chapter 6

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

mechanic.

    "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

troubles.

    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

the other.

    "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

sits."

    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

him yourself."

    "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

talking.

    "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

now".

    "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

that much.

    "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

old airplane".

    "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

crop-duster!

    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

San Antonio.

    "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

good."

    "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

Antonio.

    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

the doors.

    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

went back.

    And that's how I came to own "The Sweetest Flying Pawnee in the State

of Texas."

********

 

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