chapter 15

Claude Gets Airborne

At the Old Laredo Airport we had a very dedicated corps of airport bums.  These were all kinds of guys.  The one thing they had in common was that they loved to hang out around old airports and talk about flying airplanes.   Most of them had flown airplanes at one time or another in their lives, but their current association with airplanes was pretty much limited to talking about flying. 

The weekend was when most of these fellows showed up "out at the airport," but sometimes one or two of them would show up during the week.  One of their favorite hangouts was around Bob's hangar.  Every Saturday morning two or three of these fellows would be sitting in Bob's office drinking coffee.  They would answer the telephone and take messages for Bob, or me, or any of the other pilots who more or less operated out of there. 

Often they would wander up and down the ramp during the day and drop in on the other aviation operations at the airport.  But it was pretty well understood that their base of operations was Bob's hangar.

            For the most part, these guys weren't any problem.  They would try to stay out of the way, and could always be depended on to help out when we needed it.  They loved to push airplanes in and out of the hangar, and if we needed someone to pick up a part downtown, one of them would always be happy to do it. 

            An airport bum could be a real help sometimes.  If one of us needed to be driven to another airport to pick up an airplane, one of them could always be found to do the job. 

            Nothing made a genuine Airport Bum happier than calling him up in the middle of the night, explaining some predicament that had unfolded, and asking him to drive you a hundred miles to another airport to pick up some old airplane that absolutely had to be here "first thing in the morning."  If the guy wasn't busy having a heart attack he would be out to the airport quick as a flash.

            If a crop-duster blew a cylinder at some remote little dirt strip in the bush, an Airport Bum could usually be found to drive lickety-split to San Antonio, pick up a fresh cylinder, and deliver it to some end-of-the-world dirt strip.

            From time to time an airport bum would suddenly appear with a fresh pizza, or a bag of donuts, or out-of-the-blue buy a sack-full of hamburgers for the whole crew.  A couple of them had assumed the responsibility of keeping Bob's refrigerator stocked with beer.  Of course, by dark Saturday night they had drunk most of it, but it was a nice gesture.

            Personally, I always got along fine with Airport Bums.  I happen to think that men who hang around airports every weekend make a much better contribution to the moral and social aspects of the community than do men who hang around beer joints every weekend.  When I grow old, I fully intend to spend much of my spare time as an Airport Bum, and I hope I can find a little back-water airport somewhere where the pilots and mechanics will be as tolerant of me as I have been with the airport bums I have known over the years.

Claude was a hardcore airport bum.  He would show up every Saturday morning and not go home till dark.  He would start at Bob's office, and before the day was over, visit with every mechanic and pilot on the flight line.  Between times, he and several of the other airport bums would lean against the wings of various aircraft and talk about the old days and their past adventures with airplanes.

Claude had been an aircraft mechanic and radio operator in World War II.  He served in the Navy and knew all about those old carrier-based planes that were used in the Pacific.  He would catch me "mechanicing" on some general-aviation airplane and tell me long stories about working on Hell Cats, and Dauntless Dive Bombers, and Avengers.  He assured me more than once that if I ever needed help working on a Chance-Vought Corsair, he was just the guy to call on. I promised him I would.

            Claude had evidently done a lot of flying as a crewmember, but he had never been a pilot.  He had always wanted to be a pilot, though.  One day he was hanging around the airport and casually asked me if I thought he was too old to learn to fly. 

            I made the mistake of assuring him that he wasn't too old.  I gave him my standard little "student pilot" speech, all about how "anybody can learn to fly an airplane if they really want to and are willing to work hard." 

            I was always selling the idea of learning to fly because I needed work as a flight instructor to supplement my income as a crop-duster.  This was particularly true during those times of the year when the agriculture flying was slow.  Of course, in Claude's case, I never expected that he would ever actually take me up on wanting to learn to fly. 

            At that time I owned half interest in a Cessna 150 with a local aircraft mechanic.  He was also a flight instructor, and we both made a little extra money giving dual instruction in it. 

            One Saturday morning Claude showed up out at the airport and informed me that he was ready to start flying.  He gave me a check right then for the cost of ten hours of dual instruction.  I was happy to have the money, but I wasn't sure I could actually teach that old airport bum how to fly.

            To my surprise, Claude could handle an airplane pretty well in the air.  Later, he explained that he had gotten "lots and lots" of stick time during his Navy days. 

            The problem with Claude was teaching him to land an airplane.  He could fly pretty well until we actually got lined up for landing. But the closer we got to the runway, the wilder he got.  After one particularly wild session, he admitted to me that over the years at least a "dozen or so" flight instructors had tried to teach him how to land an airplane.  They had all given up.

            I could see why.  Even after Claude's paid-up ten hours of flight instruction had been used up, his attempts at landings were still wild and unpredictable.  They could be downright scary to anybody who happened to be watching from the ground.  They were pretty scary for those of us watching from inside the airplane, too.

            Even after he had finally learned to keep the aircraft more or less on the glide path on final approach, I could never tell when he was going to decide to make his flare for landing.  Sometimes he would flare out early, and let the airplane stall and drop to the runway like a load of lumber falling of a truck.  At other times, he wouldn't flare at all, and only immediate action on my part would keep the aircraft from being flown straight into the concrete runway.

            Sometimes he would jerk the wheel over hard and stand the airplane on a wing tip just as we were coming over the end of the runway.  Sometimes he would attempt to correct a minor drift problem by suddenly slamming one rudder pedal to the floor, and standing hard on it while I clawed at the controls and hollered myself hoarse.

            After this had gone on for a couple of months, I was beginning to get a bit discouraged, but not Claude.  He was as determined as ever and continued to pay for his flying time "up front."

            One weekday morning Claude showed up out at the airport.  There was nothing unusual about this since Claude was always showing up out at the airport.  But that particular morning I was working on the 450 H.P. engine on my old Stearman, trying yet again to get all the bugs worked out of that oil-burning monster.

            After Mr. Woodchuck had overhauled my prop, that old airplane ran 100% smoother, but she still had chronic problems.  It seemed that I was spending all my spare time working on her.

            Right away Claude decided that the best place for him to do his airport bumming that morning was hanging around my toolbox and giving me advice.   Watching me work on that old Pratt & Whitney radial got him to reminiscing about his Navy days "back in the war." Big P&W and Wright radial engines had powered all the aircraft he had worked on back in those days.

            I explained my problem to Claude, at his insistence.

            The problem with that old Pratt & Whitney, I explained, was that it was a "shake and bake" motor.  It would run smooth for a while, and then go to shaking and backfiring like crazy.  When it went into one of these fits, it would rattle your teeth out of your jawbone, and flying it for three or four hours left a man feeling like he had just gone ten rounds with John L. Sullivan. 

            The oil temperature would also start going up when it went into one of its fits.  In an effort to fix this problem, I had changed spark plugs about forty times, replaced all the ignition harnesses, gone through the carburetor, and overhauled both magnetos.   I did a compression check on all nine cylinders half-a-dozen different times, and they always checked out within limits.  I couldn't think of anything else to do, so I just went back to checking those same things over and over.

            After listening to my long tale of engine problems, Claude informed me that I "just didn't understand" radial engines.   He assured me that my engine was "sucking air from somewhere, and leaning down the mixture." 

            I knew that Claude didn't know what he was talking about, and I ignored him in hopes that he would wander off down the airport and find somebody else to pester.

            But Claude wasn't about to leave.  He wanted to get all involved in my engine problem.   He wanted to tell me everything he ever knew about airplane engines and how to fix them.   He wanted to tell me stories about life as a mechanic on an aircraft carrier in wartime.   He wanted to tell me tales of Hell Cats, and Corsairs, and Hornet engines.   He wanted to tell me about kamikazes, and enemy torpedoes, and little lost atolls in the South Pacific.   

            Mostly, Claude wanted to drive me nuts.  Then he started asking me questions.  He asked me if I had checked all the induction tubes for hairline cracks.  I told him that that wasn't the problem.  I knew good and well that the problem was either the carburetor or the ignition system, and that I was just about fed up with him standing around giving me advice and telling me war stories and insisting that I didn't know what I was doing. 

But Claude didn't even take notice of my insults, and kept insisting that I pull the induction tubes and inspect them.  He was determined to help.  He started fishing wrenches out of my toolbox to take loose those induction tubes, and every time I tried to move he was standing in my way and talking.  Finally, to humor him, I removed one of the induction tubes and inspected it.  It had a hairline crack right at the base that went over halfway around it.

I pulled all nine tubes and five of them were cracked at the base.  One of the tubes was cracked all the way around and showed signs of having been cracked for many, many hours. That old engine had been running rough and back-firing any time the heat and the vibration had let one of those cracks work open a little bit and suck in air to lean down the mixture to that cylinder.

            I had to admit that Claude had been right all along.

            Claude was real proud of himself for helping me find that problem.  It was just exactly the sort of thing that airport bums lived to tell about.  And Claude told about it.  Over and over.  He told the story up and down the airport about four hundred times, and in several different versions.  It continued to be one of his best stories for as long as I knew him.  I didn't mind, in fact, I did a lot of bragging on him myself.

            This success as a mechanic got Claude's mind off of learning to fly for several weeks.  He seemed to be content with having proved himself to be the world's greatest aircraft mechanic, and I had hopes that he was going to leave the job of being the world's greatest pilot to somebody else.  I was pretty sure that he wouldn't be pestering me to give him any more flight instruction.

            But I was wrong.

            About a month after he had found the problem with my 450 Stearman, he appeared one morning out at the airport and asked me if I had anything planned to do that day.  I allowed that I didn't have anything planned.  He then informed me that he wanted me to teach him how to land an airplane, "today".  He emphasized the "today" part.  I could tell he was dead serious.

            We dragged out the Cessna 150 and got started.

            As it turned out, Claude did learn how to land an airplane that day.  But I didn't teach him.  He finally figured it out all by himself.  I just went along for the ride, and intervened as necessary to keep from getting killed. 

            I had made up my mind to try an entirely new training technique.  I decided that I wouldn't say a single word to Claude as long as we were in flight.  I explained this to Claude and he assured me that that was fine with him.  Since he never paid any attention to anything I said, I guess it really didn't make him any difference one way or the other. 

We got in the airplane and flew around the countryside for about half-an-hour.  After we landed we parked the airplane on the end of the runway, killed the motor, and got out and talked about it. 

On the next flight we stayed in the pattern, shot a landing, and parked at the end of the runway.  We did this over and over again.  I would never allow him to make a touch-and-go.  Every time we landed, we would shut down the airplane and get out of it. 

            Sometimes we would talk about the landing, sometimes we talked about something else.  Sometimes we wouldn't talk at all.  Sometimes we would shut down for only five minutes.  Sometimes we would park and go drink a cup of coffee.  At noon, we went downtown and ate a hamburger. 

            After lunch, we went back to shooting landings.  I hardly said a single word all afternoon.  When we parked, I only talked if Claude wanted to talk.  By late in the afternoon, we would make two or three landings without either one of us saying a single word.  Over an eleven-hour period, we flew a little over five hours.  All we did was takeoff and land, takeoff and land, takeoff and land.  We must have gone around that airport a million times.  But Claude didn't seem to be a bit tired, and we both knew that he was getting better with every landing.

            About an hour before sundown we stopped and had a little talk. When it was time to shoot another landing, I suggested that he go make a few trips around the pattern "by himself."

            Claude made three perfect landings, and we shut down for the night.

            After thirty years, Claude had finally soloed!  He couldn't have been prouder if he had been the first man on the moon.




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