Wednesday, January 24, 2007


"Ailerona" © first appeared in Minnesota Flyer (Richard Coffey, publisher) and subsequently in Pacific Flyer (Wayman Dunlap, publisher). It's a short story and the title of an audio book by Paul Berge and available through Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC or the Antique Airplane Association. All rights reserved by the author.

"Ailerona" © by Paul Berge

There’s a place in the Midwest approachable only from the sky. It’s south of Canada and a bit north of Mexico. Draw a line along the eastern edge of the Rockies, and it’s to the right of that and west of Youngstown, Ohio, maybe Columbus. It’s strictly a middle-of-America place, although there have been reports of it north of International Falls, and it was once spotted in California’s Central Valley and along the Snake River in Idaho, although I suspect those were false sightings. No one’s reported it in New Jersey since 1946.

This place is called Ailerona. It has no ICAO identifier, doesn’t appear on any sectional or airport guide. It can’t be loaded into a GPS database; if you tried, you’d blow the RAIM out of the box.

Despite the lack of navaids, Ailerona is supposedly easy to find if you know how to look. I haven’t been there myself, but I once met a pilot in Wagner, South Dakota who knew a guy in Alliance, Nebraska, who’d flown over Ailerona one winter day in a Maule. He said it appeared through a crystalline veil of snow and looked like sunrise at noon. He reported an expanse of green across low hills above which a Super Cub flew in loose formation with a Taperwing Waco until the Cub descended to an upsloping pasture where the cows turned their heads to marvel at the appropriateness of a Cub in their salad bar.

Ailerona appeared briefly in Greek mythology when Icarus tried to fly across the Mediterranean in his waxwing homebuilt in search of this perfect place. He looked too hard however, and his wings melted. Ever since then the FAA has denied Ailerona’s existence fearing that if pilots saw its wooden hangars full of Stearmans, Fairchilds, and Lockheed Vegas and Lodestars, if they saw the fuel truck hauling both 100 and 80 octane at 35 and 30 cents respectively, if pilots saw all that, they’d question the way things are.

I thought I saw Ailerona up in Michigan while standing beneath a Husky’s wing during a thunderstorm that looked like creation itself. Another time, it flashed briefly through my old Bonanza while scud running between a low overcast and the flat pine forests of northern Minnesota. I skimmed the trees at 150 knots through a 300-foot wedge of clear air that led nowhere and I hoped would never end. Each time that I thought I saw Ailerona however, it disappeared. I tried to grasp it, to log the moment for spiritual currency and, in the process, the vision said I wasn’t ready and faded away.
Ailerona holds the raw stuff of flight from biplanes to the Concorde. It’s where aviation began and, today, is the one corner of flight where no one can clip your wings. It’s out there, and chances are you’ve already seen it--perhaps in that perfect instrument approach or the beautifully executed crosswind landing. It may even exist outside the Midwest, although what better place to begin the search?

Monday, January 15, 2007

"Open Cockpit Mind" ©

The following story, "Open Cockpit Mind" ©, by Paul Berge, was written in 2005 and updated in 2007. It was published in the Antique Airplane Association's magazine, Antique Airfield Runway, Robert Taylor, publisher ( ), and tells of a trip Berge flew from Iowa to California and back in 2005. Photo above shows the Marquart Charger at Taft-Kern, California. Paul Berge in the rear seat and Curtis Kelly in the front. Photo taken by TSA security camera warning the non-flying public to be on the look-out for flying gypsies.
All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"Open Cockpit Mind" ©

Like blackened teeth in the lower jaw of a long dead titan, the mountain ridge northeast of El Paso, Texas blocked what I’d thought would be a shortcut to Carlsbad, New Mexico. But, whatever I’d thought in my former life before departing on this 4000-mile biplane ride rarely matched what the mountains and deserts viewed from an open cockpit had to teach. In short, there was no way I was getting over that ridge without a serious handshake from the ghost riders dancing among the craggy peaks.

It had begun two weeks earlier when I left Iowa in a Marquart Charger headed to Watsonville, California for its annual Memorial Day fly-in and spaghetti fest. I’d worked at that airport in the 1970s, and this was my first return flight. Doing so in a biplane seemed the perfect way to fly across both miles and time, only I didn’t realize how broad both spectra were. The miles, I could measure on charts that ripped apart in the cockpit’s wind, but above landscapes so wide the mind was sucked into unseen horizons that reworked all concepts of place and time. Looking back, now, the journey plays out as a mind movie where the reels are run in no particular order—a mountain landing in Ruidoso, New Mexico with density altitude at 10,000 feet shares the screen with a hellish fire bog called Blyth, California where triple-digit heat on a deserted air field made me feel as though I’d flown off the planet and into a place where rattlesnakes complained about the heat. Still, when all these disparate images are raked together, sorted, and laid end for end, the trip begins with a cool morning take-off from a small grass strip in Iowa and ends 45 flying hours later on the same turf but with a changed pilot re-educated by a truly amazing biplane.

About the Biplane:
It’s a Marquart Charger (MA-5) and was designed by Ed Marquart of Riverside, California’s Flabob Airport and built 25 years ago by Dr. Roy C. Wicker of Quitman, Georgia. Not many were built over the years, perhaps a hundred, but at every stop on my trip, someone would slowly walk toward the biplane with that respectful I-think-I-recognize-it look.
“Is it a Skybolt?”
“Nope, Marquart Charger,” I’d answer while unbuckling the four-point harness and pulling myself out of the cockpit by the handles on the upper wing, a maneuver that, by itself, makes owning a biplane worthwhile.
“Marquette, huh?”
“No,” I’d say and swing first one leg then the other over the rim to climb down the wing. “Marquart—‘quart,’” and spell it out to drive the name deep into the stranger’s consciousness. After that, I’d list the specs: “Four wings, four ailerons, two seats, but I’m using the front seat for baggage,” pointing to the metal lid with the compass on top covering the front cockpit.
“ Yeah, but I’m lousy at it.”
“What’s it got for an engine?”
“Lycoming O-360,” and I’d pop the cowling open so heat rolled past us. “Hundred and eighty horsepower, swinging a McCauley fixed-pitch prop.”
“Inverted fuel?”
“Smoke system?”
“Only where oil leaks onto the exhaust.”
“Fast, is it?”
“For a biplane, sure, but speed’s not the selling point. Cruises about a hundred and five knots at sixty-five percent power, faster if you wanna burn more gas, which since it uses hundred octane costing more than single-malt scotch, I don’t always wanna do.”
“Burn about twelve gallons an hour?”
“More like ten, stop-to-stop,” I’d say. “Makes the math easy enough even for me.”
I’ve never liked math, so round numbers work best, and in round terms the Charger flies at Cessna 172 speeds—the old straight tails, not the stuffy new ones at a quarter mil each--while burning Cherokee 180 fuel rates with the advantage of having only half the Cherokee’s range and load capabilities.

Advantage? Absolutely, because with a Charger you make lots of stops, and if you arrive in Lordsburg, New Mexico in a Cherokee no one walks through the ramp’s furnace to ask you about your airplane. They don’t stand beside it while their sneakers melt into the hot pavement and stare at the stacked wings laced together with shiny flying wires and bug-crusted struts. They don’t ask the Cherokee drivers where they’re from, are they mad, or what’s it like to ride across the sky with nothing above their brains but a coat of SPF 500 sunscreen and a canvas flying helmet?
When I landed in Kansas after dodging Toto-eating thunderstorms, the owner of a Hawker bizjet that’d landed behind me rushed over to circle the biplane in awe saying how much better it must be to see the world from my machine than from his kerosene tube-o-comfort. I offered to swap him even, but guys who own jets and wear dreamy smiles have more sense than biplane pilots like me who’ve been too long in the air and are in need of a bath, real food, and a clean rag to wipe the oil leaks dripping from the cowl. He smiled, climbed into his jet, and ordered the two pilots up front to whoosh him back into his world where, no doubt, that night over white wine in Aspen he’d retell his friends about the gray-haired, smelly bi-winged bum he’d met in Kansas, “Pass the brie, please, Clarissa…” and the Marquart would fade from his memory.
For 25 years this Marquart--built from plans, no kits—has turned heads and brought smiles to flyers and non-believers alike. Ed Marquart apparently spent years designing what was for him the best of all biplanes, and I’d say he got it right. Walk around one and study the shapes. As your eyes pass the images to your brain you’ll see a Great Lakes Trainer, or perhaps just a hint of Bucker in the swept wings. Many see a Steen Skybolt until the Charger owner explains how Rubinesque in the waist and tail Skybolts are by comparison. Others see Starduster or Hatz—all gems in their own ways, but in the end this biplane with so many influences in its pedigree is a unique item—it’s a Marquart. It’s a funny name to say (sounds like the Aflack duck clearing its throat), but it’s a good biplane to fly.
Structurally, it’s nothing exotic and that adds to its charm. Wood wings—spars and ribs—with a welded steel fuselage lined with aluminum stringers form its Lauren Bacall waistline above a tight tail, all covered in cotton and dope that’s still tough after 25 hangared years. N645’s US Navy paint scheme is a tribute to its builder’s (Wicker) wartime career as a Naval Aviator.
The tail looks too small, and in that momentary transition from tail-high wheel landing to tail-down taxi, it feels briefly inadequate especially in crosswinds. While it wheel lands as sweetly as a Citabria, Aeronca Champ, or Cessna 140, it’s easy to overreact to the turning tendencies at slow speeds—at least in this Charger, I can’t speak for others.
Since I routinely operate from a 2200-foot grass strip in Iowa, the mile-long runways so common out West seemed like child’s play, but at the higher density altitudes—routinely above 5000 feet—my touchdowns tended to be hard. Until I got the hang of higher altitude ops an embarrassing whiff of burning rubber accompanied each arrival. With faster touchdown groundspeeds and the lack of soft grass to correct my sloppy technique, landings were, well, spirited at times. Where I’ve been used to a soft rumbling touchdown on dewy turf followed by a short roll as the tail wheel acted like a hook in the grass, the heat-soaked pavement in Benson, Arizona squealed as scrub raced past, runway lights threatened to clip the lower wing tips, and coyotes ran for the hills.
The temptation is to bring the tail down too soon, which simply increases the angle of attack, adds lift, and makes the arrival even squirrelier. Full-stall landings might be better, but, hell, I like wheel landing. The secret is to trust in Ed Marquart’s design and allow the biplane to roll without too much pilot-induced interference. Properly rigged and aptly flown—meaning don’t get too aggressive--the Charger rolls straight. Thankfully, it has the old Goodyear brakes, which are so crappy there’s little chance of aggravating the situation with amateurish braking.
Take-offs can be a directional challenge, too, at high altitudes with full fuel and light winds. That little bit of extra runway needed before lift-off gives more exposure to stupidity (aka: Pilot Induced Stupidity Syndrome). The trick is to feed the throttle in smoothly and anticipate the left-turning tendencies both from normal torque and p-factor as the power increases and from the gyroscopic left-turn tendency induced as the tail rises. Then, gently correct with the merest breath of right rudder while holding aileron against the crosswind—all basic stick-and-rudder technique used at sea level but magnified somewhat by heat, altitude, and the self-induced anxiety of knowing that a thousand miles from home is a dumb place to drag a wing tip.
The Marquart was never over gross even with two on board, and with many of its 180 horses available on take-off (assuming you lean properly), if all else fails just squeeze back on the stick to coax the whole bundle of wires, wings, and sweaty owner clear of the ground. Lower the nose into ground effect, and as the speed nudges 85 knots, climb away. Once clear of the taller cacti, oil rigs, and cowboy hats, a 95-knot climb gives descent cooling but never good forward visibility.
Although never over gross, the CG does shift aft with weight, which aids cruise speed but took all nose-down trim from the biplanes screw-jack trim system. While stalls in this swept-wing biplane are somewhat benign, practicing them at low altitude when fully loaded isn’t advisable, so close attention to airspeed and coordination—as in any airplane—is a must in the pattern.

Limiting Factors:
The Marquart is blind over the nose to the rear seat pilot in command. My beginner’s tendency was to lower the nose too much for cruise. The result was a 200 foot-per-minute descent--good airspeed, but down you go. Properly trimmed you won’t see much past the cowling in level flight so occasional pitch dips or gentle banks are in order throughout cruise to spot traffic and TV towers. In a Cherokee or other traveling machine this might be considered a design flaw, but the biplane mind knows that straight-and-level is not a goal here. In fact, it’s nearly impossible to travel more than two minutes without rolling left, then right, while tilting your head back to watch for Fokkers, or to gaze over the cockpit’s rim in envy of the buzzards circling through nearby thermals.
The biplane’s mission is to fly not to travel. Getting to a destination is a happy byproduct of the adventure. Before taking the biplane plunge you have to ask yourself, “Do you want to get somewhere or do you want to be somewhere?” In open-cockpit, you’re always somewhere even though it might be nowhere near your intended destination. Time, somehow, loses its earthly grip in flight.
Still, my destination was northern California along the Monterey Bay, and en route I stopped in Van Nuys to pick up Curtis Kelly, a friend who’s also a tail wheel pilot. From Van Nuys, where I’d irritated just about every air traffic controller with my microphone-in-the wind voice, to Watsonville, Curtis rode in the front seat while I discovered how miserably windy it gets in the back when the front hole is open. The problem is the windshields.
A quick look at the two cockpits shows each with a windshield equal in size. Both were transplanted from a Ryan PT22—classy but that front screen generates hurricanes in the back. Picture the slipstream flowing along the fuselage when the front seat is buttoned up; it hits the rear screen and coils into space leaving the solo pilot grinning in relative calm. I can fly alone from the back seat wearing a baseball cap turned ‘round and a pair of sunglasses without fear of losing either. But when you open the front seat for guests and tack on the forward windshield things change. The wind now smacks the front glass, which, because it stands so tall, deflects the blast into the under side of the upper wing where it ricochets down onto the rear pilot’s head. The sensation is like losing an hour-long pillow fight. The front-seater, meanwhile, sits in comfort, confused why the guy behind him is so punch drunk on landing. The solution, I’m told, is to cut the front windshield down by a third to reduce that deflection. Since I can’t bring myself to damage a 60-year-old airplane part, I’m having a smaller windshield made from Lexan®. We’ll see how that fits and report back. Either that or you’ll see a Lexan windscreen for sale on e-Bay in a month.
Despite the backseat pummeling, I found that by wearing goggles throughout the flight with a front seat passenger I could survive with only minor brain damage, which my neurologist assures me isn’t permanent…isn’t permanent...isn’t per…(Thwack!).
I’m fine, really.

Engine heat was another issue even before the journey. With the Lycoming turning money into power, a lot of heat needs to escape and usually through the firewall and into the fuselage, where with the front cockpit sealed shut, it quickly flows to the rear seat to cook the pilot’s feet. Being open cockpit does nothing to cool things below the belt. In fact, the open cockpit acts like a chimney drawing heat onto the pilot. A pair of NACA vents at thigh level brings in some air, but still the heat persists, and knowing I’d be headed to places named Death-By-Heatstroke, Arizona, I cut two vents into the boot cowling and padded the firewall on the passenger side. The results were good; heat was greatly reduced. Still, near the surface on scorching days it’s bloody hot in any airplane.
Sadly, in winter that heat isn’t there, so you’ll freeze your butt in the Marquart in January. Its detachable bubble canopy helps on sunny winter days, but the key word is detachable. On a particularly cold morning I tried to taxi with the bubble canopy partially latched only to discover how easily it becomes detached from the airframe, taking rivets, eyeglasses, and my choicest swear words with it.
All the comfort issues from wind and heat were minor and in no way overrode the tremendous joy this open-cockpit biplane offers. I’ve been flying and teaching in tail wheelers such as Champs and Citabrias for years, but the step into the biplane life unlatches and demands a whole new appreciation of the sky.
Biplanes are made for grass, but the Marquart mixes well with the big stuff. Returning to Van Nuys from Camarillo, the tower growled at me to proceed direct to the end of the runway and keep my speed up because a jet was to follow. Debates over shock-cooling aside, the Marquart can give ATC good climb and descent rates and a decent speed to short final, where with power back you gently lift the nose to bleed off speed to make the runway and a reasonable turn-off.
Several times when wheel landing at towered airports, I had to ignore controllers asking me to make a turn-off while the tail was still in the air. Landing at Salina, Kansas, for instance, the tower controller—swamped with two airplanes--harped at me to make the first intersection, but with one wheel barely on the ground at that point, I ignored him (I’d been a controller for 17 years, so I know how to ignore authority). When he repeated the request and told me to “expedite my taxi,” I lowered the tail wheel and politely explained that unless he wanted to call the wrecker, I’d need to be a little more cautious in ground ops.
Inexperienced line personnel exhibit a similar lack of understanding when directing tail wheel airplanes into tie-downs. They’ll signal me to a spot and then wave at me to taxi directly toward them until I can no longer see their arms. They get the message and step aside when the spinning prop keeps coming despite their signals to stop.

The Marquart Charger, like many biplanes, isn’t known for its range. It’s designed to run about the sky on pretty days having fun. Cross-country trips are best planned with the knowledge that you’ll make lots of stops. The Charger holds 28 gallons, 27 of which are usable, divided among three tanks. The main holds 17 gallons in the fuselage forward of the front cockpit. It has an electric fuel gauge on the rear instrument panel and is accurate to within 15 gallons. Two five-gallon aux tanks are in the top wing. Each tank has a tiny filler neck, so the airplane was regularly flushed clean with avgas at each refueling. Reaching the upper tanks is an awkward balancing act when standing on a stepladder’s warning placard: Do Not Sit Or Stand…
With 27 gallons burned at ten gallons per hour, the Charger gets roughly two-and-a-half hours range if you don’t mind landing in the desert. I planned one to one-and-a-half-hour legs, netting from 100 to 200 miles depending on winds. Drinking bottled water en route assured that I wouldn’t be tempted to stretch that, although, over Santa Barbara when that extra cup of morning coffee called ready to leave, I seriously considered standing up to relieve myself while Curtis flew.
The fuel selector is located in the rear cockpit. I’d normally take off on the main tank, climb, and then level off and set power and mixture. Then, I’d switch to aux and hit the timer. Fifty minutes later—about one hour into the flight--I’d switch back to main where I knew I had at least an hour left plus a few gallons sloshing around in the upstairs tank. The longest leg I flew on this trip was 1:40.
I did run a tank dry over the Oklahoma panhandle. It’s surprisingly easy to do when you’re not paying attention and, instead, staring at a wind turbine farm below. The sound of coughing silence, however, gets the message across and with boost pump on it was only a few agonizing seconds before the engine growled back to life. A few more and my heart did the same.

The Route:
Headed across country you’re going to cross mountains at some point. I chose the southern route for several reasons, but mainly because in years past I’d flown two northerly routes via Interstate 80 and even further north along Interstate 90 through Missoula, Montana. Foul weather blocked these routes for the entire time.
The southerly route from Lubbock, Texas (home of the WWII Glider Pilots Museum) through El Paso, Lordsburg, Benson, Arizona, Tucson, Phoenix, Palm Springs, Banning, and across Los Angeles offered lots of fuel stops, easy-to-follow Interstate 10 (a comfort if the engine quit), plus lower terrain when compared to routes through Wyoming or even via Albuquerque along the old Route 66. High temperatures were a concern but just a few thousand feet above most terrain the air was smooth, and wearing tee shirt, shorts, and cloth helmet I was comfortable.
The scenery from up there was mind bogglingly stark yet beautiful, and I’ll admit at times it felt intimidating since I was used to lush green Iowa. I carried lots of water but I’d made the mistake of not drinking regularly on the first legs and found myself dehydrated—a syndrome that’s not automatically recognized but easily prevented.

Unto the Maw:
So, somewhere northeast of El Paso, Texas, after a week and a half in the Marquart Charger, I followed a highway across a vast expanse of dryness leading to Carlsbad, New Mexico my next fuel stop. On the map, the road bowed to the right but looking around the biplane’s nose I saw a wide valley dotted with green circles from pivot-point irrigation. The desert literally bloomed through here and beaconed for me to shave a few miles off my safety route along the highway and go direct. I veered away from the concrete ribbon and felt good following the lily pads across this sea of brown. To my right was a giant salt flat, a place that would drain all traces of moisture from any ill-fated traveler who landed there. To my left were miles of a New Mexico that routinely ate up conquistadors, silver prospectors, and Iowa lame brains like me with no respect for its harsh immensity and our own insignificance.
Ahead, the lily pads quit at the base of a mountain ridge where at the south end the blackened teeth of the long dead titan offered a foreboding specter. I checked the gas gauge and timers knowing I had plenty of fuel, especially with the tailwind, but the closer I came to the hills, the louder the ghost riders laughed until the lily pads disappeared and I saw I’d need to climb even higher to cross the last few dozen miles of earth that looked as though it hadn’t softened since whatever volcanic heave that created it had cooled millions of years before. And it was then I chickened out and turned toward the highway I’d abandoned miles back.
Green gave way to salt flats and then climbed into the rugged teeth of a ridge that loomed well above my head poking out from my tiny biplane shell. The wind pushed me along at groundspeeds over 150 knots, amazing for a boxy old pile of cotton, wood, and wire. As I paralleled the ridge headed for the left turn that would reconnect me with the relative comfort of the highway the thought dawned that whatever wind pushed me so smoothly along this ridge would likely prove amusing when I made the turn to the leeward side.
It was then the ghost riders laughed, and the wind hooked me around the mountain’s point like a scrap of litter swirling down a storm drain. Still smooth, the air seemed to reach a giant enveloping arm that turned me over the highway, and as I accepted the shove I felt the biplane sink—and not just a little.
The VSI pointed down 500 feet per minute and I cracked the throttle, which only amused the mountain, as the winds now tumbled in a wave across the ridge and sat like a crushingly soft weight on the biplane. No lenticular clouds, no dust, no mobile homes swirling past, just a blue sky dying over me, taking me toward the desert floor despite the biplane’s now full power climb and prayerful utterances from the cockpit.
Finally, when the ghost riders were fully amused and I’d turned to the safety of the flat lands to my right, the sky seemed to wink, as in, “Got yer attention, now, didn’t we?”
And I nodded politely toward the toothy ridge, giving a quick salute from a sweaty palm, and said, “Hey, I’m just learning.”
And the mountain let me, and the biplane, pass.
It would be three more days of dodging Kansas thunderstorms, scud running beneath foggy decks, and turning back when I was only 30 miles from home before the journey decided I’d learned enough…
For now.
The End
© 2005, 2007, Paul Berge, all rights reserved.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

"Crash Fire Rescue" ©

The following short story, "Crash Fire Rescue," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1987 and updated in 2007. It comes from a collection of Berge's aviation stories titled: "Aeromancy"©. All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"Crash Fire Rescue" by Paul Berge, © 1987, 2007

It played out in a slow-motion movie with the sound track slightly out of sync. Dusk had given way to purple twilight, and the runway lights--little pots of fire--had just blinked on. A few student pilots still slogged around the traffic pattern in Cessna 150s. I’d locked the fuel truck and was about to put the crash truck away when Jim--I can't remember his last name, nor anyone else's from this incident for that matter--turned final in his 1939 Fairchild, a long-nosed model 24 with the Ranger engine.
Being new to the airport business I still watched airplanes land--still do, actually--and had stopped to watch the old high-wing monoplane descend. The bowlegged landing gear reached for the ground, and its rotating beacon signaled, Watch me…Watch me….

The wind was light off the bay, and the airplane was more shadow than substance adding to the unreal setting. Given the serenity something had to pop. Suddenly, a wing lifted and then dropped. It took only a second for it to plow into the pavement extinguishing its green position light as the right gear leg buckled. Since I stood far away there was no immediate sound. The wingtip grabbed the runway and pivoted the airplane around digging the propeller into pavement. Still, there was no sound, just the horrible sight of a grand old flying machine chewing asphalt while pirouetting on its nose. Like a prima ballerina wiping out, tragic enough to make you gasp, even though you hate to admit how cool it looked.

It stopped, and there is nothing that looks more stopped than a wrecked airplane. Finally, the sound arrived: Grrunchh-cwafff-phhhttth! The rotating beacon flashed: Did ya watch? Did ya watch me?

Being in charge, and the only airport employee on duty, I swung into action. "Holy Cow, did you see that?" I asked no one.
Already Chuck, Bob, Frank, Hal, Ed, Thad and just about every airport regular who’d been in the Pilots Lounge charged past me.
"Get the truck out there!" Chuck shouted.
"Right," I answered and turned to unlock the fuel truck. Thinking that bringing a thousand gallons of avgas to a crash might be less than appropriate, I reconsidered and ran to the crash truck. I loved the crash truck. It was a 1952 Army surplus 4x4 Dodge painted yellow with CFR stenciled in big letters on booth doors. CFR stood for Crash Fire Rescue, although the airport manager said it really meant, “Crappy Friggin’ Rig.”
The crash truck had a bum transmission stuck in compound first gear, a power range ideal for pulling halftracks from ditches or uprooting redwood stumps, but that limited rescue speed to something less than a brisk walk. Unless a pilot had the foresight to crash beside the CFR truck, rescue would probably be leisurely.
The truck’s back end held an impressive fire extinguisher apparatus consisting of two large stainless tanks, several valves and pressure gauges, plus a reel with two hoses that, when extended, ended in a double-nozzle. With pistol-grip controls it resembled twin anti-aircraft guns. I had no idea how to use any of this.
I did know how to operate the rotating light and siren. I particularly liked the siren. It made the truck sound fast, and once at the crash scene Chuck instructed me to position the truck so as to deflect any landing aircraft from striking us and to "turn that dopey siren off." I did both. Chuck had been a B-24 pilot during the war and had that natural command presence my generation was told it lacked. Plus he was really big with a deep voice, and since he could spot-land an Interstate Cadet better than anyone on the field, he automatically took control.

The wreck site was more chaos than tragedy. Jim, the Fairchild’s owner, pointed at the limp windsock as though blaming it for his wipe out. No one was hurt, although some girl about 19—pretty and obviously taken with me--explained it had been her first time ever in an airplane, and she wondered if this was standard. I shrugged, and the last I saw her she was walking into the darkness shaking her head. I often had that effect on women.
"Don't we have to notify someone?" I asked the crowd. After all, I was in charge. Mostly, the assembled rescuers returned amused stares and told me to lift with the others on the wing once Frank had his tow truck positioned.
Frank was one of the legendary pilot loungers on the field. He owned a Bonanza and ran a small towing operation in town. This gave him the perfect excuse to hang out at the airport ready to snatch a crumpled Cherokee, or in this case, a Fairchild off the runway. No one knew better than Frank how to cradle a mangled wing or lift a Mooney that had landed with its gear safely tucked inside the wells.

It's a slow process moving a Fairchild 24 with only one good gear leg and a wing that dragged on the ground. It’s a big airplane. Barely into the rescue effort, it dawned on me that not only were we trying to remove a disabled aircraft from a runway--one still in use--but also we were trying to do so discreetly to avoid unnecessary calls to or from the FAA or worse, the local newspaper. Sneaking a broken Fairchild across a busy airport ramp at sunset is about like smuggling a Sumo wrestler into McDonalds. There were the odd stares from faces in aircraft landing over our heads, passengers' expressions frozen in the glare of the many headlights contributing to the secrecy of the project.

Somehow, though, it worked. In less than two hours of grunting, swearing—a break for everyone to go pee--and a lot of lifting, we managed to squeeze this broken hunk of cabin monoplane back into its hangar. And then, like bootleggers hiding their stash, the doors were shut with furtive glances to make certain no more than a few dozen passersby had seen.
Rescue, then, turned to resurrection. Bob rolled in welding tanks, Thad unbolted the shattered prop while I was sent to unlock so-and-so's hangar because he had a length of tubing plus some extra fabric and dope that might come in handy. He'd understand. Besides, he wasn't due back from Mexico for at least a week.

By dawn, there was a Fairchild standing back on two legs and tail wheel. Mind you, the main gear legs didn't match real close, and the whole thing tended to list to starboard, but it stood as more or less a complete airplane.
Before the doors were slid open and the empty pizza boxes and beer cans swept out, Jim brushed the last coat of silver dope onto the wing tip.
"Didn't break much when it hit this time," he said. "At least nothing too important."

That was from my summer of 1978. Word has never leaked about the night the Fairchild 24 bent a leg--until now. Oddly, I can't remember any of the real names of the rescuers or even the Fairchild’s owner for that matter. Besides, I think the statute of limitations has long since run out. What hasn’t run out is my love of watching airplanes land at sunset. I just hope there’ll always be a Pilot’s Lounge complement of rescuers available to ignore the FAA and answer the call to action.
The End
© 1987, 2007 Paul Berge, all rights reserved.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

"Heading South"©

The following short story, "Heading South," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1987 and updated in 2007. It appears on the audiobook the Logbook © (artwork by John McCloy). All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"Heading South" © 1987, Paul Berge


“United’s heading two-sixty and descending to six. Northwest is climbing to eight, ‘cause you have to miss this Merlin over-flight at nine.”
“Is Northwest on course yet?”
“No,” I answered. The other controller slid her chair past mine and scribbled her initials onto the sign-on position log.
“I got it,” she drawled.
“You got it,” I answered. I heard how bored I sounded, as though someone else had spoken.
I unplugged my headset from the slot below the radarscope. It was time to leave. I’d been there since dawn. Seemed it was all I did anymore.

Leaving any radar room is like leaving a bar in the middle of the day. It takes a while for your eyes to adjust and you feel as though the rest of the world has gone on without you. But it was spring and the air smelled sweet, but as I walked toward my car I was thinking about things such as what to have for dinner and why I didn’t care what I had for dinner. Maybe I’d have that dream again about the radarscope that turns to JELL-O just as all the all the blips come together. I hadn’t had that dream for almost 20 years and, lately, it’d been returning. Four more years until retirement at age 50. Hope the dream goes away.

Just as I turned out of the parking lot, I passed the hangars on the general aviation ramp. Inside one hangar was a 1946 Aeronca 7AC Champ, my one escape. Although I hadn’t flown it in over a month, it never left my mind. Circumstances had somehow kept me away.
It hurt to think of the pilots who would give their teeth to have their own tail dragger parked in a hangar waiting to fly. Worse, it hurt to think that I was once one of those pilots. But something had happened. All day long I talk to airplanes but never see one if I'm inside the radar room. Flying, to me, had lost its romance, and the Champ--through no fault of its own--had become an airplane in definition only.
The day was warm even for early May. Cumulus clouds grew slowly in the western sky. Later, they would grow into whitish blobs on the radarscope giving headaches to pilots and controllers. But now they were just puffy white clouds yearning for a taildragger, like the Champ, to kiss. I considered obliging and found the car steering its way through the open gate toward the hangar.
Before I could make it to the hangar, however, I spotted something among the rows of metal airplanes. Behind a Twin Cessna and across from a Piper Navajo sat a two-seat, fabric-covered tail dragger with its door open. It was a Champ but new to the field, and from the looks of the person loading baggage it would soon depart. I drove over.

“Hello,” I called and stopped the car.
The pilot turned, and a quick smile appeared on the bright face below a rumpled baseball cap. “Hello,” she answered. “Am I in your tie-down spot?” She slid from the airplane and met me as I stepped from the car.
“I didn’t know where to park yesterday. It was almost dark when we arrived. There was no one here.”
She wore faded blue jeans, the cuffs rolled above her ankles, tattered white tennis shoes and a tee shirt with the faded image of a Cub printed across her breasts. Nice, I might add, breasts...not the sort of thing a federal employee is supposed to notice. But I was off duty.

“Are you new to the field?” I asked for an opener. What I really wanted to say was: “Hey, you don’t know me and, even though at the moment I reek of stale radar I’m really all right and would you mind very much running off with me? I’m that pathetically lonely. We could fly Champs together forever while living off our savings, assuming you’re wealthy…”
“Sort of,” she said. I don’t think she caught the underlying text. “I’m just passing through.”
“Where to?”
“Oh, heading south it looks like.” She glanced at the sky.
“What’s there?”
“I don’t know.” She shrugged so cute my eyeballs sighed. “I’ve never been that way before. I guess it’s time to go see. Do you have an airplane?” Her voice was absolutely sweet with a trace of husky self-confidence.
Do I have an airplane? Oh, Jeez, I knew the answer to that question, but for the love of mud my brain locked. Finally: “Yes. A…a Champ, as a matter of fact. Care to see it? It’s just over there--in a hangar.” I pointed in case she'd never seen a hangar before. I felt like I was asking a girl to dance at the Freshman Acne Pimple Ball.
She nodded, yes, turned quickly to the airplane and called: “Now, you stay there, Elizabeth, I’ll be right back.”
Whoa, I thought. She's named her airplane, Elizabeth? That's when I saw a little face pop over the rear window ledge. A black nose, black floppy ears and sad brown eyes looked first at her and then suspiciously at me. Elizabeth.
“Your dog flies with you?” And as soon as I asked, the concept made sense. Why shouldn't your dog fly with you? I looked where the rear seat cushion would normally be and saw, instead, a small metal box padded with a blanket. A cargo net hung off to the side.
“The net acts like a seat belt,” she explained. “She's a good dog; she’ll stay put until we get back.”
We left and the dog followed.

“My name’s Kim,” she said. Her face seemed to light up like a bright moon whenever she spoke. She bounced lightly on her feet as she walked, her whole being exuding a happiness with whatever she did. The feeling was catchy. Just walking beside her made me feel good.
“Michael,” I said and held out my hand. “I’m Michael.” She took it without hesitation. Her grip was firm and confident.
We arrived at the hangar.
“It’s been a while since I’ve been in here,” I said.
“Why? Is there something wrong with your airplane?”
“No, it’s me."
“What's wrong with you?”
“I haven’t had time to go up lately.”
“Why not?” She was direct.
“Work,” I said having no other excuse. The job was always an easy place to dump responsibility. The minute I tell people I’m an air traffic controller a knowing look comes to their eyes, automatically excusing me from normal behavior. It’s like telling someone you’re a kamikaze pilot.
“What do you do?” she asked.
I slid the long hangar door open, like rolling away the stone before a tomb. “Air traffic controller,” I answered and watched for the look. She only stared--no look; in fact, not impressed at all. “I work in the approach control, the TRACON.” I motioned vaguely at the control tower across the field.
“And that keeps you from flying?” she asked with her same directness. Her face carried the smile that could do no wrong.
To redirect the conversation I pointed inside the hangar and said, “There it is.”
Dusty sunlight spread across the Champ. She walked toward it, approaching as she would an untamed animal. She ran two fingertips along the back of the fuselage and wiped away a layer of brown silt. She rubbed the dirt between her fingers and said nothing, but the message was clear: ‘You shameful person. There are people in China going without any kind of airplane, and here you keep one locked away where it collects dust and rots. Shame…’
“You should fly it,” she said. “Maybe wash it.”
I guess she sensed how uncomfortable I’d become, and her eyes turned soft as she walked toward me. “It’s a beautiful airplane.”
And it was, too. Under the dust was a well-restored airplane painted light yellow with a black upper cowling and deep black lines outlining the struts and landing gear. The glass was in excellent shape and mostly free of scratches. The interior almost new. It wasn’t original but I liked it.
“Would you like to fly it?” I asked.
“I have to be going. Burning daylight.” She brushed past me with what I imagined to be a brief pause to smile.
I followed her back to her airplane and watched Elizabeth hop into the box in the rear. Kim fastened the net over the box, and the dog curled into a tight circle in the blankets.
“Will you come back this way?” I asked.
She climbed into the front seat and while fastening her seatbelt said, “No. At least not soon. Could you give me a spin?” She indicated the propeller. Old Champs have no electrical systems, so you have to hand-prop them to start.
“Sure...” I said, and then quickly added, “ Do you mind if I ask you something?”
“I don’t know. What’s the question?”
“How is it you can do this?” I motioned slightly, hoping she would understand what I was asking, but the truth was I was unsure myself what I wanted to know. “How can you, ah, do you have a job?”
“How is it I can fly around whenever I want? Is that it?”
I nodded.
“I’m asked that often,” she said leaning forward. I waited for some revelation about her, but she tilted her head and with a giggle said, “I just do it. That’s all. It’s not difficult.” She saw my blank expression and added, “Have you ever tried it?”
“You mean just pack up and leave?” I snapped my fingers. “Just like that?”
She snapped hers back only louder. “Yes, like that.” She laughed and, “Why not?”
Why not? I found myself pointing at the control tower across the field. She turned.
“That?” she asked. “But that’s just a job. How can that stand in the way of doing anything?” She shook her head and smiled again. My shoulders drooped.
“My job’s important,” I protested weakly. “I, I need it.”
“If that’s what you want,” she replied.
“It’s not that I want it...”
“Well, then?”
“A person can’t just...just leave. You know...” I found myself flapping my arms and feeling foolish. “You don’t understand,” I muttered.
“No, I don’t. Could you spin the prop? I’d like to get going. You’re welcome to come along.”
I felt myself reel from her dare. There were too many things to hold me back, and I desperately groped for the safety of an excuse to avoid another chance to really live.
“I can’t,” I said and took the propeller blade in my hands. “Switch on… Brakes on…Throttle cracked?”
She repeated my calls verifying the magneto switch and brakes were on and throttle slightly opened. I pulled the propeller through and stepped aside. The engine caught with a bark and idled. I walked away from the spinning disk and stood with my hands inside my pockets watching her. I decided I’d fallen in love with the woman I'd met only 30 minutes prior. She closed the door and picked a handheld transceiver from the floor to call ground control to taxi.
I watched her for a minute and then she turned, waved and flashed a devastating smile. Elizabeth poked her nose through the netting above the box, shook her head as though to indicate, You idiot, and they taxied away.
Soon, I stood alone on a quiet ramp watching a small tail dragger follow a Boeing 737. The Boeing departed in a roar of jet noise and climbed high above the distant tower. Two minutes later the Champ took the runway and, in a faint ticking of the four-cylinder motor, it rose slowly from the pavement and headed south.
Kim and Elizabeth were gone.

That night I fell asleep on the couch and awoke after midnight from a soft dream about pastures and airplanes flying low over treetops on warm afternoons. Or was it cool mornings? I couldn’t remember.
Alone in the pre-dawn quiet, I thought of Kim and her Champ. I wished I had a dog in a box on the back seat. And I wished with intense longing for the courage to say, “I’m heading south because I’ve never been there.”

It was my day off. Tomorrow I'd be back into the radar room for scheduled overtime, an amusing term, 'scheduled overtime,' it sounds like a scheduled mistake. I tried to fall back to sleep and return to the dream world I'd found with the treetops and pastures--with the tail draggers.
But my mind stayed awake and my body followed. Sleep would not come. Around four I sat up and stared out the window and over the rooftops to the east where a thunderstorm died and the sun had yet to appear.
“Which way is south?” I asked the darkness and turned to the four walls and the refrigerator humming politely in the kitchen but no one answered.
“South is that way,” I said and walked to the large window overlooking the parking garage. I thought I saw her face in the dark trees but shook it off.
I dressed.

The airport was abandoned at 5 o'clock when I pulled up to the gate in the chain link fence. Birds flew in noisy swarms from the trees, heading out to scrounge for breakfast. The gate squeaked on rusty hinges and clanked shut behind me. The eastern sky grew pink melting the last of the stars. I opened the hangar door.
“I’m sorry,” I said to my airplane. “I’m sorry I’ve been away so long.” I walked around it, running my fingers through the layer of grime. I saw where Kim had left two parallel trails in the dust. “You need a bath,” I said and pushed the Champ toward a faucet where a garden hose lie coiled.

“Up early?” the flight instructor who also ran the fuel truck, called. The sun was above the trees, and the air was cool and smelled of May.
“Got lots to do, Colleen,” I answered and sloshed cold water over the wings.
“Goin’ somewhere?”
I nodded and climbed off the stepladder to move it. My motions were quick, I was in a hurry to leave. Without knowing it I had a bright moon-smile.
“I’m flying south today.”
I squirted water over the windshield and scanned the cloudless morning sky. A turboprop commuter took off. Its propellers churned the morning air with a squeal like grinding coffee beans. I watched it bank over the terminal and head north.
“What’s down south?” the instructor asked from the truck cab.
“Don’t know. That’s why I’m going.”
She shook her head with a laugh and drove off to fuel a King Air being towed from one of the corporate hangars.

The Champ’s 65-horsepower motor ticked over quietly, and I spoke into the microphone connected to the old portable radio anchored to the floorboards between my feet.
“Tower, this is Champ 85607, at the ramp, ready to depart, southbound, and I don’t have the ATIS, and I don’t have a transponder, and I can’t get any other frequency than this one, and you probably won’t hear me on it after I clear the trees. What do you think of that?”
“Mikey? Is that you?”
“Morning, Rachael. It’s me. Can I get out of here?”
“Ah, Champ 607, sure, we're here to help. Taxi to runway 23, cleared for take-off, turn left on course, southbound.”
I opened the throttle drowning out whatever the tower said after that--something about wind and altimeters, but I could see the trees, and they were dead still. I didn’t need an altimeter setting to clear them.
The Champ’s tail rose, and as I felt the wings lift I eased back on the joystick. Steady at 60 mph, I climbed past the tower, close enough to see the supervisor shake his head. I rocked my wings and banked away.
“See you tomorrow, Mikey,” tower said.
“Don’t plan on it.”

For two hours the Champ flew with the morning sun climbing higher above the horizon. At first, I felt like a passenger merely along for the ride. But as the city fell behind and the vast Midwest landscape, thick with spring, unfolded before me I slowly took control of the airplane.
And somewhere outside a tiny four-building town I saw her airplane. It sat alone on a hilltop surrounded by gently moving grass sprinkled with wildflowers.
I flew low overhead, and from beneath a wing Kim appeared with Elizabeth at her feet.
I landed and stopped beside her.

Two Champs on a hilltop, and I smiled as bright a moon-smile as I could to match hers.
“Heading south?” she asked.
“Not sure where south is, but it would appear I'm headed that way,” I answered. And I know it's corny, but I could hear music.

The End
© Paul Berge, All rights reserved.

"First Time On Skis"©

The following short story, "First Time on Skis," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1990 and updated in 2007. It was published in the Minnesota Flyer, Richard Coffey publisher, and comes from a collection of Berge's aviation stories titled: "Aeromancy"©. All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"Keep it on the white--not the green!" Ray shouted through the Taylorcraft's door. "Give 'er the throttle again, push forward on the yoke to bring the tail up and I'll rock the strut here to get you free." He kept his free hand on his hat to keep it from blowing away in the prop blast.
"Right," I answered and nodded the way your kid answers when he hasn’t a clue what you just said. It was a little embarrassing, my first time on skis, and I'd barely made it six feet before grinding the right ski into the mud.
I opened the throttle again and moved the yoke forward. The T-craft's tail was light enough to lift in its own slipstream. The nose dropped. I walked the rudders trying to break free of the mud. Ray leaned into the strut and rocked back and forth until the ski broke away, and I was on the snow.
Suddenly, I was a snowmobile with wings.

Any Taylorcraft takes about no runway to lift, and about half that, again, to land. This 1939, BL-65 wanted to fly long before I'd figured out which way the massive tachometer dial turned. This was my first time flying without wheels. Too busy trying to discover what the airplane would do I missed the fact that it wanted to fly--right now. When in doubt, pull back on the yoke--it's about the best thing to do after thoroughly screwing up a take-off roll. Airplanes fly a lot better than we can, so just get them into the air. I learned that the first time I'd ever flown a tail wheel.
I pulled back. The skis left the ragged earth, and it was just a matter of flying an airplane, sort of....
Flying a Taylorcraft is like sitting in something made too small for anyone. Once the claustrophobia passes, however, and you feel at home with the three- inch slat of windshield, it's just another airplane--"Pull back to go up, keep pulling back to go down.” The 65-h.p. Continental engine was no different than the one on my Aeronca Champ, so all that throttle stuff felt normal.
It was landing that was the unblazed territory. The runway was buried under patchy snow. The airplane had no wheels, just a pair of battered skis Ray had found in a farm auction somewhere.
"Gave fifty bucks for the pair," he'd said, and as soon as the first snow fell, we had a ski plane. Robin's egg blue, with white wings and silver feet, it truly looked like a bird instead of a machine. To land it made me look as though I'd never been near a tail dragger--with wheels or without.
"What speed do you land this thing at?" I'd asked.
"Dunno; airspeed's busted," Ray answered. "Probably about
fifty. Just watch the ribbons on the struts. So long as they're pointing back, you've got enough speed..."
He started to reach for the prop, then added, "You can tell if your turns are uncoordinated, 'cause the side window pops open." He grabbed the prop. "Switch on. Leave the throttle closed, and don't bother with the brakes." Oh, yeah—skis forgot already.
I now turned final, a slight crosswind blew from the right, and I corrected. The T-craft almost hovered coming over the fence. Ray sat in a chair on the leeward side of the hangar, arms crossed, legs stretched before him, unconcerned. I only got a quick glimpse, but that was my impression, anyhow--unconcerned.
I squeezed a little throttle as I dropped below the hangars. Wind buffeted the airplane lifting it slightly. I dropped the right wing and pressed opposite rudder to keep it running straight.
When you come in a little too fast in an airplane with wheels, you bounce. When you come in a little too fast in a plane with skis--you bounce; only it feels like someone just slapped your butt with a board.
I bounced. Luckily, the airplane knew how to land, so we settled into the crusty snow with a slapping racket that seemed to emphasize the fact that I had no control over anything.
Grateful the runway lights weren't too close together, we shot between two, drove across the shoulder and into the harvested bean field.
"Power," Ray had told me. "Power and rudder. That's all you've got to taxi. Use lots of both."
I did and S-turned like a destroyer evading U-boats.
Back between the runway lights, across the runway again and into the bean stubble on the other side. I was making progress. A couple more tries, and I'd be home.
Mud and snow struck the wings and sprayed through the open window (it had popped open on final). I saw someone shut a hangar door--real fast. Something hit the tail just as the left ski caught a drift almost driving the opposite wingtip into the ground. Things spun; things creaked. I yanked back on the throttle and was back where I'd started, facing the hangar, the engine ticking evenly, and Ray walking toward me unruffled.
"Got the hang of that pretty quick," he said as the engine quit. "You know, come spring, I'm thinking of putting floats on this thing; got a pair lined up from a fella in Minnesota. What'd you think?" I glanced back at my track through the beans and between the runway lights, and then looked at Ray, "I'm game...."
The End
© Paul Berge, 1990, 2007

"The Hangar" © Part 1

The following short story, "The Hangar," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1987 and updated in 2007. It comes from a collection of Berge's aviation stories titled: "Aeromancy"©. All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"The Hangar" © 1987, 2007 by Paul Berge

Part I

Crossing over the field I saw it. A small airport like so many others in the Midwest, it had one runway and one large hangar. It wasn’t on the chart, but I didn’t see any X’s on the runway to indicate it was closed, and the worst that could happen would be I’d be told to get lost. Throughout my first summer as a gypsy pilot I’d been told to get lost before, so.…
I circled the north-south strip and noted that the wind was out of the northwest at about 15 knots. The air was warm coming through the Aeronca Champ’s side window. Below, the corn was deep green with gold tassels. The fields moved in the wind like ocean waves eliminating the need for a windsock. With a good cornfield you can see the wind, all of it, and judge how it will snuggle the aircraft right to the ground.
Turning downwind I closed the throttle, and the 65-horse engine popped once. I continued in a left bank to base leg and then onto final, watching the corn while picking my spot on the sod runway. A quick glance at the tattered windsock confirmed what the corn had already told me. I felt smug, the worst feeling a pilot can get, because it means you don’t know nuthin’ and might be too stupid to learn. At 19 I hadn’t learned how to learn yet, too stupid to know how dumb I was.
With left wing down I flew low across the fence and rolled the left wheel onto the grass. Slight forward pressure on the stick kept the Champ planted on the ground as the tail eased itself down and airspeed bled off. The smell of warm earth flowed through the open window.

A pair of yellow- painted tires marked where to taxi off the runway without dropping into the drainage ditch along the edge. It was an unpretentious airport with only the one building and no fuel pumps. I taxied behind the hangar out of the wind and turning hard swung the tail over a tie-down rope. Two more ropes were under the wings in the weeds. I reached behind to snap off the magnetos. The propeller took one easy swing and stopped.
The ropes under the wings proved little more then weathered stumps of hemp, so I grabbed my own from the baggage compartment where I kept my sleeping bag, dirty laundry, tools and a half-dozen Snickers Bars. While threading the ropes through the rusty eyehooks in the dirt I stared at the hangar. Its wood had weathered gray long ago. About two stories high it guessed it covered two, maybe three thousand square feet, at any rate, too large for such a small airfield.
The hangar’s two immense door halves shook and complained with each gust of wind much as a ship would at dock in choppy waters. Or that something was inside trying to huff its way out.
Sparrows darted through the many cracks. A strip of corrugated steel trim flapped above the door track. I pictured it ripping off to fly through the air and slice through my fabric wing, or me. But I realized it had survived untold years without falling so I ignored it. I’d learned long ago to ignore what threatened or I couldn’t understand.

I walked through the dry weeds to the far side of the hangar where parked outside were two abandoned Navions and a Luscombe fuselage discarded on its side in the dirt. Navions were sleek low-wing four-seaters, built, it was dreamed, for returning P-51 pilots. And before the war that had created the Mustang heroes the Luscombe had been a quick two-seat tail dragger, a delight to fly. Now, in 1986, they were abandoned hulks. A small greasy dog lay beneath the Navion’s wing. He lifted his head, gave a disinterested bark as I neared and was back asleep before I could answer. He didn’t seem to believe I was there, or care.

The two Navions were identical. Both sat on flat tires, and their once orange paint schemes had faded to a dull yellow like week-old banana custard that no one wanted. One airplane’s nose strut was extended to its limit leaving the tail low. It had no propeller, and a glance under the cowling showed all the cylinders gone leaving only empty holes in the case. Rusty connecting rods poked out. I started to reach inside when a pair of wasps flew past squelching that idea.

Breaching all forms of airport etiquette I climbed onto a wing and the Navion moaned under my weight.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll only be a minute; just want to look inside, into your past.”
Little was visible through the cracked and frosted Plexiglas. I tried the canopy and it complained but gave. Time and unknown grave robbers had ravaged the interior and cannibalized the instrument panel. The upholstery was faded, torn, and the carpeting pulled up revealing corroded aluminum. Everything was coated with bits of hay, cornstalk and age.
I found the registration pouch on the pilot’s side, but the documents inside were little more than yellowed scraps. One form, though, was preserved well enough to read the owner’s name—Emilio Nervino.
“Well, Mr. Nervino,” I said to the form, “I hope you don’t mind me poking around your airplane.” A sharp screech flashed by my ear. Wasps, I thought and jumped back dropping the document pouch.
A sparrow perched on the canopy lip and scolded me. She beat her wings like an enraged nun to emphasize her point, whatever it was, and with a final annoyed chirp flew off.
I picked the registration pouch from the seat, slid it back in place and closed the canopy. When I climbed down the Navion moaned relief and woke the greasy dog and it followed me to the hangar.

Despite the airport’s state of advanced decay a freshly painted metal sign reading, LEARN TO FLY, hung above a single door. A wind gust shook the building, which appeared ready to blow away with the next blast. The new sign, however, was anchored firmly to the wall, amazingly out of place, its message more of a taunt than an invitation to me.
“Wanna go inside, boy?” I called to the dog now leaning against the door. I expected him to bounce off the ground, tail wagging in appreciation but he hardly raised his head long enough to cast a disapproving gaze. I felt silly. Dogs have that effect on me.
“Well, suit yourself,” I said and opened the door. The dog slipped quietly inside, and the door closed behind us.

It was cool like the inside of a cave or a tomb, I thought , and was mildly content with that metaphor until I realized I’d never been inside a tomb or a cave for that matter. My eyes took several minutes adjusting to the dim light and knowing I would stumble over the dog if I moved, I stood and listened.
The wind sang through the high ceiling where sparrows flew between the rafters.
Gradually my eyes adjusted to the dark. The hangar was crowded with a lifetime’s worth of aviation stuff. Nearest me was a Globe Swift—a lowing, two-seat monoplane, silver with blue trim and a tinted canopy. Its nose bowl grill smiled at me the way I imagined a crocodile might smile at a poodle. It had one gear leg extended under a wing and the other wing was supported by a jack stand. It sat as if waiting for something. A wheel sat nearby on an upturned crate. The dust on each piece gave the impression that someone had been repairing the landing gear, decided to step out for a beer and disappeared into the far stretches of the Universe. I’ve known beer to have that effect.
Behind the Swift was a Champ like mine, except orange and yellow in the original paint scheme with the orange sweeping under its belly. The fabric was cracked and brittle, looking as if it would punch through with the slightest pressure. A sweater was draped across the front seat and hanging on the joystick was an olive green baseball cap--the old kind without the plastic adjusting band on the back. Like the Swift, this airplane seemed hastily abandoned some years before.
Scattered around the hangar were engines and parts of engines. Magnetos on benches, a carburetor shared a moldy wooden box with a mouse nest. Spare doors, one I recognized from a Fairchild 24, hung along one wall. A four-cylinder Franklin engine was on the floor against a parts washing tank. A large radial sat on a pallet beside the Champ, a crated propeller beside it. Suspended from the walls were wings--some with fabric, and others stripped bare, ribs exposed.
Workbenches and tool chests on wheels stood curiously undisturbed throughout the hangar. Two red barrels, one labeled 40W and the other 50W, rested on stands near a small door labeled, MEN’S, and what appeared as an afterthought, AND WOMEN’S, TOO--KNOCK FIRST.
Suddenly, birds chirped wildly above me in the rafters, fighting over some contested piece of territory or a particular female’s attention. The racket subsided with the loser winging across the room and landing on the propeller tip of a Cessna 195.
Then, I saw someone move.
The figure moved quickly around the propeller and disappeared again into the shadows. He made no noise. With the dog following, I picked my way carefully around the Cessna’s tail toward the far corner of the hangar and found him standing on the opposite side of a Ryan PT-22 monoplane. Only his legs showed beneath the Kinner radial engine. I remained fixed in shadow just the other side of the Ryan. I made no sound, nor did the dog.
A row of small windows along the ceiling at this end of the hangar let in enough light for me to see that the Ryan was a seemingly functional airplane, the first I’d seen since landing. Gradually, I maneuvered myself around its tail until I could see him from the side and slightly behind. He seemed not to notice me, being absorbed with something in the engine.

I guessed him to be in his late 50s, maybe six feet tall, dark and stocky with a thick neck and closely trimmed gray hair. He wore stiff white overalls with LEARN TO FLY stenciled across the back. With one arm he reached far behind the engine while the other arm arched over a cylinder head. The two hands tried to meet somewhere in a tight corner near the firewall.
“Come on, you piece of...there. Gotchya!” The dark figure swiveled his head like a mud turtle and looked at a toolbox just out of reach to his left. I stood quietly behind to his right.
(to be continued...For Part 2 Go to:
End Part I
© Paul Berge, 1987, 2007

Thursday, January 4, 2007

"The Fuselage" ©

The following short story, "The Fuselage," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1987 and updated in 2007. It comes from a collection of Berge's aviation stories titled: "Aeromancy"©. All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission or for details on how to submit your aviation short story (you won't get paid so don't quit the day job) please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC at or call 515-961-0654

"The Fuselage" © by Paul Berge

He drove a '59 Rambler. It first appeared at the airport when Terry bought the old Waco fuselage, hauled it to the airport on a flatbed trailer and set it at the north end of the hangars in the weeds.
“What is it?” I asked.
“A Waco, Taperwing Waco,” Terry answered. “Bought it at a farm auction in Nebraska.”
“Where’s the rest of it?” There was only the uncovered airframe and vertical fin. The gear legs were attached but bent and without wheels.
“That’s all I got.”
“No wings? No engine?” I barely hid my amusement.
“No,” he said defensively. “Don’t need more. I can rebuild it with what’s there...and some plans...and a little scrounging.”

And that’s how it stayed throughout the year. The only one ever going near it was the old man who drove the Rambler. He’d turn up at twilight and always parked his car near a spot in the fence where the posts leaned over, drooping the barbed wire to the ground making it easy for him to step over and walk slowly to the old biplane’s fuselage. He had to be well over 90, I guessed, although he seemed in good health. At first, I thought he was just another stranger out to watch airplanes fly and simply chose that spot near the Waco to remain unobtrusive. Soon, however, I noticed he never watched us fly, preferring, instead, to stare at the derelict fuselage.

He did more than stare at it, his eyes moving as though taking inventory of what was left in the rusted structure, and I thought I saw him talking to the fuselage or talking with someone that I couldn’t see. Throughout the winter he’d appear before sunset, park the Rambler beside the fence, then pick his way through the dead weeds and snow around the fuselage--always studying it. He never looked anywhere else and never at me. His hands would occasionally reach out to touch the rusty airframe, and then as if he stood beside a complete biplane with engine and wings attached, he would nod his head in some sort of approval of something else I couldn’t see.

I moved closer to him one snowy afternoon and stood within hearing distance at the edge of a hangar. The air was cold and still as the inside of a closet. Snow collected on his thin shoulders and wide-brimmed hat. It coated the airframe’s tubing in fuzzy rails. His breath rose in weak puffs, indicating he was speaking. I strained to hear, but his voice was too thin. It sounded as though he issued instructions to someone unseen. Then he patted the fuselage with an approving smile and shuffled toward the Rambler, taking, I assumed, his unseen companion with him.

“Hey, Terry,” I asked one afternoon inside the shop. “Have you ever seen that old guy who comes out here poking around the Waco?”
“What old guy?” Terry answered from beneath a customer’s airplane.
“Some guy hangs around...You haven’t seen him?”
“No, I don’t get down that end of the field, too busy.” He dropped a wrench and it rang sharp against the concrete floor, punctuating his suspicion: “Why?”
“Oh, just wondering,” I said. “He seems, I don’t know, peculiar, that’s all.”
“You see any weirdoes around here, you chase them off. Airports always seem to attract weirdoes, somehow. Don’t know what it is about them.”

Spring came, snow left, yellow flowers grew thick around the derelict fuselage, and the Rambler continued to show up at sunset. I was busy flight instructing for Terry, hoping to save enough money to pay for my Airline Transport Pilot’s license. A rumor had spread that the airlines were hiring—the one’s that weren’t bankrupt--and the fever had me. I had to build hours, so day after day I slogged around the pattern, repeating the same speeches about airspeed and coordination to my faceless students. In spite of me, they learned to fly, and I accumulated hours toward my airline goal.

The days lengthened, the air turned warm, and the Rambler parked alongside the fence almost daily. I watched the old man for a few seconds at a time with each pass we’d make on a touch-and-go. For several days he confined himself to the airplane’s nose, pointing at the firewall and its empty motor mounts. Just as he had directed his imaginary companion around the nonexistent wings throughout the winter, he now assisted in overhauling an engine that wasn’t there. He even dragged an old wooden crate beside the fuselage and stood on it to reach where the tops cylinders would be, if there had been any, which there weren’t.

“Hey, Terry, that old guy’s back. You ought to see him. He thinks he’s putting an engine on the Waco.”
“Uh-huh,” Terry muttered without looking up from a stack of fuel receipts. “I thought I told you to keep the weirdoes out.”
“I don’t think he’s causing any trouble, it’s just...”
“Uh-huh. Don’t you have a student waiting outside?”

Around and around I droned in the traffic pattern through bad landing after bad landing. “Watch your airspeed; hold more rudder next time; correct for the wind, keep that wing down, use that adverse aileron yaw to your advantage. Okay, let’s go around and try it again.” The words fell from my mouth like so much nonsense from a parrot. Then, down the narrow airstrip, back into the sky, and each evening before sunset the Rambler would appear on the gravel road, stop beside the fence and the old man would walk slowly through the wildflowers to work on his biplane. I had to consider it his; no one else went near it.
“Hey, Susan,” I interrupted a student one afternoon, tapping her shoulder as we lifted off. “Do you see that old guy over there?”
“Where?” she responded in near panic. “Sorry! I didn’t see him; did I hit him?”
“No, he’s by the hangar.”
“No. Alive…I think. See?”
“No, back behind us...Oh, it’s too late, you can’t see him now. Watch your airspeed, let’s climb on up to 3000 feet.” I made a note never to interrupt Susan with my stray observations while she was concentrating on landing.

Spring folded into summer, and the yellow flowers around the fuselage gave way to fat grass and thistle full of bees and mice. I managed to get my airline license and then picked up the occasional charter flight hauling chickens mostly. Flying from dawn until after dark, the hours piled up in my logbook, and by mid-summer all I could think about was getting on with the airlines. My application was in, so I waited and continued to drag around the pattern in worn-out Cessnas looking for the old man to arrive each afternoon to put in his time with the Waco.

“Are you sure you’ve never seen him?” I asked Terry one morning before the first student arrived. “He’s down there every evening.”
“What’s his name?” Terry asked pouring a saucer full of evaporated milk for the airport cat.
“I don’t know, I’ve never met him, I’m always busy when he comes out, but you must have seen him.”
“No,” Terry snapped. “I’ve more important things to do than sit around chatting with airport groupies who’ve got more time than they know what to do with, so they sit out here drinking my coffee, watching me work and my airplanes fly without ever buying anything.”
“But he doesn’t watch them fly,” I said. “He just stays with the he was rebuilding it or something.”
“Has he been dinking around with my fuselage?”
“No, he really doesn’t do anything, that’s my point. He thinks he’s doing something.”
“All right,” Terry said standing. “Let’s go down right now and meet this nut case.”
“He’s not there now, he only shows at sunset.”
Terry shook his head and disappeared into the shop. I heard something drop and his muffled voice complaining. My first student drove up and the sun rose over the trees.

That evening as a thunderstorm rumbled to the east, and the ground steamed from the shower that had just passed over, I stood outside the office inhaling that beautiful moment that doesn’t exist anywhere else but on a small airport when the sky is soft and sounds like old dreams. My back ached from sitting all day in cramped cockpits. A Cessna 150 crawled overhead approaching to land, its engine a murmur against the distant thunder.

I looked along the hangar row and saw the Rambler’s grill poking through the weeds. The old man, silhouetted by the orange sun, was inside the Waco’s rear cockpit, seated on an overturned bucket, moving his head from side to side. He’d stare at the blank instrument panel, then lean out, calling to someone near the propeller--only, of course, there was no one near the propeller, and there was no propeller on this wingless, motorless, skeleton biplane.

I looked around and except for the Cessna turning final I was alone. Terry had run into town, and my next flight, a charter, was not due for fifteen minutes, so I went to finally meet the old man in the Waco. I made it as far as the second hangar when Terry’s truck drove into the parking lot beside a gray Cadillac. He hurried toward me, calling: “Your charter’s here.” My passengers walked toward the Piper Seneca while talking on cellphones with that I’m-very-important look that indicates that they have nothing to say and only talk on cellphones in hopes someone will acknowledge their being.
“What are you waiting for?” Terry asked. “Get their bags...and smile.”
I glanced toward the Waco before turning back. The old man motioned toward his phantom assistant while shaking his head. Apparently the Waco’s imaginary engine had refused to start.
“Did you see him?” I called back to Terry, but he was already inside the office.

With autumn a week away, Terry was mowing the weeds around the Waco. The flail mower cut even circles around the old airframe, chewing up thistle and grass into dying summer’s pulp. I hadn’t seen the Rambler for a week and missed the old man’s presence at twilight. The sun dropped below the horizon, and the air cooled as Terry parked the tractor in its shed, and I went home.

Mixed in with the usual mail that evening was a thick envelope from the airlines. I tore into it dropping a handful of forms onto the kitchen table. I read the cover letter, hoping to spot the key phrase somewhere in the standard organizational format. There it was: “Please notify this office no later than 15 October to schedule an interview...” I was in—well, almost. No more students or charters, I was going to work for the airlines. One day it might even pay more than flight-instructing.

That night I barely slept and was out to the airport before dawn. The air was cool, and the wind calm across a rosy sky. The runway lights flickered pale yellow, and I walked through the dew-covered grass in what I thought was a random route but actually lead toward the Waco. Fate giggled at my notions of self-control when I heard a deep clacking rumble slap at the morning air. An engine started, a large engine, definitely not one of the Cessnas or even the Seneca, which I knew was still inside the hangar. Someone advanced the throttle, and what sounded like a radial engine growled from around the last hangar. I hurried as the sun broke above the treetops turning autumn into a firestorm of yellows and lavender. The radial’s call, a vicious drum line, was now intense as I turned the corner of the last hangar, and a sparrow shot past my face from beneath an eave. I swatted, then stood with arms limp at my side staring at a full, all-black biplane with furnace-red trim, its radial engine swinging a long silver propeller that caught the sun’s early rays in a flashing pinwheel of dream light.

It was, of course, the Waco Taperwing that had no wings. Only, now it did, and a tail, and tires, plus a radial engine, and a woman who looked like dawn itself as she smiled from the front cockpit. The sunlight was sucked into the ebony fabric and exploded back in deep glory, accented by the red trim that looked too hot to touch. Atop this flaming vision a tall figure in leather swung into the rear cockpit. But before he settled into his seat he turned toward me. The sun lit his face in that same red that fired the sky, but even in shadow, I would’ve known who it was--the old man from the Rambler.

It was his face but sixty years younger; the hair full, curly, and dark. His shoulders were broad, arms and legs quick. He waved, smiled, and pulled a leather helmet over his ears but left the straps dangling. Squinting against the sight, I barely returned his wave when he opened the throttle, and the Waco taxied past me in a symphony of wind and power. Then ignoring the paved runway, it bounced across the grass and lifted into the dawn sky. With a wave from both occupants, it banked and vanished in a tapering finale of unearthly light and sound.

The runway lights clicked off as Terry’s pickup turned onto the gravel road toward the office. For several minutes I stared at the now empty sky then turned back to where the Waco had been. The weeds were evenly cropped where Terry had mowed but stood in a ragged V forming the shape of the now missing fuselage. The sun rose higher. The dawn colors faded into daylight, and I looked beyond the weeds and the fence to the Rambler parked alone and empty. Terry appeared by my side.
“Where the blazes is my Waco?” he bellowed.
“I...I don’t think it was ever yours,” I said and walked toward the car. And there on the dashboard was the key, the car’s title signed by the owner, and a note to me: Hey Kid. Pump the accelerator twice on a cold day and she starts fine. It’s a boring car, but looks as though you’re heading into a boring life unless you remember what you saw here.
And I tossed the key back on the dash and walked away realizing that I had a long way to go before I learned how to fly.
The End

© 1987, renewed 2007, Paul Berge
All rights reserved.