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.

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