This is a true story. It has a bit of gray hair. Time needed to pass. And there is a good bit of third party reflection. I have embellished it for story telling value but the basic facts are true and I did see the airplane prior to the fix. Besides what does fact have to do with a good story, anyhow? Names, “N” numbers and even the location will remain privileged information to avoid offending.
The Appalachian Mountains end their westward thrust with soft hills and “Grandma Moses” scenes. From there the land flattens into the beginning of the Great American Prairie. Cleared by men and horses, the landscape was quilted with farms of soy beans, wheat, and corn. Towns grew like popcorn on a string along railroads that became the financial arteries of America. After Charles Lindbergh flew to Paris, America flew to the airplane like bees to honey. Airports of paved crosses soon added their panels to the quilt. Gleaming silver airliners taxied alongside tractors pulling plows. Farmers covered with sweat waved to uniformed pilots in crisp white shirts and little boys looked on in wide-eyed wonder.
The airport in our story has two paved runways favoring the prevailing winds of the geography. A manicured grass strip parallels the NW-SE runway, and is used by a glider club. It is inviting to tail draggers, as you can imagine. The airport was in final preparation for an early fall gathering of airplanes of every stripe. Expecting a large crowd, portable outhouses had been placed strategically along a soy bean field on the eastern edge of the grass runway. They looked like a military row of Easter Island heads standing at rigid attention facing the sunset. The hour or two before sunset, this day, was a clip from a Midwest travelogue. The wind had died to an occasional zephyr. A few clouds hung out, as if to watch the sunset. Blue skies above melted into indigo close to the horizon as the sun floated about a thumbs length above the prairie. Emerald green grass bordered ink black runways. The soy bean field had its first tinge of gold. Killdeers fluttered into this pastoral scene whistling their happy call. And the Easter Island heads stood in somber indifference to the glory of the day.
According to the FBO, he was just about ready to pull the hangar doors closed when he heard the distinct sound of a radial engine. The Doppler effect indicated the pilot was headed in, so he walked outside to scan the eastern sky. Following the sound his eyes picked up the sun glinting off two yellow wings: there was a Stearman turning upwind to the NW runway.
Stearmans do not “arrive” or “approach” or “land.” A Stearman has a presence: therefore arriving, approaching, or landing are words best left to “common” airplanes. A Stearman heaves into view with the majesty of a diva approaching center stage. And those who fly them are conducting a symphony with a baton that resembles a Louisville Slugger.
The Stearman entered upon this stage with gentle turns to downwind, cleared her throat on left base, settled in on final, and prepared for the moment of truth. It seemed even the Killdeers grew silent in anticipation. All seemed to be pretty much textbook, according to the witness. He heard the throaty radial throttle back when she was tail low and the big tires were brushing the tops of the grass. She settled down, running true and straight…for a moment. Then it happened.
NW became NE. The rudder flopped, determined to save the mission. She rocked back and forth, perhaps reacting to inertia not yet dissipated. And in her path loomed an Easter Island head with the word MEN appearing just about where the nose should be. The FBO guy said it sounded like a rubber mallet smacking the side of a gigantic, empty plastic tank: “Thunk.”
When the wings hit, the portable outhouse launched like a Scud missile. It headed for the bean field followed by the errant Stearman which had changed course so as to follow the gray projectile into the beans.
What followed was not discernible to the observer who described the scene only as a large cloud of dust with a yellow tinge. All such events have one thing in common: a moment of silence when things that were to happen…happen. The cloud of dry soy bean dust hung suspended in the cool, calm evening air just beyond the gap in the row of Easter Island heads.
First was heard the growl of the radial engine followed by a yellow apparition that emerged, seemingly intact, from the cloud. And just like a diva who hits a sour note then strides haughtily off the stage totally unperturbed, the Stearman began its taxi-dance to the FBO. As the sun slipped into the indigo haze, the big radial came to a halt. All that was heard was the “ching” and “ting” as the radial began to cool.
The FBO guy strode cautiously out to the airplane. The two “passengers” (during the bean field part of the flight) were pulling helmets off gray heads. The guy in back looked at the FOB guy and said
“The right brake grabbed.”
When I saw her standing in the hangar a few days latter, the damage seemed minimal. The report indicated it would take a few new ribs here-and-there but “no big deal.” As to the outhouse? It was totaled.
“The cares, that infest the day,
Shall fold their tents, like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.”
-Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, The Day is Done, 1845
Unless someone is watching.