Tails from the Air

Fly AwayJanuary in the southern basin of Ohio is often unpredictable when it comes to the weather. Seems that the past ten years have given the residence of this area a false sense that winter should be mild, with moderate temperatures and few snow showers that had little to no accumulation. But when the weather does clear and the temperatures are cool but tolerable, they make the best flying days. Trees may be bare and skies can often be gray, but the sound of a little red plane flying overhead at a thousand feet can lift your spirits just as the sun can warm your hearts.

Standing at the ramp, I awaited the return of my plane. Wind blew through my hair, reminding me that I should have worn a hat and I would probably be a bit warmer. But the leather of my coat kept the windchill at bay, and hands tucked into the lined pockets, I didn’t feel especially cold this day. Rather, I was more excited and somewhat nervous for this afternoons coming events.

A pickup truck approached slowly. It was jacked up on four over bearing tires. The truck was painted bright red, and the words “Hillbilly Deluxe” were scrawled in a white script on the tailgate. In the back of the truck was one large plastic dog kennel currently housing a small blue healer. As the truck came closer, it slowed and parked near me. The man in cab wore a white and tattered cowboy hat, aviator sunglasses and a jean’s jacket. He slid from the cab of the truck and spit on the tarmac.

“Morning,” he said, walking to the rear of the truck, opening the tailgate and hopping in.

“Morning, Rich,” I replied. “I see you got the dog. Now we just need our ride.” And with that statement, the sound of a small aircraft approaching filled my ears. Coming in low from the west, the site of the old Stinson made me smile.

Rich grabbed the dog carrier and hauled it up over the side where I grabbed it from below and lowered it to the ground. The little dog inside was nosing around the holes, but being a good quiet and well-mannered pup.

“He’s a quiet dog, kind of shy. But I suppose the way he was treated since he was born, it’ll take him a while to get over that.” I knew better than to stick my fingers in the holes of the crate, but I couldn’t help bending down for a little closer look at the small animal. He was fidgeting inside the crate, pawing at a green blanket, and shaking somewhat. He paid me no mind, and didn’t make any fuss.

The Stinson came across mid-field and entered a downwind approach to runway 20. At the controls was my partner in my small airline of vintage aircraft. She had returned recently from running charters in Washington State to Alaska using our Grumman Goose. Now the Goose was set back into our main hangar at the farm getting the starboard engine overhauled and the annual completed. So, for this mission, I went back to my roots and brought out the old 1946 Stinson 108.

Sarah brought the old red plane down on a slip and timed the flare perfectly, setting the plane down on the main gear for a near picture perfect wheel landing. SHowing off a bit, she kept the tail floating down the runway rollout, only letting it drop just before turning off the runway and over to us at the gas pumps.

The little dog seemed intrigued by the new turn of events and the sounds of this airplane rolling up to us on the ramp. He even let out a little yowl. Rich grabbed a leash from the cab of the truck, it had small spikes and studs on it. Lastly he grabbed a white antler but eight inches long.

“Here’s something to help keep him amused on the flight.” Rich then walked over and opened the cage and clipped the leash the little guys collar. It was studded as well and still had the price tag attached. “Come on little fellow. Time for you to have a little adventure.”

The dog came reluctantly out of the crate, biting at his leash and growling. Behind us the Franklin Engine came sputtering to a fault and the prop swung to a dead stop. Sarah popped open the cabin door, “Awww! What a little cutie!”

At the sound of her voice, the little puppy got very excited and started hopping up and down on the tarmac and pulling at his leash trying to run over to the open cockpit and Sarah. Rich handed me the leash and the little guy nearly ripped my arm out of its socket.

“Yea,” Rich said, “He’s got some muscle on him for being that small. Well, I gotta be on my way here soon, and with the weather rolling in, you guys better get that plane fueled and head south before the snow starts falling.”

I thanked Rich for the work he had done. He may be a hillbilly, but Rich had the heart of gold when it came to the four-legged, tongue licking, tail wagging species. Now it was up to me and Sarah to get this little mutt down to his new home in southern Kentucky. A group of charitable folks awaited his arrival later this afternoon, people who had the patience and the kindness to take in abandoned animals and place them with proper homes and families. Sarah and I were just the delivery agents on this mission, volunteering our time and equipment to move this little bugger from a place of abuse to a warm and happy family. Only, we had to do it quickly, since Rich was right about one thing, the weather was going to be turning to downright miserable in a matter of hours with snow forecasted for the greater Cincinnati area.

“Sarah, let’s get the old girl fueled up.”

“Jack, tell you what. You fuel the plane, and I’ll walk the dog.” I didn’t have much time or really any ability to debate this issue. She already grabbed the leash from my hands and ran off with the little puppy over to the grassy area off the side of the taxi way. Dog and girl bonded quickly, and though I had understood this dog was supposedly shy and timid, he didn’t seem to have issue with Sarah. Best she ran out as much of his energy as possibly anyway, so I went about the task of fueling up the plane and settling the bill. Rich meanwhile climbed back into his truck and headed back off the airport, honking the air horn along the way. Sarah waved him a good bye, and the dog barked and yipped.

I walked the little ready plane and took ten minutes to acquaint myself with the 1946 vintage craft. This was my first airplane and the reason for starting my business, Big Red Airlines. Though the old girl didn’t fly any charters, it was my go-to plane for local fly-ins and overnight weekend trips. Getting in and out of small grass strips was a breeze with the overhauled and meticulously maintained Franklin engine. Light on the controls, the Stinson was surely one of the most enjoyable airplanes to fly. Despite Franklin Engines being somewhat hard to maintain given the lack of new parts, with the right care, I could never replace the engine as nothing sounds as nice or runs as smooth as a Frankie.

This plane was just the perfect fit for this flight. It’s four seats would allow Sarah to ride in the back and keep hold of the puppy, hopefully keeping him off my shoulders during the flight. At a modest 110 mph, we could make the flight to southern Kentucky in just under two hours. A tailwind was forecast on the trip down, with light to moderate turbulence below 3,000. Visibility sat around 10 miles and the sky would be gray for the entire trip.

“Sarah, time to get going.” I called out. She came running back to the plane, the little blue healer nipping at her heals which caused her to whoop and giggle. Out of breath, she stopped up next to me and handed me the leash.

“I’m going to grab some water. See if you can get him in the back.”

I took the leash and Sarah darted to the FBO office. Little dude, for lack of a better name at the moment, wanted to chase after her and came to a sudden halt at the end of his leash, popping my other shoulder.

“Come on little dude, she’ll be back in a moment. Let’s get you in the plane.” He turned his head to me and cocked it slightly, making a little pig like grunt. Obediently he followed me to the plane, all the while trying to bite the back of my boots. As we reached the plane, I reached over and scooped him up in one arm. Weighing only fifteen pounds, he was light as a feather as I lifted him into the rear seat of the plane. At the same time, though, I heard the faint sounds of wind escaping his little doggy butt and an instant later, my eyes began to water and I choked in the stank. “Dear God, little dude, what did you eat that could possibly cause that! You do that again in the air, and I’ll have to leave the window open for the entire trip!”

Sarah came bounding back from the office, two water bottles in hand. Her red and purple dyed hair blew in the faint breeze. She tossed the water at me one at a time, which I remarkably caught. The little dog just sat on the rear seat and grunted. Sarah pulled a floppy easy knit hat from her down coat and slapped it on her head. It had a little pom-pons on it, so as she crawled her way into the back seat of the plane through the open door, the little dog tried to nip at them. Just as Sarah turned and plopped into the seat, she crinkled her nose and slapped her hand across her nose and mouth.

Talking through her closed off mouth, “Holy Fart, Batman, that’s rotten!”

“Yea, he did that to me, too.” I smiled and chuckled. “Should I go back in and get some oxygen bottles?”

The little dog just sat there and grunted again. Then he yawned and curled into a little ball besides Sarah. I climbed into the pilot’s chair, closed down the door and slid open the window to keep fresh air in as long as we could stand the cold. Quickly running through the checklist, I scanned the area and called out a CLEAR PROP! With the push of the started and in one blade, the Franklin spun to life – and so did the little dude. He leapt from his seat and starting climbing on top of Sarah’s face, shoulders and began a torrent of panting that flooded the cockpit with doggy breath.

Ever the prepared adventurer, Sarah pulled a pair of doggy muffs from her jacket pocket and with a mild struggle, slipped them over the dogs ears and cinched down the straps. He pawed at them for a bit, but noticeably calmed down. However, I doubted he was going to curl up again anytime soon less get scared witless upon takeoff!

I advanced the power and we started our taxi to the end of the runway. Running through the checks, everything ran as per specification. Traffic was non-existent, so we pulled onto the runway and I slid the throttle to the wall. A light touch on the rudder, and a slight downward push on the yoke, then the tail lifted and our speed climbed. At fifty, then sixty, the wheels came light and the plane lifted from the ground. I heard Sarah squeal with delight in the headset. Quickly glancing over my shoulder, I saw the little dog sitting on her lap, eyes peeled to the distancing ground. He wasn’t panting or carrying on, just staring out the window. Sarah had her arms around him and her smile lit the sky.

“He love’s it Jack! He’s a flying dog!”

Turning on our southerly course, I climbed gently to our cruising altitude of 2,000 feet. After all, this wasn’t a high-flying commercial flight, this was a scenic barnstorming, low and slow adventure. We’d clear underneath all the specialized and controlled airspace, flying old school on a compass heading and a paper map, leaping barn to barn, water tower to water tower.

Sarah giggled into the mike and I turned back to have a look. The little dude was licking her face, then pushing his nose to the glass of the rear window, then back to licking, and then over to the other window just to see if the view might be better from there. A few times he tried to leap onto my shoulders, but Sarah was quick to pull him back.

I adjusted the throttle and adjusted the mixture. Some heat came piping from the cabin heater, just enough to keep the cabin above freezing. Pulling on some gloves, I pulled the zipper of my jacket up further. It was cold, but the air was smooth and checking my watch, we were making good time with a little more of a tailwind than forecasted.

“Jack, I think he really wants to come up front. He’ll be Ok, might actually be easier for me to hold him if he sits on the front seat and I can lean over the back to keep him off your shoulders.”

“Okay,” I said. And with that, the little dude had leapt into the front seat. Sarah giggled as he stood in the seat, then placed both of his front paws on top of the instrument panel, straddling the co-pilot yoke. Not being able to see quite enough, he went back to sitting on his seat, and amazingly, Sarah didn’t have to restrain him at all. He just sat there, eyes peeled to the sites from below. I tried a couple gentle banks, but other than his head darting back and forth, he didn’t seem to phased by the maneuvers.

“Would you look at that, he’s a natural. Well, guess on that bombshell, I’m going to take a nap.” Sarah took off her headset and pulled her hat down over her eyes. Within seconds I knew she’d be asleep. Meanwhile, there I sat with this farting little dog sitting with me. Occasionally we’d look at each other, and our looks probably had more meaning than any words. As long as the plane didn’t bounce around too much, this dog was perfectly content. Thirty minutes more into the flight and he curled himself into a little ball right against my hip. I placed my arm and hand across his little body to keep him warm, and then we just flew. With each mile the air felt a little warmer, and the ground was less and less snow-covered.

Hills started emerging in the landscape, rolling green fields, black fences and barns. The country roads wound around in strings of gray tarmac. To the distance was a long interstate which undulated with the traffic moving both south and north like opposing rivers. Up until this moment, I had not thought much about what I was doing in this situation, and why I was doing it. Truth be told, Sarah asked to do this flight, and I only agreed to tag along so there would be someone to hold onto the animal in case things went south in the air. I had no intention to find myself really enjoying this flight and those that occupied the cabin with me this much. No doubt, I would always love flying, and rarely needed an excuse to take a plane to air. But I had no intention to love this situation and this flight so much. And now, with the destination looming closer, I had a sunken feeling in my chest that I didn’t want to think about.

Twenty minutes later, I turned and tapped Sarah awake. “Time to wake up and I need you to take the little guy in the back on approach and landing. Just to be safe.”

Sarah yawned and reached over the seat, seeing that the little dog hadn’t moved from my hip in some time. She pulled him up like putty. He yawned too, and licked her face as she pulled him in closer to her chest, cuddling him. I gave them a thumbs up and then got to work on my approach to landing. All the while, wondering why I felt like we were making a mistake.

We were headed to a private grass strip south of Lexington. I found the landmarks that the owners had told me about when arrangements were made a week earlier. There was a small creek winding off the interstate, two miles west of the water tower. I found the water tower, then the creek and followed it west, slowly descending to a thousand feet over the ground. Just as I saw the black barn over the nose, I saw the patch of grass running alongside an empty field. This grass was well cared for and clearly stood out from the rest of the property. A small orange windsock was positioned just north of the strip, but it was slack and signified that the winds this far south had died down, so we really had our choice on which direction to land.

I banked the Stinson over the field, giving the strip a good look. Not seeing anything of major concern, I circled back around for a standard left hand pattern. Just as I turned to downwind, I could see a truck pull up along side the grass runway. Two persons exited the truck and stood there watching us approach. Turning Base, I pulled in the last notch of flaps and pulled back on the throttle, keeping the approach speed at 60 to 65 mph. On final, I was careful to stay well above a line of trees, then let the plane slip down on a short final. Speed bled quickly and I slowed pulled the nose back, holding pressure and letting the Stinson come to a nice soft three-point landing around 55 mph. I kept my feet from the brakes and just let out momentum come off naturally. Stopping well clear of the end of the runway, I turned the plane back towards the truck. As we pulled in close, I pulled the mixture back to cut the engine and coasted the plane to a stop, propeller spinning to a silent stop.

I popped the door open and called out a greeting to the man and woman at the truck. They were probably in their seventies. He wore a fleece jacket and a John Deere hat. She was in a bright yellow fleece vest, her hair pulled into a long pony tail and a scarf tied around her neck. The little dog was now growing impatient to get out of the plane. Sarah had removed his mutt muffs and clipped the studded leash back to his collar. I climbed from the cockpit and took hold of the little blue healer pup. He quickly wiggle from my grasp and hopped to the ground. Only my quick reflexes grabbed the leash in time as he ran to the extent of the leash, dragging me along behind him. Within seconds he found a patch of ground, cocked his leg and let an out a steady stream that steamed as it hit the ground.

“Guess the little man needed to go!” Sarah laughed. “Hi there,” she said as she exited the plane and greeted the older couple.

Now that the little dude was done and relieved, he was more than happy to chase after Sarah and greet these new people.

“Well now,” said the lady, “Let’s have a good look at him! Did he give you any trouble on the flight down?”

“None at all,” I said. “In fact, think he is a bit of a natural with aviation. As long as you put the mutt muffs, anyway.”

“Well,” she said, “he isn’t as nearly as shy as we were led to believe. He seems quite happy with the two of you. I can’t thank you guys enough for what you’ve done today. You’ve rescued this little man from a horrible fate and now we can find him a forever home.”

I looked at the old man by the truck, he just nodded at us. That said enough.

“I can’t get over how good he was with Jack,” explained Sarah. “He laid on the front seat with him all the way down. You’d think these two had been together forever. But, I know Jack has no time for dogs these days.”

And on that comment, I bent down, leaning over to the little dog. He turned to face me and sat down staring back into my eyes. We held each others look, and then I couldn’t help myself anymore. “M’am, I hate to do this to you. But I think I need to take this guy back with me.”

“What?!” exclaimed Sarah.

“Well, I’ll be,” said the lady. “Didn’t expect that one.”

The old man just grunted.

“Look,” I said, “I know this is kind of strange. But I had this feeling all the way down here. I just don’t think I can give him up. I want to adopt him.”

The lady smiled at me, then started laughing. “Son, looking at the two of you just now, there is no way I could possibly think to separate either one of you from each other. Sometimes, all it takes is a little trip to secure a bond between a dog and his master. And I am guessing that your flight down here was that adventure you both needed. And I can’t think of a better result than this.”

“Jack! Are you serious?” Sarah looked at me, but she was grinning from ear to ear under that stupid floppy hat.

“Yea, I’m serious.” I turned to the dog. “What do you say little dude, want to come home with me?” The dog cocked his head to the side and made his pig like grunt. “I’ll take that as a yes.”

The old man finally piped up, “Well, you all have a nice flight back home.” Then he opened his truck door and climbed back inside. His wife came up and gave Sarah a quick hug, and whispered something in her ear. Me, well, I walked the little guy around the plane and let him relieve himself once again on the left tire. Then I opened the cockpit door and gestured for him to hop in. He barked once, then leapt effortlessly into the cockpit, sitting himself down on the co-pilots seat.

“Guess I am riding in back on the return, too,” Sarah giggled. She climbed in and I turned and waved as the old couple drove back toward their farmhouse, sans dog.

This time, there was no restraining the mutt. He wore his muffs without complaint, and by the time we reached cruising altitude, compass turning North, he curled himself against my hip and was back sound asleep. Engine hummed, and the plane soared towards home. Just a man, his girl, and his dog as it always was meant to be.

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