Old Mack’s Tales

February 27, 2008

One of Old Mack’s Many Flying Tales

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 6:46 pm
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Koerner’s Flying Field In Kankakee

There’s a large X across too many names in my old address book. The Xes remind me not to call them. Now there’s an X over Dell Koerner’s name. It’s painful just to look at it.Christine, my wife, came home from Office Depot with a new address book. I will not use it. I’m more comfortable with the names of all those friends in my hip pocket; even those no longer able to answer their phones and whose Christmas cards return unopened.This man  lived a long, full life. I doubt that he had much to regret at the end of it. He was one of the early air mail pilots. He built a ham radio station and was issued one of the first licenses to operate it, after the government began to control the air waves, and the airways.Del bought a large tract of pasture land and built his flying field and hangars on it during the Roaring 1920s. His was not the kind of airport with paved runways and a mile of fancy lights to guide you into it; his was a large rectangle of flat, mown grass with some hangars and shops and a warm cozy office. Koerner’s had the smell of machine oil, Egyptian Linen and Butyrated Dope mingled together.Koerner’s flying field is still in operation. It’s run by Dell’s grandson, Steve.There’s another airport in Kankakee, northeast of town, with the fancy lights, navigation aids, paved runways miles long and a tower to control the traffic. But it is not a flying field in the same sense as Koerner’s.If it hadn’t been for that old, Red Stinson Voyager parked facing the road, broadside to my line of flight, I never would have found Koerner’s flying field or met the old man who built the place back in 1927. I would be dead and Xed out of other peoples’ address books.

Very early that morning, I  rolled my boss’s Cessna 172 out of the hangar in Hammond, Indiana. The temperature was six degrees above zero, the wind out of the west and the wind sock full and stiff, indicating a head wind of 15 to 30 knots. I  used a dip-stick heater to turn the sludge in my crank case into something usable to lubricate the Cessna’s Lycoming engine.  I set the chocks and cranked her up. She warmed up while I walked around her, checking the long range tanks for condensate and draining it.  I was wearing a sweat suit under an old Navy flight suit and my leather flight jacket had its fur collar turned up to meet the bottom of the black wool watch cap on my head. I would have given my seat in hell for a Mongolian Pisscutter that day, the kind we were issued in Korea. The cabin heat was on while I did the pre-flight, so it was relatively warm when I climbed into the cockpit. I signaled the line man to pull the chocks, and taxied to the east end of the runway.

The solid overcast bottomed out at around three thousand feet and I could see nearly all the way to Chicago that morning. Chi was forecast to get snow later in the day.

The Explorer Pipeline, which I was going to fly patrol over, cuts the grid squares on the diagonal; so I figured I’d be well to the southwest of the arctic front long before the forecast snow started. Ground control  switched me to the tower’s frequency, and I had the nod to take off when ready.

I’ll interject some science here, if you don’t mind. Cold air is denser than warm air. The denser the air, the more lift you get from your wings and the more thrust you get from your engine and prop. Cold air is good for flying patrol, so long as there’s no ground fog to  obscure the pipeline right of way, and there’s less turbulence. End of lesson.I was airborne using less than half the runway.  I leveled off at three hundred feet on a heading of southwest.

MidwayAirport was under a low, dark cloud; its tower beacon barely visible off my starboard wing tip when it started snowing. fans of ice crystals were building on the upper corners of the Plexiglas windscreen where air from the cabin heater wasn’t reaching. But I could still see the discoloration in the old snow cover where the pipeline lay–the product pumped through the pipe heats it, making it visible from the air even under a blanket of snow. I had the railroad tracks and a highway under my port wing strut as the snow came down in earnest.Just north of Kankakee International, the snow built up on the windscreen completely blocking my forward view. I was flying over the north side of the right-of-way,  keeping my head out  the window in the left door of the plane. I was looking at the rotating beacon on the Kankakee tower and just about to give them a call on the radio, when their beacon turned from green to red, indicating that their airport was closed to all traffic.

That’s when I began talking to myself; when things get hairy, I tend to do that. I glanced at the strip chart on my knee board.  On it was the a street map of Kankakee.  I spotted an airfield labeled “Kankakee, Koerners.” I picked a couple of check points off the map. “If you make a hard left bank at those grain elevators beside the track, and then follow that street to the church steeple, then that road should take you south straight to Koerner’s little airport,” I told myself aloud.  My headache was getting worse all this time, so I turned off the cabin heat. 

The air coming in my open window was  chilling my cheeks; I worried about frost bite for half a minute.

“There are the grain elevators.  Bank this sucker, Mack!” I made a pylon turn around them and then dropped down low enough to read the street signs.  I could make out the church steeple and feel the wind pushing me off my track. I crabbed the plane into the wind. It’s lucky for me I did, or I wouldn’t have spotted that little red tail drager parked by Koerner’s fence.

My altitude was less than 100 feet as I turned into the wind, dropped the flaps and  reduced power.  As soon as I crossed the fence I flared, and eased the main gear into the foot of new snow.  When the nose gear was on the deck I had to add power to keep moving.  I came to a stop thirty feet from Koerner’s hangar and killed the engine. By this time my head is throbbing like someone with a power drill is in there boring through my temples. It was a pretty sure sign that I had Carbon Monoxide poisoning. I no sooner climbed out of the plane when Dell, his son and grandson came out to help push the bird into their hangar.

Dell gave me a look.  “Son, you did that just right,” he said. That’s music to my ears even with a splitting headache.When we had the Cessna inside and the barn doors closed, Steve Koerner and his dad went back to work on the restoration of a Boeing Stearman Kadet. As Dell walked me into his office he told me that Steve’s sixteenth birthday was coming up and they wanted to have the Stearman ready so’s he could solo it and get his private pilot’s license on his birthday. Dell gave me a moving tour of his machine shop and his old ham radio gear as we passed them. But he recognized the symptoms of CO poisoning and walked me out to his car.

We drove to his house, where he put me to bed in a room with the window open to clear my head and warm quilts to prevent a chill. When I woke up the next morning, Dell drove me to his airport. Our talk was easy, respectful and about things we had done, places that were good and of airplanes. While I slept, Dell’s son had welded a patch on the exhaust pipe and replaced the heater muff; there would be no more Carbon Monoxide entering the cabin when I left Koerner’s Korner of Kankakee.

Someone had plowed the snow off the turf and I had a full belly and a thermos filled with Koerner’s coffee as I made my take off. Three generations of Koerners were standing in the open hangar doorway to wave me off. As my wheels cleared the trees, I waggled my wings goodbye and continued my patrol to St. Louis in clear weather.



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