chapter 16

Airplane for Sale

Claude was more than just an Airport Bum.  He was a local character as well.  He led a mysterious life.  At least it was mysterious to me.  I never could figure out exactly what he did for a living.  I knew that he owned a Kenworth diesel truck and a flatbed trailer, but I never could figure out what he did with it.  The young man who drove it was, I think, Claude's son-in-law.  I once asked him what he did with it.  He said, "Claude owns it.  I just drive it.  We haul freight and stuff like that."

            Claude had a round little wife, and several sons and daughters. He also had son-in-laws, daughter-in-laws, grandfolks, aunts, nieces, nephews, cousins, grand-kids, and a whole tribe of other folk who all seemed to be related to him one way or another.  He was the head of the clan.  He seemed to be the boss of about 25 or 30 people.

            Claude had a 200-acre farm on the river between Laredo and Zapata.  He and his wife lived in a big old house on the back of their land, and all of his tribe lived in house trailers scattered here and there across that farm.  They farmed and sold produce in Laredo, San Antonio, and Corpus Christi.  Members of his clan regularly loaded pickup trucks with watermelons, onions, carrots, peas, lettuce, cantaloupe, etc., and parked along roadways all over that part of the country.

            Claude must have owned half-a-dozen farm tractors.  They were constantly being overhauled, repaired, re-built, bought, sold, and traded.  He also had a graveyard of old farm equipment that must have covered two or three acres.   Farmers on both sides of the river came to him to find used parts for old farm tractors and equipment.

            Claude and his clan remodeled houses, painted barns, hung wallpaper, sold firewood, and did roofing jobs.  Claude also sold railroad cross-ties and telephone poles.  He bought and sold horses, dogs, hogs, milk cows, and goats.  He also made whiskey.  Good whiskey.  He made sure that I always had an extra bottle on hand.

            I never paid Claude for whiskey, and he never asked me for anything.  Every now and then an unlabeled bottle would just show up in the floorboard of my pick-up truck.  I had enough good sense not to mention it, and to pretend that I had no idea in the world where that good, clear, corn whiskey came from. 

            I think that Claude made whiskey for a lot of other people who didn't get it for free.  But I'm not sure.  Wouldn't say if I was.

            One day Claude showed up out at the airport and announced that he had decided to buy a used airplane.  I pointed out to Claude that his next goal in aviation should be to get a private pilot's license, rather than go out and buy an airplane.  Claude disagreed. He didn't want to fly my Cessna 150 anymore.  He wanted to fly his own airplane.  I gave him my standard speech about all the pitfalls of owning an airplane.

            Claude wasn't interested in listening to one of my speeches.  He wanted to buy an airplane, and he wanted to do it now.

            My standard speech about buying an airplane was very similar to everybody else's standard speech about getting married. 

            My speech included:  "Sometimes you think you are getting one thing, when you are really getting something else."  "It's going to cost a lot more than you think."  "You better be sure that you are doing exactly what you want to do before making this commitment."  "There are big expenses involved here that you probably never thought about."  "Maybe you ought to think about this a few more months before actually doing it," etc., etc.

            Just as nobody ever listens to all those speeches about not getting married, nobody ever listened to my speeches about not buying an airplane.

            Claude sure wasn't listening to me.  He had made up his mind.  He was going to buy an airplane whether I approved or not.  "I own my own car," he argued.  "I own my own house, I own my own pick-up, I own my own place and a bunch of farm tractors.  Why should I rent your airplane?"

            Claude had made up his mind to buy an airplane, and there was no way to change his mind.  He wanted me to help him pick one out.

            For some crazy reason, I agreed.

            As it turned out, Claude had already selected the airplane he wanted to buy.  All he really wanted me to do was assure him that he was making a great choice.  He wasn't. 

            He had picked out an old Aero Commander 100 with cloth-covered wings.  It just so happened that I had flown that particular airplane, and I didn't like it.  It had had some kind of accident, and as a result, it wouldn't fly straight.  It wanted to go through the air a little bit sideways.  I tried to explain to Claude that it had been "bent," but he didn't want to hear it.  He had taken a shine to that old thing. 

            He argued with me for half a day and kept insisting that, "There ain't a damn thing wrong with that airplane except that it don't trim out just exactly right."  By the time he left the airport I was good and mad at him, and he was good and mad at me.

            But he didn't buy that sorry old airplane.

            Claude's next choice was a straight-tailed Cessna 172, with a six-cylinder Continental engine.  Now, a Cessna 172 was my idea of a perfect airplane for a guy like Claude.  But there was a problem with that particular old Cessna 172.  Its engine was worn out.  It had 1300 hours on it and was over ten years out of overhaul.  I could easily flip the prop through with one hand. 

            Claude didn't want to talk about that.  The owner had given him a ride in it and it had flown "just fine."  He wanted me to fly it and see for myself.  I kept insisting that an "old mechanic" like him should be able to see that the engine was worn out twice-over.  He wasn't listening.  He was just like the 19-year-old boy who is in love and wants to get married right now!

            I refused to fly the airplane, and refused to change my mind.  Once again, Claude got good and mad and left.

            But he didn't buy that airplane, either.

            His next choice was a Stinson 108.  He had found it up at San Antonio and was having someone fly it down the next weekend so that I could look at it and agree that it was a great airplane.  Now, a Stinson 108 is a great airplane.  A good one will cruise along as steady as a Douglas DC-3.

             A good Stinson 108 is something a man ought to own.  But this particular Stinson had great big problems.  I knew it had problems the first time I laid eyes on it from 100 yards away.  Claude had assured me that it was the "most beautiful airplane you ever seed," and he was right.  The problem was that I already knew the asking price, and I figured that any airplane that looked that good, and was for sale that cheap, just had to have something bad wrong with it.  It did.

            When I looked over the airplane, it was more than obvious what some of its problems were.  The Stinson is a cloth-covered airplane and the fabric on that airplane had been patched over and over again. I expected that it wouldn't pass the airworthiness test at the upcoming annual inspection.  The reason that the plane looked so good was that it had been given a first class paint job.  It had been sprayed with a light brown, high quality enamel, and the trim was in a darker shade of brown.  It shined like a brand new Mexican gold piece.

            Claude had opened the cabin door and was demanding that I look inside.  I dreaded looking inside that wonderful old airplane because I had an idea what I would see.  Yep, it was beautiful. 

            It was one of those post-war airplanes that had been upholstered like a Rolls Royce.  The seats were rolled and pleated leather.  The trim around the instrument panel and the side panels was genuine polished hardwood.  The overhead panels, the baggage compartment, the side pockets, the seats -all showed the patience and craftsmanship that had gone into assembling that fine old airplane.  That Stinson 108 looked like it should have been on the way to the Smithsonian for display along with the memorabilia of Wiley Post and Amelia Earhart.

            I was chewing on my tongue to keep from saying anything.  I wanted to own that airplane myself.  I could have sat in the cockpit of that Stinson and day-dreamed all day, but I tore myself away and walked forward to give the engine a once-over.      The engine was a 150 H.P. Franklin, and I groaned inside as I noted that it was the notorious "light case" model.  I stuck my finger in the exhaust stack and wiped out a layer of oil, soot, and carbon.  That old engine had been burning oil like it owned stock in Exxon.

            I got Claude away from that airplane and back over to one side of the ramp.  Then I started trying to tell him about the problems. Claude really exploded this time.  He accused me of "not wanting him to own an airplane."  He insisted that the Stinson was "the most beautiful airplane in the world," and "the price was right." 

            I argued that if he got that airplane for free, he still wouldn't have enough money to get it into airworthy condition.  But Claude wasn't listening.  He let me know real quick that the days of him turning to me for advise had "come to an end."

            He left the airport mad.

            But he didn't buy that old airplane, either.

            For a couple of months after that, Claude didn't come out to the airport.  I had just about decided that I would never see him again.

Then one day an old Cessna 170 taxied up to the hangar and parked at a tie-down spot.  The fellow who was flying it explained that he had been instructed to leave it there for some guy. 

            About an hour later, Claude showed up.  He wanted to know how I liked his new airplane.  He had already bought that Cessna, and wasn't going to give me a chance to veto the sale.

            I looked over the old airplane and it seemed to be in pretty good shape.  It had a fresh Annual Inspection, and the engine had good, even compression on all six cylinders.  The logbook showed that it had been overhauled about 700 hours earlier.  The radio was an old eight channel nav-com that I really didn't think was much good, but all in all, it looked like a pretty sound flying machine. There was only one problem. 

            "You don't know how to fly a tail-wheel airplane," I pointed out to Claude.  He had already thought about that.  It wasn't going to be any problem at all, he explained, he had it all figured out.

            "You're going to teach me how," he informed me.

            "Like hell, I am", I said!

            "Well, you're my flight instructor. You have to teach me how," Claude argued.

            "Like hell, I do," I said.

Soon after that Claude pled his case to all the other airport bums.  To a man, they agreed.  It was my responsibility.  I was Claude's flight instructor, and I had to teach him how to fly a tail-dragger. 

            Now, as most pilots know, flying a "tail-dragger" is a whole lot different than flying a "three-wheeled" airplane.  Handling a tail-wheel airplane during takeoff and landing requires much more active use of the rudder pedals to maintain directional control.  If a pilot without experience in a tail wheel airplane tries to fly one without being properly checked out, he will very likely lose control on takeoff or landing and end up with the aircraft spinning down the runway, knocking off parts as it goes.  Many of these "ground loops" have ended up with the airplane flipped over on its back.

            Most modern aircraft have a tricycle landing gear, and as the years go by, fewer and fewer pilots have the skill and savvy to competently handle a tail-dragger.  Many a fine old airplane has been destroyed by some cocky pilot who figured that an ancient cloth-covered airplane shouldn't be any big deal to fly.

            I really dreaded the idea of getting Claude checked out in that airplane, but I needed the work.

            So it was back to shooting landings with Claude.  'Round and 'round that airport traffic pattern we flew, until I thought we were going to wear ruts in the concrete runway.  Now, for a tail-dragger, the Cessna 170 is a real docile airplane to land.   It's not nearly as prone to "swap ends" as some tail-draggers.  There's nothing squirrely about it, and the average pilot can be handling it safely after a couple of hours of dual instruction.  Mostly, it's just learning what to expect, and disciplining yourself to maintain directional control at all times.

            Things didn't go quite that smoothly with Claude.  He would fly a perfect approach and kiss the main tires onto the runway just as pretty as you please.  Then the nose would begin to swing one way or another and he wouldn't do anything about it for a few moments.  Then he would over-compensate by slamming one rudder all the way to the floor.  This would rapidly result in the airplane swinging around in the opposite direction, usually followed by another correction that was too late and too hard.  He was just way behind the airplane.  Every time he tried to correct a problem, he over corrected, and when he finally got around to trying to correct the new problem, the airplane would be well on its way to doing something entirely different.

            While all this effort to maintain directional control is going on, the pilot has to maintain elevator control to keep the airplane from bouncing down the runway.  He also needs to use little bursts of power when a more positive rudder response is needed.  And of course, he has to maintain aileron control to keep the wings level with the horizon.  Claude just wasn't able to master all this stuff at the same time.

            The more landings we made, the wilder they got.  The airplane would end up bouncing insanely down the runway, swerving first one way and then the other.  Claude would sit there throwing the flight controls from lock to lock, sweating, cussing, elbows everywhere, and jamming the throttle in an out. 

            His landings deteriorated from "not bad" to "downright terrifying."  Claude would be wildly shoving and heaving on the controls, cussing a blue streak, and I would be sitting there sweating bullets and trying to tell him what he was doing wrong.  Of course, I was as mixed up and far behind in my talking as he was in his flying.  When things got really wild, I would end up screaming at him and frantically clawing at the flight controls when the life of the aircraft was clearly in jeopardy.

            After about a dozen attempts to land that thing, each more scary than the last, I told Claude that I thought he had knocked enough rivets out of his new airplane for one day and that we ought to call it quits.

            This sort of thing went on nearly everyday for the next two weeks.  I soon reverted to my previous practice of pretending to be a disinterested bystander.  I would just keep my mouth shut and hang on for dear life.

But Claude was learning.  He had simply gone back to teaching himself.  My only duty was to act as damage control officer, and nothing else.  Over time, Claude's reactions grew more timely and his skills gradually improved.   Slowly, he came to master that old airplane.

            The time came when my presence in the cockpit was no longer necessary, and I stopped riding with him on his countless trips around the pattern.  

            Claude was a slow learner.   But he was a good learner.  He became a master at compensating for engine torque on take-off, and he would roll that old 170 straight down the center line of the runway like it was on railroad tracks.  He could fly a final approach in a crosswind, and compensate for drift by crabbing down the glide slope with the needle and ball perfectly centered.  He could flare out a few feet above the surface, gently swing the fuselage into alignment with the runway, and cross-control with the ailerons to set up the prettiest slip you ever saw.  He could touch down on one main tire, add gentle bursts of throttle if the rudder got a little "soft", and let the aircraft settle gracefully to the runway.  It only took about a million landings for him to figure this all out. 

            But once he did figure it out, he figured it out good.  He could land that old Cessna as slick as a Pan Am pilot pasting on a Boeing 707 with the company president on board.

            I got to be downright proud of Claude, and took secret pride in knowing that he was always bragging about how I taught him how to fly.  Looking back, I think I must have learned something from the many sweaty hours I spent with him in the cockpit of an old airplane trying to teach him the gentle art of landing an airplane.

            But I'm not just exactly sure what it was.




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