chapter 17

Stealing Airplanes II

††††††††††† After Claude bought his own airplane he became something more than just an ordinary airport bum.He became an airport bum of distinction.If the airport bums at The Old Laredo Airport had actually formed an airport bums club, Claude would have had a good shot at being elected president.

††††††††††† Now when he showed up out at the airport he often brought several of his family members with him.He would usually begin his day by making two or three landings, then he would park his airplane right in front of Bob's hangar.

††††††††††† His crew would then go to work.There would be sons and uncles, wives and husbands, kids and dogs, old and young.They would all fall in and wash and polish that Cessna till I thought they were going to rub right through the aluminum skin.His wife and daughters and daughter-in-laws would search down the very last crumb in the floorboards, and capture the very last fluff of lint that happened to be floating around the instrument panel.

††††††††††† Claude never did any of this work.He would just stand around and give instructions to his crew.He might inspect one little area on the horizontal stabilizer, and if he so much as gave even the slightest little frown, two or three people would immediately show up with rags and polish it half to death.

††††††††††† When all this work seemed to be going well, Claude would stroll off down the airport and talk things over with all the other airport bums.They would wander off somewhere and get a cup of coffee, or check up on all the aircraft repair jobs that they knew all about just to be sure everything was going O.K.

††††††††††† By the time Claude would finally get back to Bob's hangar his airplane would be shining like a brass doorknob.Then Claude would pass out money to his folks and they would all head off down the airport to get a coke of their own.Claude was not only the Captain of his own aircraft, he also had a dedicated ground crew who thought he had hung the moon.

††††††††††† Claude had indeed become an airport bum of distinction.

††††††††††† But there was still one big obstacle between Claude and his ultimate goal in life.He still had to pass the flight check for his private pilot's license.In time Claude felt he was ready to start on this new challenge and he dutifully reported to me, his flight instructor.

††††††††††† I refused the assignment.I was back flying crop-dusters pretty regularly, and it looked like I wasn't going to starve to death after all.Besides, I figured that I had taught Claude to fly, somebody else could teach him how to get a pilot's license. They weren't at all the same thing.

††††††††††† I refused to fly anymore with Claude, and as always, he got mad.

††††††††††† But Claude soon found another flight instructor, and learned all about VOR Radios, airport control zones, filing flight plans, in-route flight reporting procedures, Federal Air Regulation Part 61, Federal Air Regulation Part 91, rules and more rules, and a lot of other stuff that I was never very good at anyway.†††††

††††††††††† In time, Claude got his Private Pilot's license and all the airport bums threw him a party.When I learned that the party was scheduled to be in Bob's hangar, I suggested that maybe they ought to invite Bob.They thought that was a great idea, and they not only invited Bob, they invited me and everybody else that had anything at all to do with The Old Laredo Airport.

††††††††††† It was a grand party.

††††††††††† Starting the next day, Claude began giving airplane rides to all his family members.He only flew them one at a time, which I thought was a good idea.Claude's airplane had four seats in it, but he was smart enough not to load it up all at once.Over the next couple of weeks Claude must have given airplane rides to two dozen people.He gave airplane rides to all his airport bum buddies, and to all the mechanics, gas boys, line helpers, and janitors on the airport who wanted to go.

††††††††††† He even insisted on giving an airplane ride to me.That was an odd experience, riding as a passenger in Claude's airplane.

††††††††††† About this time Claude started making short little cross-country trips every week or two.He would load up two or three family members or friends and fly to Alice, or McAllen, or Uvalde, or one of the other little towns not more than a couple of hours away.

††††††††††† As well as I ever came to understand these weekend trips, they would land at some little airport and hitch a ride into town.Then they would go to the best restaurant in town and Claude would buy everybody a chicken fried steak.They would then hang around whatever little town they were in and "check it out."Then they would fly back to Laredo well before it got dark.

††††††††††† It seems that Claude's talents were not limited to his abilities as a pilot, a mechanic, a farmer, a moonshiner, a carpenter, a clan chieftain, and all-around wheeler-dealer.He was also something of an expert on chicken fried steaks.For days after one of these trips Claude would give impromptu lectures on the chicken fried steaks and the all around quality of life in whatever little town they had recently visited.††††††

††††††††††† Soon after these cross-country trips began, Claude started complaining to me about that old eight-channel nav-com. radio.As I had pretty well guessed, it didn't work worth a darn.

††††††††††† One afternoon Claude came in and told me that he had decided to buy an ADF.(An ADF is an "automatic direction finder" radio used strictly for navigation.)

††††††††††† I pointed out to him that if he wanted to spend money on a new radio, he should replace that old Nav/Com with a modern Nav/Com, rather than buy an ADF.(A Nav/Com is a combination navigation/communications radio.It provides two-way communication between the aircraft and the ground, and also receives a VOR signal used in navigation.This is a very common radio that enables the pilot to not only communicate, but also to navigate by utilizing the many VOR stations that are operated strictly for this purpose.)

††††††††††† Claude kept insisting that his present communications radio worked "plenty good enough", and he wanted an ADF because he knew "all about" traveling long distances using ADF for navigation.

††††††††††† He went on to tell me a series of long interwoven stories about how he had spent some time as an assistant crew chief on a PBY flying boat in the Pacific.I think this had been just after the war.Anyway, he had used some old low band ADF radio "all the time" to pick up signals around the Philippine Islands, and Okinawa, and Formosa.There was no doubt in his mind that he needed to have an ADF in his Cessna 170.Besides, he explained, he knew where he could get "a good deal."

††††††††††† I didnít bother to get in an argument about it.I didnít have a lot of opinions about radios anyway.For the most part, I wasnít much interested in radios.Most of the airplanes I flew every day didnít have radios, and I seldom used a radio even when I had one.I stayed away from big airports and high traffic areas, and one of the things I always liked about flying is that it got me away from people that wanted to talk to me.As for navigation, I flew all over South Texas with nothing but a sectional chart, and seldom even looked at a compass.

††††††††††† So I really wasnít overly interested in Claudeís radio problems.

††††††††††† About a month later he showed up and told me he had something he wanted to show me.It was in the trunk of his car. Claude had bought a used ADF system.It was an old military rig and he had picked it up at a military surplus auction in San Antonio.He had got it "for a song."

††††††††††† It looked to me like something that had been pulled out of a

B-29.The radio was a black steel box half the size of a washing machine.It included an antenna, a compass indicator, a control head, a power supply, and about half a mile of wiring harness.It completely filled up the trunk of his car and must have weighed a ton.I didn't know much about radios, but I could see that this outfit was big, old, heavy, and chock full of vacuum tubes.I was careful not to say anything bad about this bargain, and only made a casual remark about finding a radio shop to install it in his airplane.Claude had already figured that all out.It wasn't going to be any problem at all.

††††††††††† "I'm going to get you to install it, " he explained.

††††††††††† After that we had a not too long conversation after which he slammed his trunk lid and drove away mad.

††††††††††† About a month later he came by and told me that he had made a deal with a radio shop in San Antonio to make the installation for him. It was going to cost him"approximately $500.00."That all sounded fine to me.

††††††††††† Soon after that I left Laredo to work in The Winter Garden area around Crystal City.I spent that fall and winter spraying winter vegetables between Crystal City, Uvalde, and Dilley.In the spring I located back to Laredo to start the brush run with Bob.

††††††††††† I had just about forgotten about Claude and his ADF radio.

††††††††††† One afternoon he showed up out at the airport mad as hell.He started in complaining to me as though we had been talking only yesterday.It seems his airplane had been sitting in front of a radio shop on Stinson Field all winter, and they hadn't done a darn thing to it.

††††††††††† In fact, the radio man who had been given the job of installing that ADF had argued that it was all a bad idea.He insisted that the electrical system of that little airplane didn't even have enough power to fire up that radio, much less operate it for extended flights.Claude intended to go to San Antonio that coming weekend to get the radio man "off his duff and back to work."He had just bought a brand new battery for his aircraft and he knew good and well that it could power that radio "just fine."

††††††††††† I didn't have a lot to say about all this.

††††††††††† He showed up about a week later madder than ever.They had installed the antenna by now, but that was all.He had gone to them and told them that he had decided to take his airplane to another shop, but they had refused to refund the $500 he had given them "up front."This was the first time I had heard about the up front money.

††††††††††† They had also informed him that the total installation charge was going to be "about $1800."Claude had left there sure enough mad, but not before checking his airplane and discovering that they had removed his brand new battery.

††††††††††† I pointed out that this was a normal thing to do when working on an aircraft radio system, but Claude was absolutely sure that they had taken out his battery to prevent him from getting away with his airplane.Claude had made up his mind that he wanted to get his airplane off that ramp and back home.

††††††††††† I pointed out that even if he was able to get his airplane back home, there was no way he would be able to get his ADF radio back.That didn't bother Claude.

††††††††††† "I don't need that damn old ADF anyway," he said.

††††††††††† I couldn't help but agree, but I didn't make the mistake of saying so.

††††††††††† A couple of days later Claude showed up again.He had a plan.His plan went like this: I was going to drive him to Stinson Field and install a new battery.He would then get into his airplane and fly back to Laredo.This was all going to take place on a Sunday when there wasn't anybody around.

††††††††††† This whole thing sounded crazy to me so I tried to discourage him by pointing out that there would be people around, and somebody would probably recognize him and call a security guard.I didn't have any idea whether or not they had security guards at Stinson Field, but it made a better argument.

††††††††††† Claude thought about all that for a little while and finally decided that I was probably right.

††††††††††† "O.K.," he said."You fly the airplane.Nobody will recognize you. "

††††††††††† We discussed that for about half-a-minute, after which Claude got mad and left.

††††††††††† Meanwhile, that year's brush run was turning out to be a dud.Cattle prices had been down all year and few of the ranchers had any extra money to spend on brush control.We were getting a little 2-4-D work on pastures, but neither Bob nor me was making much money.††††††††††† I was starting to beat the bushes for somebody wanting to learn to fly, but most of the would-be student pilots didn't have any cash to turn loose of either.I knew I wouldn't be doing much spraying until the cotton and grain started coming in in another month or so. I was not only going broke, I was getting bored.

††††††††††† And a funny thing was starting to happen.Claude kept coming around every day or two and discussing "our plan", and without ever really consciously thinking about it, I began to ponder the logical way to get Claude's Airplane back to Laredo.The more Claude talked, the goofier his plan became.He was talking about taking half his family to Stinson Field to serve as "lookouts", and to "draw the attention of the security guards."

††††††††††† One day I got good and mad at all Claude's crazy scheming and, in some bizarre twisting of my mental process, found myself arguing that "if I'm going to get mixed up in this stupid deal, I'm damn well going to do it my way!"

††††††††††† Claude said that was fine with him.

††††††††††† My plan was bare bones simple.Claude would drive me to the airport on a Sunday afternoon and remain in the car.I emphasized the part about his remaining in the car.I wasn't about to go out there and fool around with him trying to install a battery.That airplane would fly just fine without any electrical power, it just wouldn't have a starter motor, lights, or a radio.None of this was any big deal to me.

††††††††††† I planned to go directly from the parking lot to the pay telephone by the operations shack and make a call to the tower operator.I would explain that my radio was inoperative and request permission to depart the airport under light-gun signals.I would then go out to the ramp, give the airplane a quick pre-flight, and prop it by hand.After the motor was running smoothly, I would untie the airplane, taxi out to the end of the runway, and await a green light signal before making my takeoff.

††††††††††† I would then simply fly to Laredo and pretend that I didn't know anything about anything.I thought this was a pretty good plan.

††††††††††† Claude agreed with my plan 100%.I think he particularly liked the part about his staying in the car in the parking lot.

††††††††††† Several days went by.It had been raining off and on for several weeks.It was one of those cool, drizzly, foggy springs. Claude kept showing up almost every day and getting on my nerves.Although he had assured me that he agreed with my plan "100%", he had all kinds of ideas about how it could be made even better.Every day he had a different idea.Most of his ideas were based upon the inclusion of "Butch and Eugene", who were evidently his nephews, or son-in-laws, or cousins, or something.Maybe they were his neighbors.

††††††††††† Anyway, Claude was convinced that we needed these two stalwarts to assist us in pulling off the heist.Every day he had a new idea about how they could fulfill some essential function.They soon graduated from being "lookouts", to being"guards".†† Then they were going to go onto the airport ahead of us and "report back."

††††††††††† I had only a vague idea as to who these fellows were, but I knew I didn't want them anywhere within a hundred miles when I went to get that airplane.The one modification to my plan that was becoming more and more attractive to me was the elimination of Claude.††

††††††††††† All I really needed was for somebody to drive me to Stinson Field, and I would have much rather have had one of the other airport bums do the job.But there was no getting away from Claude, who was getting angrier every day.

††††††††††† Just about the time Claude was about to drive me completely nuts, a late season cold front moved through and swept out every cloud in the State of Texas.The next day was Sunday and Claude and I headed for San Antonio.For some reason or another, we got away late.Claude talked nonstop all the way.

††††††††††† Stinson Field was almost deserted when we parked in the parking lot.I went over to the pay phone and called the control tower.I could tell that the tower operator was bored, and it wasn't any problem getting permission to depart on light signals.

††††††††††† I walked out to that Cessna 170 and the first thing I saw was that the tail wheel tie-down chain was secured with a great big padlock.Apparently somebody had been concerned that the aircraft would disappear.I was relieved.I walked back to the car and told Claude that the whole deal was off because the airplane was locked down.I was ready to drive back to Laredo.Not Claude.

††††††††††† "That ain't no problem," he assured me.Then he opened the trunk of his car and took out a tire tool.Then he walked out to his airplane.I made up my mind to stay in the parking lot, but ended up following him out on the ramp anyway.††

††††††††††† Claude squatted down by the tail of his airplane.He inserted the tire tool through the hasp of the lock and started "winding it up."When that chain was wound up good and tight, he gave a couple of extra heaves and that lock cracked open like a day-old pretzel.

††††††††††† Claude put the lock in his pocket while I climbed up on each wing and peered inside both fuel tanks.They both looked to be about 3/4 full.I knew that would be plenty of fuel for the 150 mile flight to Laredo.I drained the fuel sump and both tanks.I was a little bit concerned at the amount of water I drained out of those tanks.I had to drain about a quart out of each side before they began to run clear fuel.All this time Claude was pacing back and forth and talking a blue streak.

††††††††††† I opened the cabin door, put the fuel mixture to rich, cracked the throttle, and put the magneto switch to "left."I then walked around to the nose of the aircraft and swung the prop through one time.That old motor belched, gulped, shook, and coughed a time or two.Then it settled down to running as smooth as an eight day clock.I felt better immediately.Throughout this whole business there had not been a single other person anywhere in sight.

††††††††††† I crawled into the cockpit and looked things over.Everything seemed to be in good order and I motioned to Claude to untie my wings.I then taxied out to the end of the runway just like any ordinary more or less law-abiding pilot would normally do.

††††††††††† Everything about that little airplane checked out fine.The magneto drops weren't more than a slight flick on the tachometer, and that motor was running smooth as velvet.I swung the tail around to face the control tower, and was greeted by a steady green light.

††††††††††† Takeoff was sweet and smooth, and turning out of the traffic pattern I was unexpectedly caught up in the beauty of the closing day.I felt better than I had felt all winter, and even caught myself smiling.

††††††††††† I swung the airplane around to a heading of about 195į, and headed to Laredo.I gave her a little extra airspeed by keeping the nose low on a long fast climb-out.Out to the west I could see the sun just starting to go down.It was one of those once in a lifetime evenings when there is not one single speck of haze or a dust particle in the air.†† The sky overhead was a deep purple, and an arc around the setting sun was a brilliant shining red.

††††††††††† There was not a bump in the air.The only sound was the murmur of that sweet little 145 H.P. Continental.Sitting there alone in that softly vibrating cockpit, and watching the sun slip off beyond the curve of the earth, I was suddenly startled by the solitude and peace that swept over me.The doubts and regrets of winter melted away, and I knew that I was occupying my correct place within a chaotic universe.It was one of those rare moments when a man suddenly understands beyond any doubt that it had all been worth while.

††††††††††† At 3000 feet I eased the nose over and let the airspeed increase to about 110 MPH.Then I slowly eased the throttle back to cruise power, and settled back for a nice little cruise to Laredo.

††††††††††† Then the motor stopped running.It didn't cough and it didn't spit. It didn't backfire or shake or sputter or anything.It just stopped running.It was just as if I had reached up and turned off the magneto switches.The propeller kept wind-milling, and the engine was still turning through with a quiet wispy noise.But it wasn't running.

††††††††††† This was not the first time I had ever been in an airplane that suddenly "got quiet."I had been there before, and I knew what to expect.I expected my guts to jerk into a hard knot.I expected the adrenaline to flood throughout my body.I expected my eyes to stare, and my hands to clutch.

††††††††††† But none of that happened.

††††††††††† I just sat there calmly and thought, "Hmmmmm, my motor'sstopped running.Guess I didn't get all the water drained out of those fuel tanks after all."

††††††††††† Even as I was making this casual observation, one part of my mind was puzzling over my lack of concern.Evidently my mind was so content with the pleasant aspects of the flight, it just wasn't going to get all upset over a minor little problem like the eminence of a forced landing in strange country.

††††††††††† I guess I just wasn't in the mood to panic.

††††††††††† I knew as plain as anything that I was now sailing around in an airplane with its carburetor full of pure rainwater.No doubt there had been a lot more water in those fuel tanks than I had drained out, and when I had leveled off, that water flowed from the rear of those tanks and covered the outlet to the fuel lines.

††††††††††† I eased the nose over and set up a glide at about 80 MPH.I absentmindedly went through the routine checks.I cycled the fuel valve, flipped the magnetos to "Off", and then back to "On", moved the mixture from stop to stop, and pulled out the carburetor heat control.†† Nothing changed.†† All this time I was looking out the window for a likely place to park that Cessna.The altimeter was unwinding past 2000 feet, and in the twilight it was difficult to distinguish between the open fields and the wooded areas.

††††††††††† There was a small lake out of my left window, and I remembered that a couple of years earlier I had landed at a little grass field that was next to a small lake just south of Stinson Field.The name of that little grass field was Horizon Airport, a popular gathering spot for sport flyers and airplane buffs fed-up with big city airports.It was a fine little field, and that particular evening it was just exactly where I needed it to be.

††††††††††† I had to stretch my glide a little bit to get setup on a right base to Horizon's broad grass runway.But there was no worry in my mind that I might fall short.From the moment my engine quit, I never had even the slimmest concern that that beautiful flight might end in disaster.I knew as well as I had ever known anything in my life that everything was going to work out all right.Sure enough, everything was falling into place perfectly, and I felt as relaxed as if I had been sitting on the end of a fishing pier and lazily watching a cork.

††††††††††† Turning in on final approach I glanced back out to the west where the whole sky was shining a golden red.More than anything, I wanted to climb back up to altitude for a few more moments and watch that glorious sunset that was slipping forever from my life.

††††††††††† The tires swished along the grass and settled softly against the turf.I rolled over to the parking area.†† Horizon was abandoned.I tied down the airplane and found a pay telephone.

††††††††††† It was several days before we finally got Claude's airplane back to Laredo.Claude was worried half to death throughout the whole operation, and he never stopped talking for one minute.

Best of all, it gave Claude one more great story to tell to all the other airport bums and anybody else he could get to stand still long enough to hear one of his multiple versions of the tale.

 

†††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††††† ***********

 

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