, I never dreamed it would fall together so quickly. The right place at the right time fits the situation. For some perplexing reason, everything seemed to appear right when I needed it; sometimes even, just before. Old Bess was no different.
Wanting to make a business of “hopping rides”, earning a profit would be important. It would also made my decision easy. Despite everything I had been told it was clear a Stearman would offer the only chance of doing so. But, there was one critical detail; it had to hold two passengers. The day I realized this, John came home from a charter trip with magazine in hand. Inside was an ad offering, for sale, a rare approved “three-seater”. A short time later, in a dimly lit hangar, the question “Is this thing really mine?” went silently through my mind.
That word “thing” is important as there’s something about Old Bess I’ve kept a secret until now. I was almost sick when I first saw her. Earlier back at home, before exchanging borrowed money for a machine I’d never seen, I had decided a mechanics opinion was needed first. So, like every other person buying their first plane, I sent a friend to inspect it. This would be a teachable moment.
Steve, a mechanic and my roommate at the time, heard my situation and offered to do it for expenses. Being cheap and qualified, he got the job and off he went. Fortunately for my dream, his report came back good and the money was exchanged. There was no turning back. Yet very soon I would want to.
Stepping down into the hangar, that’s when it happened. Laying eyes on the plane for the very first time, I realized Steve’s report had been blurred by excitement. To make matters worse, this didn’t hit me until I was viewing the plane as its owner. There was no backing out but inside I tried. I was truly disappointed. Looking around in disgust everything seemed tainted, even the hangar.
Having spent many days as a kid in old garages, that hangar felt familiar. Much like those places, it had the scent of hard work. The floor, although solid, was of an unknown makeup. Decade’s worth of grease and overspray made sure of that. Heavy in the air, the scent of mineral spirits suggested repairs and random parts strewn on the floor covered oil spills thirty years old. In their day, garages were the waypoints of a new tomorrow. But like this hangar, by the 90’s they were the refuge of yesterday. For that reason, most people avoided them. Smart guys though knew a secret; often the best treasure is overlooked because of its cover. Was I making that mistake?
My mind was swirling. Inside I thought “Jesus Christ I just spent my friends money on a piece of junk.” Thankfully though, that thought was lessened as it competed with “This is not good, what am I going to do, I can’t take this home”. Yet on the outside I was cool; or so I thought.
Most of my family, my brother included, is afflicted with a genetically driven need to tell the truth, no matter how hard or upsetting that truth may be. So when my brother, nervously walking around, began to describe every part of the old girl as “This isn’t so bad”, I knew he could see the excitement leaving my face. To his credit, he was fighting instinct and winning. Or maybe he was driven by survival? He had, after all, committed to this trip a mere month into marriage. And from what I could gather, he couldn’t tolerate any delay that would keep him from his bride more than four days. Whatever the case was, his attempts to blow sunshine up my ass were growing old fast.  Fortunately, that’s when I remembered him telling me “you just seemed to know what to do”.  And he was right. From that point on, there was no looking back.  Old Bess made it easy.
Assumptions based on looks are among the most fallible. So often the dullest paint wins the race, ratty clothes drape intelligence, and sullen faces hide beautiful souls. Old Bess, as we would discover, had been ignored by those seeing only her cover. Thanks to them, I got a sweetheart of an airplane more capable than any stock Stearman I knew. Yeah, she didn’t look like much next to hangar queens. But, the more she spoke the more beautiful she became. My roommate was either lucky or good.

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