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Chapter 26

Of Course I Can Fly

Visitation at a friend's funeral last week. I had short visit with an old friend and customer. He owned a Texaco Service Station on South Main in Weatherford and I traded there. His prices were always competitive and the service above reproach. I was a General Motors new car dealer at the time but I thought it was good business to spend money with people who sent business my way. The subject of his nephew came up and that is the reason for this tale.

I stopped in one morning and as I was paying my bill, the owner told me his nephew had flown him to Lufkin over the weekend. He bragged on him quite a bit, even mentioned the flight was made above the clouds, couldn't even see the ground. I congratulated him on his safe return and left it that.

The nephew had no business flying his uncle anywhere and especially above the clouds. In the first place I knew he only had a student permit, not allowed to carry passengers and I also felt the FAA might take a dim view of a student pilot carrying passengers VFR on top. To his credit, the nephew worked for American Flyers at Meacham Field in Fort Worth and I thought he might have availed himself of some Link Trainer time to practice instrument flying. The reason I knew all this was because the nephew was dating my oldest daughter at the time and had been hounding me to let him take her flying as soon as he had his private license. The next time he approached me about taking daughter flying, I told him to plan on taking me up first.

Not long after this he called to tell me he had the new ticket and was ready to demonstrate his proficiency. I told him to plan a trip to Lowake, a little wide spot in the road northeast of San Angelo. The only businesses are a cotton gin and the Lowake Inn, a popular steak house with a lot of fly in business. The runway is a turn row with a row crop on one side and a four strand barbed wire fence on the other. I felt this would be a good test of his skills and we could have a nice lunch at the same time.

The morning the nephew called, my friend Shorty Alford was in my office. We were planning some mischief anyway so I asked if he would like to make the trip with us. We drove to Parker County airport, a few minutes from my office and waited for our pilot. I watched him enter the pattern, turn final but didn't touch down until he had used more than half of the 2990 foot runway. He was flying a fairly new Cessna 182 and that impressed me. After a couple of bounces, he turned off the runway and taxied up to the pilots lounge.

We walked inside to discuss the trip and take a look at the large map displayed on the wall in the lounge. I pointed out the VOR stations along the route and was disappointed when he didn't make any notes. Outside again, he took his seat in the airplane while Shorty and I remained on the ground. When he asked if there was a problem, I asked him if he would like to make sure he had not shaken anything loose when he landed. He got out of the airplane and performed a cursory inspection while I followed behind looking things over. He pointed out that he had just flown the airplane and didn't see any need to perform a preflight. I didn't tell him then, but he had already failed the test.

We made a decent takeoff and headed in the general direction of the first VOR. He fiddled with the radio a few minutes trying to set the frequency. I reached over and set up the receiver for Acton and told him to keep the needle centered until we flew over the station and then gave him a back course radial to intercept the San Angelo VOR. He did not maintain altitude within a hundred feet and became very frustrated as we neared the Omni station. The closer you get, the more attention you have to pay to keep the needle centered.

We finally arrived over Lowake and I didn't see any aircraft. This was unusual as there should have been several airplanes along with helicopters from Fort Hood, Texas. The Army flyers liked those steaks too. I did see a cross on one end of the runway. (Later on I found out rains had made it too muddy to use.) I told him never mind, we would go to San Angelo and have lunch.

He called San Angelo tower and sounded fairly professional. He had trained at Meacham in Fort Worth, an airport with a tower and lots of traffic. They cleared us to land on Runway 18, 8049 feet long by 150 feet wide. His approach on final was pretty good except he was right of the center line. He allowed this condition to exist until he had drifted out over the runway lights at about fifteen feet of altitude. About this time, Shorty yelled from the back seat, "Do something," and slapped the back of my head. He didn't need to do that. I had already placed my hands on wheel and throttle and feet on the rudder pedals. Just before that I had looked at our pilot who was looking straight ahead with a blank look on his face. The tower was quizzing our actions as well asking if we wanted to go around. I eased in a little power and gently banked the airplane to align it with the runway centerline and landed. One of my best I might add, left seat or right.

I taxied to the parking area and we went inside to freshen up and have lunch. We ordered soft drinks and then decided we were not hungry. Back at the airplane and after a walk around, I mounted the left seat. The nephew didn't say a word. Back safe on the ground in Weatherford, I told him as nicely as I could, go get at least another fifty hours with about half of it dual cross country and give me a call.

A couple of months later I received the call. He said he was ready to give me another ride and could be at Parker County in thirty minutes. I agreed to meet him and was standing in front of the lounge when I saw him on final landing to the north. He was a little high, carrying too much airspeed and was floating past the half way point on the runway. I thought, "Surely, he will go around." Nope. He intended to land and land he did. He dove the airplane in to the ground. The propeller hit first in a shower of sparks and the nose wheel, which was not designed for that kind of stress, collapsed. I will give him this, he stayed on the center line. Thank goodness there was no fire. He had stopped just before he went off the end of the runway on to Highway 80.

The airport owner was hopping mad. The incident had closed the runway and torn up a good part of the asphalt. Not only that, the FAA had to be called. I was just glad he was not injured. Some folks might think I blame the young man. In part he has to share the blame but somewhere an instructor needs to belly up to the bar for allowing the young man to solo in the first place. It was only a matter of time until he had an accident. He went on to a successful career in the banking business.

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