Old Mack’s Tales

March 14, 2008

Gypsy Pilot

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 9:04 pm
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Mooney Mark 21 A Gypsy Pilot will fly anything with fixed wings, anyplace at any time, for a fee. It’s a tough row to hoe, and nobody I know ever got rich or even stayed solvent for long, doing this kind of flying. But it sure was a blast while it lasted.

I’d had a salaried job demonstrating new Beechcraft Bonanzas and Debonairs to prospective buyers all over Oregon and Eastern Washington; it had been fun for a while, but then it began to feel like riding a carousel horse. I logged a lot of hours in good airplanes, landed in countless farmers fields (wheat ranchers were our prime prospects) and at every airport on the sectional charts, but in the end I was getting nowhere fast. So I put out the word to fixed base operators that I would be happy to deliver airplanes for them, or take their buyers to the factories in Wichita, Kansas or Kerrville, Texas to pick up their new planes.

Ron Scott, the FBO and Mooney Aircraft distributor at Albany, Oregon called me one day. He reached me at Milt Ruberg’s airport in Springfield, OR, where I was consoling Milt for the loss of his son to cancer. Ron Scott said: “I’ve got three men who have to get to Kerrville to take delivery of their new Mooney Super 21s. Could you fly them down there?”

 “Be glad to do it, Ron,” I said, “If I can get Milt to fly me up to your place; he recently lost his son, and is in a funk. Maybe I’ll talk him into flying up in his Boeing Stearman. Some oil smoke and wind in his face might get his head straight.” I looked at Milt. The old man had half a grin on his leathery kisser as he nodded.

We’ll give you a call on the Unicom frequency, Ron,” I said. Milt was already shrugging on his leather jacket as I hung up the phone.

 

This is the best notion anybody has had, Mack,” Milt said as he did a low altitude barrel roll with the Stearman over Coburg, Oregon. As we approached Albany, Milt’s voice came through my head set:

 

“Thanks, Mack. Any time I can help you out buddy, just call me.” Milt greased the wheels on the macadam runway at Albany in a perfect three point full stall landing. He waved a gloved hand at Ron as I climbed out of the front cockpit. I barely had time to get out of the way of his empennage, when Milt hit full throttle and took off.

 

Ron and I watched Milt put on a show of aerobatics before he headed south for Springfield. Sadly, Milt’s name, his airport and his son’s name are all Xes in my address book now.

We walked into Ron’s office. He poured two cups of coffee and sweetened them with old bourbon. We toasted all the men like Milt that we knew or had known. Then we got down to business.

 

You’ll have to let these guys each fly a leg of the trip to Kerrville. None of them has much experience with the Mooney’s manual landing gear retraction and lowering mechanism, so let them get some practice landings along the way,” Ron said, as he wrote the men’s names down on my knee board.

One man was the FBO at the McMinnville airport, another lived in St. Helens and would meet us at the Hillsboro airport, and the third man wanted to be picked up at Portland International Airport at the Flightcraft office—my former employer; seeing me chauffeuring in a Mooney would not make my old boss happy, but so it goes.

 

As we walked out to one of Ron’s older Mark 21 aircraft, he pulled a wad of bills from his pocket and peeled off three C notes. “If this doesn’t do it, call me and I’ll wire you more cash,” Ron said. Then he added: “I’ll pay you your fee when you get back, if that’s okay with you.” I had agreed to do the job for twenty-five bucks an hour based on the time on the tachometer. I didn’t believe in charging for time I was on the ground due to crappy weather, or a hangover. 

I’ll lead them back here over the Mountains as far as Phoenix or Tucson. From there they should be able to get home by themselves. A buddy of mine is recuperating from crash injuries at the Grand Canyon and I plan to stop there for a visit before coming back. Will that be okay with you?”

Sure,” Ron said, “The weather should be better down there. But be sure to instruct these guys about the rotor zones on the lee side of the mountains before you cross the Cascades with them; I don’t think they’ve had much mountain flying experience, except for the guy from McMinnville.”

“Can any of them fly formation?” I asked.

“I doubt it. They’re not former military pilots, so you’ll have to teach them after you all leave Kerrville.”

That old Mooney Mark 21 was a tight fit for four full grown men. The guy from McMinnville flew the plane from his field to pick up the other two passengers; he was an experienced flight instructor and had no problems with the throw-over bar that retracted and lowered the landing gear. I sat in the right hand seat, sweating just as I always do when I’m not controlling the airplane I’m in.

The guy from St. Helens had to get used to more than the landing gear; he’d never flown a high performance, low wing plane before. He got the gear down okay, but tried to land twenty feet above the runway at Boise, Idaho. I told him to take a “wave off,” but he didn’t comprehend. “Go around again!” I shouted into his right ear. Then I had him make three touch and go landings before making a final and swapping seats with the man from Oregon City whom we’d picked up at Portland International. 

Oregon City guy did fine until we landed in Salt Lake City. He would have landed gear up, if I hadn’t reminded him. He too had to make several touch and go practice landings before we could all go in for lunch. After lunch, I put Oregon City back in the command pilot’s seat and gave him the Omni heading for Colorado Springs.

The damned fool tried to take off and climb directly over the mountains east of Salt Lake City. I could hear McMinnville in the back seat groaning as the mountain loomed ahead of us. I was determined to let the guy make his own decision, right up until the last minute. With four men and our overnight bags in the plane, it was operating at full gross weight. I explained that the Mark 21 didn’t have as much power as the Super 21 he had bought from Ron. He gave me a blank stare and continued on course, climbing at less than 100 feet per minute. When it was obvious that we couldn’t clear the mountain, I told him to execute a climbing 360º turn and get more altitude before trying to cross it.

While he was climbing, I lectured all three men on the danger of rotor zones on the lee side of mountains: “They can smash you right into the damned ground. So keep at least two thousand feet above the tops of mountains. Winds are lifted by the mountains and break like an ocean wave when the go over the top. On the windward side you get plenty of free lift, but when the wave breaks, it’s like being in an elevator with a broken cable; downdrafts of thousands of feet per minute lurk on the leeward side of the hill.”

When we landed in Kerrville that night, I was exhausted, even though I’d flown the plane for only an hour during the trip.A rep from the Mooney factory drove us to a motel and put all of us up for the night.

 

Before the three men went up with a check pilot from the Mooney factory, I briefed them all on the basics of flying formation, using a couple of model airplanes in the instructor’s lounge. I asked the check pilot if he would show these guys how to intercept my airplane as I circled over the field. He said that it was against company policy, but if I just happened to be circling up there within ten miles of their airport, he’d demonstrate the intercept maneuver.

 “How tight do you want these guys to fly on your wing?” he asked. I told him to feel them out. Wingtip separation and step-down would be up to him. “Just don’t bump into me, okay?” McMinnville slid in on my port wing very smoothly, but then he got sucked. That is, he took off too much power and fell behind. After a bit of throttle jockeying he managed to hold a good position at a 45º angle, in a left echelon and twenty feet lower than my wing. Crossing him from left to right, under my fuselage was a bit nerve wracking for me and the check pilot, but after a few tries McMinnville got it. The guy from Oregon City would have nothing to do with formation flying; he said he’d take his time and fly VFR back to Oregon by himself via Wyoming and Idaho. The St. Helens dude tried like hell to maintain a formation after completing a rendezvous, but would not, or could not move in closer than 100 feet between our wingtips. That would have to do, as the check pilot couldn’t spend more time with us without catching hell from his boss.

Oregon City took off heading for Wichita, Kansas, but put the airplane down at Midland-Odessa airport and called it a day, the Rep from Mooney reported. McMinnville took off first in his new Super 21 and orbited west of Kerrville, where St. Helens joined him in a very loose formation. I joined them and took the lead, moved them into position off each wing like goslings. Their airplanes could out run mine easily, so I set the pace for them.It was a beautiful day. Clear all the way to Santa Fe, but beyond that there was a squall line. Both men were in a hurry to get home, but neither was instrument rated, or at least not current. They agreed to follow me through a notch in the mountains west of Deming where the bottoms of the thunder bumpers were less than five thousand feet above the summits and lightning was striking the peaks on both sides of the pass.

We had to circle east of the pass to gain altitude, but just enough to keep our heads out of the clouds. Then we headed for the tunnel of light over the pass. Half way through that eerie green tunnel we met two Air Force fighter jets coming at us head on. Whether those two jet jockeys had us in sight or on their radar is doubtful. They screamed over our planes close enough to bounce us around in their wake.

We landed at Tucson International and had a drink together before they went on their way. I noted as we bumped our shot glasses together that all of our hands were trembling.

After a night in Tucson, I flew up to the South Rim and landed. When I called his number, I got the word that Elling was recuperating at the North Rim Lodge. I asked the FBO about the small air strip on the north side of the canyon. He told me that it was on a side hill with several humps and dips in it. “But it ain’t that bad,” he said.

I topped off my fuel tanks at the South Rim airport.  I planned to look over the strip on the north side and land on it, if it looked okay. I figured I’d have to hike to the lodge where Elling was holed up.

Hot air is less dense than cold air. The higher the airport, the lower the density.  The power an engine can put out, the lift of the airfoils and the thrust of the propeller are all directly proportional to the air density. Landing at an airport  8,000 feet above sea level when the temperature is 90 degrees is like landing on the top of Mount Whitney; the density altitude is around 14,000 feet. You have to land hotter, which takes a longer roll out than you’d need at sea level, or on a colder day. This dirt landing strip is draped across three fingers on the side of a hill.  It was long enough, but only because it was tilted upwards from the north end to the south. The whole landscape tilts upwards from 7,000 feet to almost 9,000 feet there on the high plateau north of the Grand Canyon..

I landed okay, but the roll out was like riding swells on a surfboard. Heavy braking got me stopped short of some scrub junipers at the south end of the dirt strip. A jeep driver from the lodge picked me up and delivered me to Elling Halvorson’s retreat.

My reunion with Elling was interesting. His crash injuries had been extensive and life threatening, but he had mended more rapidly than I’d expected.  Elling’s experience had transformed him; he’d been “born again,” The main topic of our conversation was his religious experience, and his new corporation for taking tourists on helicopter rides in the Canyon.

I’ve never been able to sit long for sermons. I cut the meeting short, saying that I had to make it to Las Vegas before dark. I concocted something about navigation lights, as I recall.

I got a ride out to the strip. The driver returned to the lodge. I debated with myself about having the driver return with containers so I could drain most of the Avgas from the Mooney; without the weight of gasoline, I knew I could take off and land at the South Rim. On the other hand, if I could get off the ground with full tanks, I could spend the night in Vegas.  Of course there was also the option of spending the night at the lodge and leaving in the cool of the morning, but that would have been out of character, as writers say.  I chose the riskier option; I would attempt to take off with full fuel tanks and fly to Vegas.  I was young and foolish back then.

Maybe the heat and altitude affected my critical faculties, or maybe I just wasn’t using my head.  The wind was dead calm. I could have taken off to the north and it would have been all down hill. But no, I sat at the north end, revved the engine and released the brakes. As soon as the wheels broke ground, I raised the landing gear. I climbed until the plane would climb no more, and then found that I had only fifteen or twenty feet between my butt and the deck. The landscape was climbing as fast as I was.  At the far end of a long meadow there were tall ponderosa pines that I knew I couldn’t clear.

It’s beginning to look like I’ll have to ditch the plane.  I  have barely enough altitude to bank the wings a few degrees without dragging a wingtip on deck. I am munching the seat cushion with my puckering strings.

Ah, there’s a glimmer of light reflected from water in a brook flowing west through a break in the forest. I gently bank right and fly between the trees, following the water. It cascades over the rim of the canyon.  I follow it in a steep dive, gaining surplus airspeed, before zooming upwards. I felt like I just made my point on a craps table.

I know it’s my lucky day, as I point the nose of the old Mark 21 toward Vegas, trim the plane and light a Winston. A cigarette never tasted so good before or since.

One of my instruments wasn’t working properly.  It was the gage that should be telling me whether I’m on course to my destination or off in restricted airspace somewhere.

 Those two Air Force interceptors buzzing around looking for me gave me the clue that I had wandered into Nellis Air Force Base’s Restricted air space. Ground Control Intercept radar obviously picked up my blip on their scopes.  I dove for the deck, turned south and wove through the canyons until I came out over Lake Mead.  The interceptors either lost me, or lost interest after I left their area.  Over the Lake I climbed up to traffic pattern altitude and landed at Thunderbird Airport in Las Vegas.

A Tech Guy from the electronics shop checked the instrument. He said he would fix it in the morning, and then gave me a ride into town..

He parked at the Travel Lodge Motel. That’s when  I realized that four singles were all the cash I had left. I had blown the money on fuel, meals, and motel rooms for all four of us. I used my Mobile credit card to rent a room for the night, and then bought  Tech Guy a drink at the bar.

While he sipped his drink, I took the dime and quarter change and put them into two slots. I pulled the handles at the same time and hit a jackpot on both machines. There was a flood of dimes and quarters. After converting the change to bills, Tech Guy suggested that we take a look at the new casino across the road which had “Grand Opening” signs fluttering behind some fantastic, illuminated fountains.

The place was called “Caesar’s Palace,” and it looked like one. Inside the dealers and waitresses were clones May Britt, blond hair, long legs and short vestal virgin white togas, enticing the few suckers present, including me.

I sat across from a lonely blackjack dealer with emerald eyes the size of quarters and bumped heads with her until my stacks of silver dollars were about to topple. My Tech friend had gone home, so I dined alone in splendor. After paying for the meal, I returned to the Travel Inn, showered and hit the sack.

The next morning, when Tech Guy picked me up, I counted my winnings; it was close to three hundred bucks. That’s not a lot of dough, unless you were down to your last buck when you made it. Then it feels like a fortune, heavy yet comfortable in the pockets.

It took Tech Guy only minutes to fix my gage. The instrument worked fine all the way back to Albany.

Ron paid me off, and then flew me down to Springfield, were I was living in a boarding house near the University of Oregon campus. That night I went to the “Down Under” night club in Eugene and listened to Monty Fisher and his band “Amazing Grace” play some fine mountain blues.

I was enjoying my new career as Gypsy Pilot.  I would not make the same mistakes in the future; I would make different mistakes. End 

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