Old Mack’s Tales

September 15, 2013

Flying Work: Pipeline Aerial Patrolling

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 12:04 am
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Flying to OK City for a chat with the FAA.


I landed the Cessna 172 patrol plane in Springfield, MO, to pay my sister a brief visit. I called her from the phone at the car rental desk. Sis gave me directions to her place. But the clerk refused to rent a car to me, because I had no personal credit cards and they wouldn’t accept cash. Sis recently managed a regional office for Hertz, so she wasn’t surprised when I called her back. By the time she got to the airport, I had serviced the plane. She talked about her recent divorce as we walked from the terminal out to the plane. Everything she said was news to me; we hadn’t been in touch for two years. The most interesting tidbit was that she was sharing a mobile home with an old girlfriend from their high school days.

“How did you know I was here?” She asked.

“I used to trace skips, remember? Mom gave me your unlisted number. I had to check the area code. She didn’t know you were in Springfield. She thought you were still in Atlanta. Why the secrecy?”

“I got tired of my ex calling me in the middle of the night. You know me. I always fall for the crazy ones. Jerks who don’t know when it’s over and keep hanging around. Tell me about your wife. Mom said she was very young.”

“I don’t have time. Give me your address and I’ll write.” We exchanged addresses and phone numbers, and promised to keep in touch.

We stood on the concrete apron looking at the Cessna 172 with its downward curving “Ace Deemer” wingtips. She scowled at me and asked: “Do they really work?”

“Just a bit. Most pilots wouldn’t notice, unless they were trying to land on a dike in the swamps south of New Orleans, Sis.”

Sis had a lot of stick time in a former boyfriend’s Boeing Stearman. I knew she could have landed it on that dike, but being unable to fishtail that old tail dragger to see over the engine cowling, she would have made mincemeat of those cattle crossing that dike. I didn’t mention that; she would have kept me there all afternoon arguing. I had no time for that; I had to get to Tulsa before dark.

You have an address for us now, Sis. So write once in a while, okay?”

“Sure,” she said skeptically. “If you’re still in Hammond when Christmas rolls around, I’ll send a card with pictures of my kids. But I know you, Brother.”

Sis waived as I taxied past the terminal towards the duty runway. I gave her a thumbs up and pushed in the throttle.

The Explorer’s right of way lies between thick pine forests of the Ozarks. The low angle of the sun ahead causes the needles of the trees to shimmer; it’s hard on the eyes. The line crosses hills and valleys monotonously. The wide, cleared strip below was mainly red clay with a scattering of pine seedlings along its edges. Flying above it at 100 feet, following the terrain, I could see the ruts made by the Jeeps and trucks of service crews. I didn’t envy them their job, even though I knew their salaries made mine look puny.

Passing over the mile markers I check marked them on my strip map and made symbols in places where erosion had uncovered stretches of the pipeline. Thus far only one major incident had been noted.

Back up the line I’d discovered a hillbilly on a backhoe digging a hole to bury his dead horse. I bombed him with a sandbag containing a message he couldn’t read—it told him he was about to break the pipe and create a gusher of gasoline. He hadn’t looked up, but he had stopped digging. I dropped the same message to his wife, who was hanging laundry on her clothesline; she read it and ran to stop her husband in the nick of time. The light bulb on the Joplin rectifier was out; I reported it by radio to their line crew.

I was approaching the city of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma. There the pipeline runs right through the heart of town. When I got there a crew from the sewer department was digging a hole in the street directly over the pipeline. I circled overhead, dropped my baggy with the warning, saw a worker pick it up and dart over to the backhoe operator waiving the crimson streamer attached to the sandbag. I made one more circuit over the main drag at an elevation of 300 feet, saw the operator reading the message and then took up a heading for Tulsa.

I landed in Tulsa to refuel before heading to Texas. The tower operator radioed me that the Federal Aviation Agency had requested the pleasure of my company in their offices on the Oklahoma City airport. “ASAP” said the guy on the radio, “You’ve been cited for a violation by a cop in Broken Arrow.” Delivering bad news must have made the guy’s day, for he was laughing when I Wilco’d his message.

I landed in OK City too late. The FAA offices were closed. I was down to a few bucks and change by then. I was buying gas for the plane on the boss’ Shell credit card. I couldn’t afford a motel room, so I shoved the seat as far aft as it would go, used my leather flight jacket for a pillow and slept soundly until 0900 the next morning.

It took a while to update my flight logbook and slip it into the plastic bag with the aircraft and engine logs, and our pipeline patrol waiver. It took the official less time to check my paperwork and deep six the cop’s citation. Meanwhile I helped myself to two cups of FAA coffee, drank one and put a lid on the other to take with me.

After taking off, I calculated the amount of time and gas I’d waste by flying south on route 81 the 74 miles to my birthplace of Marlow. I climbed to 3400 feet in clear, cool air and headed south west.

The aerial view of Marlow was a major disappointment. Trees had grown up and their foliage hid most of the buildings. I could make out the intersection of Main and Broadway, and see the railroad tracks running north and south between First Street and Railroad Avenue. But I could see neither Papa Calhoun’s little house nor the building in which Sis had been born. Grandpa Frank Jennings’ old place had been subdivided. I circled the town once and headed for Tulsa feeling like I’d just dropped a paycheck on a craps table.

I picked up my line out of the refinery in Tulsa and turned south. It was getting too dark to see the pipeline by the time I reached Bonham,Texas. I landed, parked the plane and tied it down to the pad-eyes on the apron. My gut was growling and kicking up acid. I hadn’t eaten anything all day. I felt pretty glum as I walked to the unoccupied shack normally manned by the FBO. On the outer wall of the shack there was a bulletin board on which businessmen had thumb tacked their business cards. One card had been placed there by an AOPA member who was also the banker in that town. I pulled his card off the board, walked to the pay phone and called him at his home number.

Carl answered the phone. I asked if there was anyplace in town to cash on an out of state check. After telling him my situation and who I worked for, Carl said: “Stay right there. I’ll drive out and pick you up.”

Less than ten minutes later Carl drove up in his new Sedan De Ville. “It’s Thanksgiving day, Mack. How’d you like to have supper with me and my family?” That was the easiest decision I’d made in months. I got in his car and hoped my scroungy flight suit didn’t mess up the tan leather seats.

While Carl’s wife and daughter set the table, I used their phone to call the boss in Dickson City, Texas to tell him I wouldn’t arrive until the following evening. Then I called Chris and told her where I was and apologized for not making it home for Thanksgiving. She was more than a bit miffed. To rub it in, she mentioned that she’d scored a lid of grass and was going to party with our next door neighbors—college kids. “I’ll expect you when I see you,” she said, slamming the phone in its cradle.

Carl’s wife laid out a spread fit for a king. Spiral sliced ham glazed with pineapple and pricked with cloves graced a platter in front of Carl at the head of the table. Their 30 year old daughter Amy carried in the roasted turkey. Although there were only six at their table, the bounty could have fed twenty. In his prayer of thanks, Carl prayed for a safe flight for me.

After supper Carl and I went into his library with our cognac in snifter glasses. We smoked cigars while he took fifty dollars cash out of a desk drawer and exchanged it for my check.

The next morning Carl’s sixteen year old son, Robert, drove me to the airport while his parents were sleeping in. Robert unlocked the flying club’s gas pumps and topped off my tanks. He refused to take my credit card, saying: “That doohickey for credit cards is locked up in the shack.” When he was finished filling my tanks, Robert led me to a T-hangar to show me the family’s new Beechcraft Baron twin.

“I got my Private Pilot’s Certificate last month. Dad’s going to check me out in this beauty next week. When I graduate from high school I’m going down to Florida to the Embry Riddle flight school and get my Airline Transport Pilot’s rating.” I don’t believe I’ve met another young man as proud of his accomplishments or his goals. He reminded me of Milton Ruberg’s son, the one who died of bone cancer a few years back. I wished him luck and shook his hand.

My dad will probably tear up that check you gave him,” Robert said. “We all enjoyed your company. Stop by and say hello when you come this way again.”

Stevens had my paycheck ready for me when I landed in his soggy grass field south of Houston. I moved my gear from the plane I’d been flying for a month and left in a C-172 which had a fresh major overhaul.

Christine put on a show of mock anger when she picked me up at the Hammond, Louisiana airport. After dropping me off at our apartment, charging me to watch the baby, she went on a shopping spree. She returned loaded with goodies and was feeling high and forgiving. “You missed a great party,” she said. I didn’t say a word about Bonham.

~ end~


August 6, 2011

A Quick Flying Tale

Filed under: Uncategorized — Ron McKinney aka "OldMack" @ 3:33 am
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Here’s a quickie:

We’re flying south from Westwego field, over the eastern arm of the Atchafalaya Swamp. Below are scattered cypress, up to their knees in brackish water, and a few random oaks and pines on the hammocks and stands of maple and dogwood planted on dikes serving as service roads. Chris is in the co-pilot’s seat, A.J. is on her knees in the back seat of this Cessna 150, peering down at the billions of birds dotting the surface of the waters. I’m heading for the Gulf of Mexico to show them a sunset that’ll knock them senseless.

We are following a cluster of pipelines, some carrying crude, others natural gas, straight from the wells to the refineries. Ahead and below, where the trees have been cleared from the right of way the water is boiling. Chris sees the boil and asks: “What is that?”

“That my dear is what we’re here for. That’s a ruptured natural gas pipeline. When we get close enough to identify whose pipe that is, you’ll see ice drifting away from the blowout.”

I descend to two hundred feet, read the Texaco marker and ask her to pass me the mike from the Motorola portable beside our daughter.

The report to Alliance Refinery was acknowledged in Hispanic-accented broken English. By now we’re directly over the blowout.

The engine falters. Chris screams and Allison begins to cry. “Are we going to crash, Daddy?”

“Are we out of gas?” Chris asks.

I bank away from the boil, work the throttle a bit, and the engine runs smoothly. “The gas from the pipeline down there got into the carburetor. For a second it cut off the Oxygen, causing the engine to sputter. It’s okay now. I should have seen that coming.”

“I’ve had enough of this adventure, Mack. Take us home to Hammond. I mean right now!”

“That’s a shame. We’ll miss the sunset and won’t see those flamingoes.”

“I can see flamingoes in Florida. Take us home.”

It was almost dark as I made the approach to Hammond from the south in dead calm air. Chris didn’t say another word to me that evening.
The End

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 

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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