STEALING AIRPLANES I
The next day I was in New Braunfels. That little airport was about what
you would expect. A grass runway, a big maintenance hangar, a fuel
pump, a long set of T-hangars, and about a dozen single-engine airplanes
parked about. The whole place needed mowing.
As far as I could tell, there was only one man on the airport. He was an
old mechanic, and I found him in the back of the big hangar rebuilding a
magneto. We got to talking, and I told him that I was looking for a
crop-duster. He motioned to the several shiny new Cessna Ag-Wagons
parked about, and assured me that they had plenty. I explained that I
wasn't looking for a new plane, I was looking for a used airplane. "Old and
cheap", I said. He went back to foolin' around with the magneto.
The fellow really didn't seem to be acting unfriendly. He just seemed to
have an overall bad attitude, nothing personal. Finally he allowed that
there were a couple of old ag-planes for sale, and I was welcome to go
look at them if I wanted to.
I went to looking around. I started off looking at those brand new
Cessnas. I even climbed up in one and got comfortable in the seat. That
was a mighty nice airplane! Everything was clean and painted and working
like clockwork. I would have liked to have fired up the motor, and taken
that slick new machine for a little ride. But I knew that I was just wasting
my time, so I crawled out and walked on down the flight line to where a
couple of old Pawnees were tied down in the weeds. There was a Super
Cub there too, with a 90-gallon tank strapped underneath its belly.
I got to looking over those Pawnees. One of them was fairly new. The
other one was pretty old. I gave them both a good looking-over. I figured
that the older one might just accidentally be within my price range.
I walked back up to the big hangar and talked it over with the old
"That newest Pawnee goes for $17,000," he said. "You might be able to
pick up that older one for eleven"
I couldn't afford either, but remembering Harvey's advice, I decided I'd
go back out and take a better look at that old Pawnee. I figured I might be
able to make some kind of a deal, and I was running out of ideas about
how to get hold of an airplane.
I spent the next hour going over that old airplane. The airframe seemed
to be in good shape. The fuselage tubing was sound and the fabric seemed
to be no more than a couple of years old. The hopper was clouded out, but
it was in sound condition. I couldn't tell too much about the engine
without running it, but when I pulled the prop through it did have good
equal compression on all six cylinders. I wiped my finger inside the
exhaust stack. It didn't show signs of excessive oil burning.
Of course, the old airplane had bald tires, several dents in the leading
edge of the wing, some ugly patches on the tail, a worn out tail wheel, and
corroded-out spray booms. It also had a cracked windshield, a jammed-up
carburetor heat lever, and an over-all bad case of the uglies. That old
airplane had led a pretty hard life.
But the more I looked it over, the more I felt that that was the airplane
that was going to launch me into my new career. I was pretty sure I could
get the price down, and it was an airplane. And that's what I needed.
Back at the hangar the mechanic was a little bit more willing to talk.
We went into the airport office and drank coffee. After a little while he got
to talking more. I soon learned that his boss, the businessman in San
Antonio was "up to his eyeballs" in those new airplanes. Just as Harvey
had predicted, he needed cash.
The mechanic was not only a mechanic. He was also the owner's proxy
aircraft salesman. The owner had left him with a stack of Aircraft Bills of
Sale that were blank, except that the owner had signed each one. An
"Aircraft Bill of Sale" was an official government form that served the
same purpose as an automobile title. If you had a properly filled out and
signed Aircraft Bill of Sale, you had legal title to the airplane. In case
somebody showed up to buy an airplane, the mechanic could accept the
cash, fill in the blanks on the Bill of Sale form, and wrap-up the sale "on
the spot". The sales philosophy being employed here was to complete the
sale before the sucker had a chance to change his mind, and to accept
only cash U.S. currency. Evidently the businessman in San Antonio was
confident that the mechanic could competently accomplish all this without
his actually having to be present
But I could sense that there was a wrinkle in the arrangement. There
was. Evidently the mechanic had been festering for some time now, and
he needed somebody to tell his problems to. I had turned up just at the
right time. I figured I'd just keep quiet and let nature take her course.
Sure enough, it wasn't long before that old mechanic began telling me his
I soon learned that he had never really liked his boss in the first place,
and he liked him even less when his last two paychecks bounced. The old
mechanic knew good and well that his boss was about to get "cleaned out,"
and he was getting worried that those checks weren't ever going to be
made good, much less getting paid for the current month.
He promised me that everything on the airport, "right down to the
commode," was about to be reprocessed by the bank. He wasn't sure if he
would ever get any money out of that operation, and was already making
plans to haul off the air compressor, a bunch of engine parts, a lathe, a
drill press, and all the tools not nailed to the floor.
"Are you really interested in that old Pawnee", he asked?
"Yeah, sure, I'm interested," I said. "I need a cheap old crop-duster that
I can get into shape by spring. But it's got to be cheap."
"Well, maybe we can come up with some kind of deal here," he said.
"I'm listening," I said.
"Now, suppose we make a deal here," said the old mechanic. "Just
suppose you decide to buy an airplane right here today. Just suppose you
and me make a deal and we wind this thing up right here. Just exactly
how are you going to pay for this airplane?"
I took this to mean whether or not I was going to pay in actual
100-dollar bills. That's exactly what he wanted to know.
I had to admit that, no, I didn't have actual cash. I intended to pay with
a personal check. The mechanic just shrugged at this information. I could
tell that he was disappointed, but he just dug around in a desk drawer and
pulled out a big envelope stuffed with the aircraft log books and a lot other
paperwork on that airplane. While I was shuffling through this junk
paperwork, he allowed, "That old airplane can be had for ten thousand
dollars, and that's a pretty good deal."
I was pleased to note that the price of the airplane was already coming
down. I figured I'd just keep quiet and see if it went down some more.
When I didn't respond, he glanced around the room as though he thought
somebody was trying to sneak up on him, lowered his voice and said, "But
I know for a fact the old bastard will take $8,000 for it."
I thought about that for a while. Then I said, "What's the very bottom
dollar he'd take for it?" I was careful not to say, "... how much will you
take for it?" I was careful to say, "... how much will he take for it?" I
wanted the mechanic to know we were both on the same side.
"He'll take $7,500 cash for it," he whispered. "That's the very bottom
dollar I'm supposed to let it go for."
"I just can't go that," I said. I was pretty sure he was telling me the
truth, but I kept poking through all that paperwork anyway. The fact was,
I wanted that airplane, and I had made up my mind to get it one way or
"I wouldn't pay too much attention to that aircraft logbook," he said.
"That ain't really the exact same engine that's on that airplane out there."
He went on to explain how they had done some engine "swappin' around"
on a couple of airplanes the year before, and nobody had ever bothered to
get the paperwork straight. It didn't make any difference because ".... ain't
nobody ever gonna go to the trouble to actually read the serial number off
that old airplane anyway."
I told him that that paperwork business didn't bother me one way or
the other, but I really did need to know what kind of engine that airplane
had on it. He got a little defensive then, and swore up and down that he
really had overhauled that engine, ".... that engine out there on that
airplane," he insisted. He swore that the aircraft didn't have more than a
hundred hours on it since overhaul.
I believed him. When I assured him that I didn't doubt his word for
even one minute, he got all defensive again and went on to explain that
they hadn't really given that engine a sure-enough first-class overhaul.
This admission didn't surprise me.
By this time the mechanic had dropped all pretense of being an aircraft
salesman. He realized that I knew a little bit about engines, and now he
was just talking to me, one mechanic to another. "The crankshaft's good, "
he said. "Never been turned down. Polished out as pretty as you please.
Put in all new bearings, and new oil pump gears too. The bottom end's in
good shape. Ought to run you a couple of good hard seasons. Maybe more.
But the top end's not the best. I just cleaned up those old pistons and
stuck them back in. Put new rings on them and bushed the rod ends. But a
couple of those cylinders miced-out over ten thousand. Didn't do nothing
to them but hone out the glaze. They'll give you trouble sooner or later. I
put in three or four new intake valves, and new guides all around. But
some of those valve seats were mighty thin."
I nodded my head and kind of frowned at all this. It was about what I
had expected. But I hadn't expected to be given such a candid report.
"Thanks for telling me," I said.
"Hey! That really is a pretty good old engine," he insisted. "Sure, it's
gonna give you some problems - but then, it's an old airplane. And the
bottom end's good! You'll probably have to swap out a cylinder or two this
summer, but you'll get a couple hundred hours out of her just the way she
I had to agree that he was probably right. And besides, I liked the idea
of knowing just exactly what I was getting. I had pulled plenty cylinders
myself, and I knew good and well I could keep that old motor running.
"Well," I said, "I expect I can keep that motor running for a few
hundred hours, but how about the rest of that airplane? I looked her over
pretty good and didn't see any major problems, but I could have missed
something. What about that airplane? She ever been damaged? She got
any big problems I don't know about?"
"Naw, that's a pretty good old airplane," the mechanic assured me. "I
been working on her myself the last couple of years. She ain't never been
crashed, not even once. The old boy who's been flying her this past
summer claims she's the sweetest flying Pawnee in the state of Texas.
She's a pretty good old airplane."
"You sure $7,500 is his rock bottom low dollar?" I asked.
"He might take less. I don't know. He might. He needs cash money. You
might be able to get him down some more. I just don't know. The bank's
fixing to get it all anyway. Maybe he'll come down. You'll have to talk to
"Okay," I said. "I might as well talk to him."
The mechanic dialed his boss's number in San Antonio. I could tell he
was talking to a secretary of some sort, and he had to "hold" a good while.
Finally, his boss came on the line.
All the mechanic said was, "Fellow here wants to talk to you about
buying a spray plane." Then he handed the phone to me.
"Hello," I said.
The voice on the telephone immediately started talking. He thought I
wanted to buy one of his new airplanes. He started telling me all about
what great airplanes they were, and how "anybody" with "good history"
could get them financed through Cessna Aircraft. He started giving me
aircraft specs and performance data. He sounded like he was reading from
one of those slick Cessna sales brochures. Before I could say a thing, he
had called me "sir" about six or eight times, and assured me that a man
like me could make all the money in the world if I only owned one of those
brand new, beautiful airplanes.
Finally I said, "I'm interested in one of those Pawnees".
I could tell that he was disappointed, but he didn't give up trying to sell
me a new airplane. "For what you're gonna have to pay for one of those
old Pawnees," he insisted, "I can put you in a brand new Cessna
Ag-Wagon." He didn't mention anything about the payment book that
went with the deal.
"Look," I said, "I can't afford a new airplane. I just don't have that kind
of money." This really disappointed him, but he got right back up to
"Okay," he said, "I can put you in one of those Pawnees. They're mighty
good airplanes and I can sell them right".
I didn't say anything.
"Now, we're talking cash here, right? On a used airplane like that, we're
talking cash money, right?"
"Yeah, that's right," I said. "If I buy an airplane, I'll pay for it right
"Okay," he said, all business again. "Tell you what I'll do, sir," and he
kind of paused for a moment and I could tell he was thinking hard. "Yes
Sir, tell you what I'll do. Now, on that newer airplane, now that's the one
you want, now that's a mighty good airplane, sir, good engine, low time.
Now, tell you what I'll do. I'll let you have that airplane for eighteen five,
eighteen five, cash money."
"I'm interested in that old Pawnee," I said.
"That old Pawnee? You're interested in that old Pawnee," he demanded!
The glow had gone out of his voice and he had started to sound downright
irritated. "You wanna buy that old Pawnee?" I could tell he was through
calling me "sir."
"Yeah," I said, "I've been looking at it a little bit."
"Well," he sighed, "Well, tell you what I'll do, I'll sell you that old
Pawnee, and hey!, that's a mighty fine old Pawnee. We hung a brand new
factory-overhaul engine on it just last year. Did you check the logbook?
That engine's still under warranty! And that's a mighty good old airplane.
Tell you what I'll do. I'll sell you that Pawnee, cash money, for about
...let's see... I'll sell you that Pawnee for eleven five, cash money."
"I can't afford that," I said.
"Hey, look," he said, "I'm trying to sell you an airplane!" He was losing
patience with me.
I didn't say a word.
"Okay!", he continued. "Tell you what! You make me an offer. You want
that old Pawnee, right? So you tell me! You make me an offer".
"I can't afford that much," I said, avoiding the question.
All this talking was making me nervous. I never was good at haggling
price and really didn't want to make him an offer. I had spent a lifetime
paying too much money for everything, and I knew that if I started
talking, I'd start losing.
"You make me an offer!" he kept demanding. He acted like he was
about ready to hang up on me.
"I don't think I can afford that old Pawnee," I said.
"Hey! Okay, okay! Tell you what I'll do. Tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm
gonna sell you that old Pawnee! I'll get right! I'll sell you that old Pawnee
for eight-five. Eight-five, bottom dollar! Eight-five! Cash money!"
"I just can't pay that much," I mumbled. I wasn't bluffing. I couldn't pay
"Okay, dammit", he exploded! "You make me an offer! You tell me!"
"Sir," I said apologetically, "I really don't think I can afford to buy that
"All right," he said resolutely. "Look, I want to work with you! I'm
gonna help you out. Tell you what I'm gonna do. I'm gonna make you a
deal. Tell you what, I'm gonna sell you that airplane for ... let's see ... I'm
gonna sell you that Pawnee for $7,500. Seven and a half! That factory
rebuilt engine cost that much! Now, that's a deal, pardoner! That's a deal!"
I didn't say anything for a minute. I wasn't trying to be crafty, I was
just trying to figure out how much money I could afford to pay for that
airplane. "Well... ," I said, "I need to do a little checking ... I'm just not
sure I can swing that ..."
"How the hell much money you got, anyway?" he interrupted. "Just how
the hell much money you got?!"
"I got $5,000," I exploded! "That's how much money I got! I'll give you
$5,000 for that old Pawnee!"
"I'll take $6,000 cash right now!" he screamed, "$6,000! Cash on the
barrel-head! Right now!"
"I'll give you five and a half," I hollered back, realizing, even as I spoke,
that my last mental calculation had given me a bank balance of about
$5,200. But I didn't care. I liked that ugly old airplane and I had made up
my mind to buy it one way or another.
"You gotta deal, you son-of-a-bitch," the voice from San Antonio
screamed back at me! "Just write out a check for five thousand, five
hundred dollars and you can have that sorry old airplane!"
As I started to hand the phone back to the mechanic, I realized that the
voice from San Antonio was still talking. ".... you can take that signed bill
of sale and fill it in later, " he was saying, "but I don't want that airplane
to leave that airport until your check clears the bank! You understand
I didn't say a word. I didn't make a sound. I just handed the telephone
back to the mechanic and went on thumbing through all the tattered,
greasy-finger-printed pieces of paper and the phony logbooks. I was acting
real casual, but I was all excited inside. I had just bought myself a
The mechanic listened on the phone for a long time and every now and
then mumbled a few things. Then he instructed me to make out my check.
He went back to listening to the voice from San Antonio while I wrote a
check for $5,500. I left the "payee" line blank. At the bottom of the check
I wrote, "Complete payment for Piper Pawnee N-6662 Zulu."
The mechanic took the check, studied it unhurriedly, and then "read it"
to his boss. Then he started relaying questions to me about my bank in
"He wants to know about your bank," the mechanic explained.
"What's there to know", I asked? "It's a bank. It's in San Antonio. It's
on a street corner."
The mechanic gave me a wry look, and repeated my reply verbatim into
the telephone. Then he put his hand over the mouthpiece of the phone,
and said, "Now he wants to know, 'Just who is this guy, anyway?'"
"Tell him my name is printed on the check," I said.
The mechanic gave me a big grin. He liked that answer. "This guy says
his name is printed on the check," he said to the voice in San Antonio.
Then he read my name and address for the second time.
The mechanic listened some more. He put his hand over the
mouthpiece again and said, "Now he wants to know if your check is any
"Tell him I said my check's good," I said.
"This guy says his check's good," the mechanic said to the voice in San
I really did have somewhere close to $5,000 in the bank- one of the
more unusual incidents of my life.
The mechanic listened some more. "He wants to know if you have some
I.D.," he said.
"Tell him I said I have some I.D." I said.
"He says to tell you he has some I.D.," he repeated.
The mechanic listened for a while more. Finally, he hung up the phone.
He stood up and gave me a big smile. He shook my hand and said, "You
got yourself a pretty good old airplane there." I smiled too. I gathered up
all the phony papers and my signed bill of sale. I walked out to my pickup,
put all that paperwork under the seat, rolled up the windows and locked
Then I walked straight out to my new airplane. I checked the oil,
peered into the gas tank, and untied it. I climbed into the cockpit, fired up
the engine, and flew off into the sky. I never looked back, and I never
And that's how I came to own "The Sweetest Flying Pawnee in the State