Around the Airport

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ultimately, I Remember the Good Things

The original military hangar used by Rhoades.
Mixed throughout life are those moments when you are told someone or something you treasure has ceased to exist.  Often times it turns out to be a person you were good friends with in school.  If so, you stop to think, “That sucks”, and move on.  It’s life.  Stuff happens.  You wish it wasn’t so, honor their memory, and take the next step forward.  The older you get the less shocking these things become.  Yet there is one death that’s different.
It’s hard to explain but if you’ve experienced what I’m about to discuss you know exactly what I’m talking about.  You remember because of the unexpectedness of it.  What is it?  The end, the death, the final nail in the coffin of someone or something you never knew you cared about.

Here’s how it typically happens.  You’re talking with a family member back home and they mention some obscure person from your childhood has passed or an old burger joint hang-out has closed for good.  Whatever the case, everyone thought it to be mostly a side note to your life, but when you heard of its demise it was obviously so much more.

Remember the movie “Stand by Me”?  The main character had only a narrow window of time with one friend before life went on without him.  Yet when the character Chris Chambers, the long lost friend, was stabbed and killed, the main character’s life (Gordie) stood still so he could put their story to words.  Their time together had been ages ago and relatively small, but it was formative.   Therefore, it was something he just could not move beyond without a proper remembrance.
The other day I got my “old burger joint” call.  Well, actually it was a text.  And it wasn’t a greasy spoon either.  Nope, for me it was the place where I had what I would call my first true commercial aviation job – Rhoades Aviation.  They were closing for good.
Rhoades also had Convairs.  Just like everywhere else everyone wanted the
bigger plane except me.  It required a training contract and I loved the 3.
My time at Rhoades physically exists as logbook entries.  Somewhere between barnstorming and flying for the airlines I recorded hundreds upon hundreds of hours flying their DC-3's.  That’s pretty much it as far as most people know.  Yet, like I referenced earlier, when I heard the news I immediately realized how much more those hours meant.
Where do I start?  My stint with Rhoades was a time of giving up.  For many reasons, I gave up my dreams of business to do the easy thing, fly.  Flying had always come naturally to me so it seemed to make sense to trade the one skill I had for steady income.  But to get to that point I knew I had to get more multi-time.  That’s where the DC-3's came in.
Back then, just like today, everyone said there was only one way to the airlines; become an instructor then go to the regionals.  Well, I may have given up but I wasn’t fully down.  That process simply did not appeal to me so I went in search of a job at Rhoades.  Everyone told me I was wrong and that it wouldn’t work.  But, if I were going to sell my soul I’d at least do it my way.
How far from the mainstream was my chosen route to the regionals?   I told a good friend what I wanted to do, he picked up the phone with me still sitting there, called Rhoades, and Bud (their operating manager) said, “Tell him to go get his multi and show up for class on X date.  It was two months away and that’s what I did.  There was no application, no “where do you see yourself in five years” interview questions, and no flight evaluation.  Although I’m sure the nearly 2000 hours of tailwheel and radial time didn’t hurt, the truth is that nobody wanted to work there.  Kids of that era, again just like today, had no interest in those oily old birds and to get a call from one with useful experience must have made them wonder if it was a joke.  It wasn’t.
I sat right there in that very airplane many times.
By the end of that year I’d received four degrees worth of education and a few lifetimes of experience.   We flew as many hours as the law allowed then figured out how to fly another 20.  VOR to VOR sans autopilot was the name of the game.  We did it in the Midwest at all hours of the night, without radar, XM weather, or any fancy gadgets that would allow us to leave our charts on the ground.  We had weight and balances but they were all lies; mostly on the part of the shippers.  Because of this, we determined safety of flight by putting our fist on top of the tailwheel to see if it fit in the gap between the fuselage.  If it didn’t, something came off.  Otherwise we went.  Did I mention it was all uphill?
Yes, the DC-3s floor is uphill and, although we had a winch to help, as pilots we loaded our own freight and secured it for flight.  Sometimes there was so much cargo we had to get a ladder and enter through the hatch just aft of the cockpit.  Built into the left side of the fuselage it was known affectionately as “the hamburger hatch”.
During a trip to Alaska, Ginger and I stopped at Buffalo Airways before most people
ever even knew they existed.  Inside sat a turbine 3 that looked very familiar.  I asked
where they got it and they said, "It just arrived yesterday.  We got if from a company
named Rhoades".  I never flew this one.
If it was raining outside it was raining inside and if it was snowing everything inside was frozen. Several pilots carried trash bags to shed the water and sleeping bags to sit in while at the controls.   God forbid you had food poisoning.  The trash can was the lav.
While there I learned never to fear the FAA and only respect them when they earned it, how to see, feel, and avoid weather when it was pitch black, and methods for comfortably flying in conditions most pilots today believe will kill you.  Another valuable piece of knowledge I gained was that the MEL list is actually a maximum equipment list.  And truth be told, most planes are perfectly safe fully maxed out with deferrals.  Maintenance from a pen really is magic.
Other notable lessons learned included the fact that the chief pilot will always claim everyone wants to fire you for what you did but that he saved your job.  Along with that came the insight that as long as you never killed anyone nobody was going to fire you; even if there was a recording of you using the F-word four times in one sentence.  In fact, once the higher-ups realize you don’t give a shit, they pretty much leave you alone and you might even get away with killing someone as long as you can still earn them money.  It’s the threat that binds people; letting go of the fear unlocks the chains and shuts down management.
Sitting waiting to be burned.  Yep, it's true.  The very first Rhoades DC-3
now belongs to the City of Columbus.
I also came to understand better, some things I already knew.  People who want cargo transported and people who want to be moved, want to do so for the smallest monetary amount.  If you can’t meet their demands, there’s always someone else willing to do it cheaper.  When you yourself stand on a slick wing in the rain and pump 759 gallons of gas and five gallons of oil, you are reminded how much it takes to move the machine.  Things break, pilots who think flying is supposed to be glamorous throw hissie fits, and the government is always there to get in the way or take its cut; sometimes both.  It isn’t easy and the aviating is just a part of it.
Did I mention I learned how to fight in the cockpit?

When I got the news Rhoades was closing, I knew I should pay them a visit.  Two days later I stood in the FBO talking to Bud Robertson.  There was something I just had to do; thank them.
It was great to see Bud again.  Today he’s on his second heart and says he feels better than he has in fifteen years (I started there 15 years ago).  But before we moved too far from the subject, I expressed what I felt was most important, “Today I fly 747’s all over the world and I want you to know it was this job that taught me what I know, and it was this job where I learned to safely do things that scare most of the people I work with.  It has helped me get the job done when others wouldn’t or couldn’t and again I wanted you to know that”.  Bud got a big laugh from the things that scare people part and then he said that he’s had a lot of guys come by through the years who told him the same thing, and he repeated “a lot of guys”.  Then, as he looked to the horizon, he added a reflective sounding “Yeah, A LOT OF GUYS”, and hesitated. He was running the list in his mind.  For a few seconds, if you could have seen his thoughts, a novel could have been written.  Up until today Rhoades had been a hold-out.  Now it was all going by and was about to end.  And in that moment I was so glad I had made the effort to visit.
Anyone who claims they know exactly how this works is lying.
I’ve called the operation at Rhoades many different things through the years.  Of course I’ve also been known to call my best friends things like “asshole” or “fuckstick”.  It’s what we do as pilots; they're just words.  Ultimately though, if you have any skill, you learned it or honed it somewhere and you should be thankful to those who offered the opportunity.  There are many people who have done so for me.  But today I specifically remember Jack, Bud, Darryl, JD, and the rest of the folks in Columbus Indiana.  Without Rhoades I would not be who I am today.  Blame it on them.
I still can't believe we had to wear white shirts.

4 comments:

Greg W said...

Great post that I understand. My time as a mechanic with on demand freight was at Royal Air,(B-18s) at PTK. I also did some work at Century Airlines,(DC-3s). Today all those round engines are gone and nearby Zantop Airlines,(DC-6s, Electra's) no longer exists.

Jed said...

Good story Rich. I was working as a mechanic in Alaska in the early 80's, scratching my way towards the magical 250 hours with eyes on flying the C-46 fuel haulers, and others, but mostly the C-46.

But allowed myself to get sidetracked out of aviation for a year and out of Alaska forever, which is too long of another story. Then when getting back in I went more helo than fixed wing for too long, thinking it was a better fit for me.

So much regret over never flying the round motor cargo haulers. Today when blasting off with 28,000 pounds of thrust in the Global and air conditioned comfort, I am grateful to be here. Yet what I would not give to be younger again, this time flying off the end of the runway on a hot McCall Idaho afternoon in a PB4Y slurry bomber making a best of rate climb at 100' a minute.



Michael Couch said...

Rich,

I too started my aviation career, and I have the same exact feelings. At the time I thought it was the worst place in the world to work, but time and again the experiences I gained at Rhoades in just a few months have served me well in last 16-17 years. I have nothing but fond memories of my time at Rhoades and the guys I worked with; Tom, Andy, Bill, Lyle, Mike, and most of all Ollie(it wasn't spelled that way but I can't remember the right way).

I get a big smile anytime I see a Convair, DC-3 or hear one of those beautiful round engines purring. I recently drove by the Columbus airport while visiting home and it was very sad to see such an empty ramp where so much activity used to take place.

Thanks for the article
Mike Couch

Jerry Graham said...

Rich, Did you happen to know or work with Greg Rogerson at Rhoades?