chapter 5

Seeking Council

At that time in my aviation career I had already owned two airplanes, so the idea of buying an airplane was not something new to me.  I understood the mechanics of airplanes.  I knew how to crawl down into the belly of some old bird and check out the condition of the airframe.  I knew that fabric-covered airframes were subject to certain problems, and I knew how to spot those problems.  I understood engines.  I understood flight control systems.  I was a good mechanic.  

            I was confident that I could find a suitable airplane, make the necessary repairs, and still remain within my limited budget.

            I started looking at ads. in trade papers, and traveling around looking at used ag-planes.  I visited ag-operations from Waco clear down to the mouth of the Brazos River.  I searched the blacklands from Seguin to Rosenburg, and traveled the coast from Victoria to the Louisiana border.  I even ventured over into the dreaded Cajun bayou country to look at an old airplane at Lake Charles.  That particular airplane was completely eaten up with corrosion from fertilizer and the salt sea air.

            I looked at dozens of old crop-dusters that winter.  I inspected Stearmans, Callairs, Pawnees, Cessnas, Snows, Grummans, and one old Weatherly.  They all had something wrong with them.  The thing that most of them had wrong with them was that the asking price on even the cheapest was about twice as much money as I had. 

            When I did run across an airplane in my price range, it was invariably worn out twice-over, with a sick engine, rusted-out tubing, and major battle-damage.  Most of these airplanes were hidden out in the weeds at some little country airport, and were just a step away from the graveyard.      

            I wandered back down to Laredo and talked over my problem with Bob.  He wasn't very sympathetic about my predicament.

            "Let's get this straight right now," he said.  "If you want in the game, you got to show-up with your own airplane.  If you're determined to kill yourself in this damn-fool business, that's just fine with me, but I'll be damned if I'm going to let you tear up one of my airplanes doing it."

            He did have some advice for me, though.  He instructed me to go talk to one of his old cronies who ran a crop-dusting business and aircraft maintenance shop about 140 miles north of Laredo.  This fine fellow knew all about buying and selling ag-planes, and, according to Bob, just might be able to point me in the right direction. 

            This fellow's name was Harvey.  "Harvey from Hondo."  He was something of a character in that part of the world. 

            I went to visit Harvey.  Over the coming years I would make many more visits to Harvey, usually to get him to sign-off the annual inspection on some beat-up old airplane. 

            Like Bob, Harvey had begun his aviation career as a teen-age gunner in the back seat of carrier-based Navy dive-bombers during World War II.  He had gone on to become a service pilot, and ended up as a crop-duster in South Texas.  Both men shared the common conviction of aviators from that era that no serious talk about airplanes could commence before those involved poured about an inch of whiskey into the bottom of their coffee cups. 

            So that's what we did.

            Harvey had lots to say about flying.  He had lots to say about aviation as a way of life.  He had lots to say about flying crop-dusters for a living.  He had lots to say about buying old airplanes. Harvey had lots to say about just about everything.

            Mostly what he had to say was that a smart young man like me ought to have better sense than to be talking to some worn-out old crop-duster like him, and trying to get into the ag-business.  He was against it all the way. 

            That is, he was against it all the way up until he poured another inch of whiskey in our coffee cups.  Then he got downright enthusiastic about life as a crop-duster.  He spent the next few hours telling me all kinds of stories about the things he had seen, and the things he had done over the past quarter of a century.

            I listened to Harvey a long time that evening.  In fact, I listened to him late into the night.  I was fascinated by the stories he told, the stories of a man who had lived a life of adventure. 

            Most of the things Harvey told me that evening had little to do with my current dilemma, but they were things I wanted to know about the life I was choosing to follow.  By the time I drove out of Hondo late that night, I knew he had told me just exactly what I needed to know.

            Harvey told me to go to New Braunfels.  He explained that a certain individual had gone into the aircraft sales business at a little field northeast of there.  This individual was some sort of businessman in San Antonio who had "sunk a bundle" into buying a Cessna dealership and bringing in five or six brand-spanking new Cessna ag-planes. 

            Every ag-operator in South Texas had dropped by to admire those pretty new airplanes, but nobody had bought one.  The upshot of all this was that now the San Antonio businessman was hurting for cash flow.  Harvey had his ways of knowing these things.  This operation also had some used cabin planes for sale, and a couple of old crop-dusters.

            Harvey had known this San Antonio businessman for years.  "He's a snake-oil salesman," he cautioned me.  "But he can be had.  He needs cash." 

            In the end, Harvey pointed me in the right direction.  It might have been the wrong direction for me to be going, but since I was going anyway, it was good to be headed in the right, wrong direction, rather than the wrong, wrong direction.



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