Chapter Three: The Thief

I’d like to say that I didn’t wake up the next morning in my office again, but I did. At least this time I managed to pass out in the leather chair in my office instead of on my desk. Airport Dog didn’t bother to wake me this morning, in fact he wasn’t looking all that hot himself. Curled at my feet, he rolled to his back and sighed as I yawned myself awake. Glancing at my watch, I felt a bit less guilty knowing it was just five minutes after seven in the morning. So before anyone managed to discover my whereabouts, I picked myself up from that chair and marched back into the bathroom, running a very hot shower.

I dressed in my favorite Johnny Cash t-shirt, black of course, jeans and boots and now feeling refreshed I was ready for a new day. Airport Dog was pacing by the closed bedroom door, probably eager to head out for his morning constitutional and a chance to feel fresh himself. We started down to the FBO office and started flicking on lights along the way. When we got to the office door, I let Dog out and he raced over to the grass to relieve himself on a the metal propeller statue. Then he raced off, nose to the ground, making the rounds and ensuring no raging squirrels wandered to his territory. I started up the computer and went into the kitchen to make some coffee. While it was brewing, I checked emails and the airport Facebook page. A lot of photos had been posted from the fly-in event, over all a very successful event and last night was certainly the highlight for me. It had taken all I could muster not to taxi that Goose to the runway and get the old gal airborne.

Mike, though, wanted to go through a series of tests on the engines before we did a first flight and I agreed, knowing it was prudent to ensure everything checked out safely. Yet it was killing me, and I felt like a kid who’s mother told him to put his toys away until all the chores were done.

I checked the time and it was nearing eight. Coffee was ready, and cup in hand, I walked out of the FBO office and headed down to the main hangar. Unlocking the side door, I walked in and flipped on the lights. Somehow we had managed to squeeze the Stinson and Champ in the hangar last night, shuffling some of the tables over to the side to make room. Piles of trash bags lined the doors, so I set my coffee down and started hauling the trash out to the dumpster. On the third trip, a red roadster pulled into the parking lot. The car was immaculate, perhaps a 1934 or 1935 Ford. Long sweeping fenders trailing down to the running boards. Large chromed headlights, bright grill, and spoked wheels.

The morning was bright and crisp, so the owner had pulled up the small rag top canopy. Then engine shut off, and the two suicide doors popped open. Out of the passenger seat emerged Mike. And the driver, the lovely redhead who flew in the RNF yesterday, winning the flour drop competition.

“Oh hey, Jack!” called Mike. “Guess who I bumped into over at the iHop this morning!”

I walked up to the car, putting my hand on the hood and admiring the lines.

“Jack, this is Sarah. Sarah, Jack.”

I extended my hand, “Pleasure to meet you.”

“Likewise,” she smiled.

“First you show up here yesterday in that beautiful Waco, and this morning this car. You do know how to make an entrance and impression.”

She laughed, “Yes, they do tend to draw attention. But the car isn’t mine. Just a loaner while I am in town. It belongs to my father. He has a shop near Nashville, builds and restores hot rods.”

I couldn’t help thinking Sarah reminded me of someone, maybe it was just her look; jeans, black leather jacket, boots, and Johnny Cash t-shirt. At that moment I was rather glad I had my fleece zipped, because it dawned on me were both wearing Johnny Cash t-shirts.

“Well, you heading home today?” I asked.

“Thought I’d stick around for a couple more days. Been a while since I’ve seen my Mom’s side of the family, and this event was just the excuse I needed for some vacation time. I had intended to just head back to my Uncle’s shop when I bumped into Mike this morning. We got to talking and I told him I felt a couple of the cylinders on the RNF seemed to be running rough. He said he could take a look for me.”

“Absolutely,” I said. “One of our rare talents around here is working with very old engineering. I’ll let you two at it. I’d better get that hangar cleaned before Olivia arrives.”

“Olivia? Your wife?”

Mike and I both laughed. “No. More like wicked step-mother. She’s my business partner. And oh, don’t tell her I said that!”

“Secrets safe. But you’ll owe me a chance to take a closer look at that Goose of yours.”

“Deal,” I replied. “Mike, better see to the ladies airplane.”

By late morning, the sun was starting to warm up to an unseasonable temperature for late fall, even for Tennessee. Forecast had the winds fairly light all day, but a front was building to the south, promising rain by late afternoon or evening, possibly even a thunderstorm. Considering I had grown up in Chicago, I’d take this kind of fall any day over the bitter winds and lake snow of up north.

Olivia had come in around nine, trailing not far behind was Christy and Janet. Janet was miserable. I could tell she had managed a shower, but apparently too hung over to care about brushing her hair, which fell around her shoulders in a mess. Christy was bright and cheery though, and that only made Janet more miserable. Olivia did her best to keep the pair separated. Christy was sweeping and taking down the decorations in the hangar. Janet, cleaning dishes, and then mopping the FBO floor.

I finished paying the bills, and then went through the register from the day prior’s sales. We’d done well on fuel, and even managed to sell some t-shirts and caps in the office. It wasn’t a fortune, but it covered the banks needs and left enough for payroll for the rest of the month. I celebrated by taking forty out and ordering a couple pizzas for lunch. Janet passed on lunch. Actually, I think she went home.

In the early afternoon, the airport felt back to normal. Many of the fly-in guests had been streaming in throughout the morning, loading their gear, fueling up and heading back to their homes. Several other airport residents were tinkering away on their planes in their hangars. I sold five or six quarts of oil, maybe five hundred gallons of fuel, and two oil filters within the last several hours. Several calls came in, booking time in the Champ, and even one hour in the Stinson. It was for insurance purposes, a guy was going out to purchase a 108-1 and I was always a sucker to help another Stinson pilot.

A couple MTSU instructors came in and helped themselves to coffee and a stack of cookies that Olivia had brought in that morning. Airport Dog slept in a sunbeam looking out the FBO window down the ramp. I grabbed a cup of coffee, the portable phone, and decided to park myself at the chair next to the dog.

I kept a pair of binoculars on the coffee table, grabbing them, I sat back and looked up at the pattern for approaching or departing aircraft. Dog raised his head from time to time when someone opened or shut a door. Otherwise, he was content to sleep.

I saw Mike and Sarah pushing the Waco out of the maintenance hangar, they must have completed the repair. Sarah climbed into the rear seat, Mike chalked the wheels and walked to the engine with apparent intent to hand prop the Waco. I sat my cup down on the table, put the binoculars back in their case, and went to my office. Dog followed, curious to know what I was going to do.

Hanging on the coat rack was the leather jacket that Olivia had given me the night before. It might feel warm for a fall day, but still brisk enough to warrant a jacket over my t-shirt. I looked at the lining and that silk map. It was really curious that someone had stitched it inside the lining. Was the map significant? Did it belong to a pilot from the war? Often, pilots in the South Pacific were given silk maps but one generally wouldn’t have a silk world map. After all, you couldn’t navigate with it very well. I gave up wondering for the time being, slipped the jacket on and headed out towards the flight line. Obediently, for a beagle, Dog followed. Well, he followed until we got outside, then the nose took over and he headed off behind a row of t-hangars.

Mike was pulling the large prop through when I hit the ramp. Briskly, I headed in their direction, then heard Sarah yell, “Mags Hot!”

“Mags On, here goes nothing,” Mike called back. He grabbed the prop with both hands, kicked his right leg forward and then as he brought his leg back, pulled down hard on the prop, stepping immediately out of the way of the swinging blade.

The engine coughed once and the prop swung around, lighting more cylinders up and in a blast of white smoke from the exhaust, the engine caught and roared to life. Mike made his way around the cockpit while Sarah warmed and idled the engine. I couldn’t make out what they were saying, but she was smiling and he was smiling and there was a lot of nodding and head shakes.

I walked up within a few feet of the left wing. Sarah saw me and her smile turned a bit mischievous. Then she raised her hand and pointed to the front seat, gesturing me to climb in. Mike turned, looking a little sour.

I went over to him, handed him the office phone, “Man the phones, Mike. Won’t be long.”

He yelled at me, “You suck, Jack!”

I zipped up my jacket tight to my neck and then climbed into the front seat. Sarah handed me a flying helmut with earphones and I tried my best to fit it over my head as she advanced the throttle and started taxiing in a zig zag pattern off the ramp and towards the runway. The old seven cylinder radial Warner engine sounded strong and smooth. Nothing sounds as good as a radial engine. As much as I love my Stinson and her six cylinder Franklin, my heart will always beat a little faster when sitting behind the oil guzzling radials of old.

But with only 125 hp in this Waco, it wasn’t by any means the fastest of the early bi-planes. However it could get up in very short fields and had a real docile short field landing, just as long as you didn’t chop the power too soon and plow it in. Being a bi-plane, the extra wing and guide wires made the plane a bit draggy with a pretty abrupt sink rate under idle power.

Performance aside, just flying in an open cockpit plane was flying in its most pure form. Absolute freedom, smelling the hot engine oil, wind whipping across your face, and the grace of flying low and slow over the countryside.

Sarah deftly taxied into position onto the runway after making a three hundred and sixty degree turn to visually clear the pattern of any traffic. As she lined up on the centerline, the throttle was advanced and within a second the tail lifted and after a few short breaths, we were airborne, climbing into that blue sky, watching the world slowly shrink.

Sarah turned the Waco to the east and we climbed to an altitude around fifteen hundred feet above the ground. Visibility was still good, despite the forecast for this afternoon, proving once again that there is no better prediction for the weather than just looking out the window. She maneuvered the Waco around in slow turns. Some low level clouds lay ahead of us as we approached some of the small hills that line the east side of Murfreesboro. Sarah flew around them and climbed or descended to stay clear of the clouds.

She descended down now that we were out far enough from the congested areas of town. We flew low over the farms that lay below us. As we neared a little black barn on a hill, she pulled the Waco into a steep turn, climbing while reducing to an airspeed just a few miles per hour over stall before pushing the nose over and completing the 180 degree turn.

The flight went on for another twenty minutes, and I just sat back and enjoyed the ride. Though we could have been talking to each other with the intercom and headsets, neither one of us spoke throughout the duration of the flight, content just to fly.

As we neared the airport, Sarah came over low entering the pattern on a mid-field crosswind. I looked down and could see Mike and Olivia standing outside the FBO office watching us on approach. Sarah followed the pattern close in, slipping the airplane on final to bleed off the final amount of altitude without increasing speed. As we came down to within ten feet of the ground, she straightened the nose, pulled the throttle all the way back to idle, and slowly pulled the stick back and let the plane sit down on all three wheels with the lightest touch.

We taxied back to the ramp and as the engine shut down, the sounds of the afternoon came ringing back into my ears – sounds of a modern society polluting my sensitive hearing. Flying in this plane was like being in a time machine, and as soon as we were back on the ground, I couldn’t help but feel a little sense of loss.

“Well,” said Sarah, “Your mechanic’s pretty good! That’s the best that engine’s sounded in a long while.”

“Don’t tell him that, he’ll let it go to his head.”

Sarah leapt from her rear seat and packed her flight helmut back under the seat. I pulled myself from the front and gingerly removed myself from the cockpit.

“Thanks for the flight, a very welcome distraction.”

“Any time. No fun always flying alone.” She winked. “Shall I buy you a cup of coffee?”

“How about I shout the coffee.”

We headed back to the FBO office. Airport Dog came running and nipped at my heels. Not sure where he had been, but wherever it was, it certainly smelled like he found something foul to roll in and his feet were slightly damp and muddy. As we entered the FBO, Olivia saw Dog and immediately started howling:

“Get that dog out of here, he reeks!”

Mike came to my aid and grabbed the mutt and sent him packing down the hallway and into my house. Great, I’d end up with a wet smelly dog for company tonight.

The afternoon withered away, the four of us sitting in the FBO office sipping coffee and snacking on cookies. The conversation was light and casual, mostly talks about the fly-in and the planes that had come in. After about an hour of talk, I felt no closer to learning any more about this Waco loving Sarah. And I was careful in what I said anyway. I could tell Mike was slightly smitten by the redheaded pilot, and I really only wanted to play wingman for him. If he thought he had a chance, I shouldn’t be the one to get in his way.

Realizing that I was still wearing the leather jacket, I got up and took it off, hanging it on a coat rack by the front door. Then I excused myself and headed back into the kitchen to see if I could wrestle up something for dinner. It appeared out guest was in no hurry to leave, so I figured it would only be polite to make dinner.

Christy came into the kitchen. “Anything you need from me boss?”

“Nope.”

“Okay, then. Think I’ll head out. I have a term paper to start, been putting it off for a week.”

“Okay. See you tomorrow?”

“Actually, I’m off tomorrow. I’ll see you Tuesday.”

“Okay then. What’s the paper about?”

“Native tribes of Papua New Guinea.”

“Oh, so nothing I know anything about.”

“Exactly. Have a good evening, Jack.” and then she left me standing in the kitchen, eyeing an empty refrigerator and leaving me with the realization that I’d be ordering take out.

Back in the lounge, Mike and Sarah were discussing the virtues of having two wings as opposed to one wing. I interrupted this deep conversation that I am assured Mike thought was romantic pillow talk.

“I’d shout dinner somewhere, if anyone’s interested.”

Mike and Sarah looked up at me.

“What are you thinking,” Mike asked. I knew instantly he was hoping I would take him to the Bar-B-Q pit downtown. It was fine dining, a bag of roasted peanuts on every table and the shells on the floor. But before I could reply, my eye caught the site of tall lean gray haired man walking around Sarah’s Waco. And he was wearing my leather jacket!

“Who the hell is that?” I exclaimed.

Mike and Sarah turned, peering out the window into the twilight.

“I don’t know, I thought I heard someone come in when Christy left, but I when I turned around there was no one there. Guess he snuck right past us. Probably just looking. Now, about that dinner?” Mike turned away from the window, quite obviously letting his stomach distract him from the theft in progress.

“Mike, he’s wearing my jacket!” I exclaimed, heading for the door. Just as I got outside, I saw the man reach into the rear seat and then swiftly head to the engine. I knew instantly he intended to start the Waco and just as much couldn’t believe I was watching this old man steal my jacket and now Sarah’s plane.

I started running towards the plane, shouting “STOP!”

The man saw me and quickly swung the prop,, the Warner bursting to life instantly. He zipped up my jacket, removed the wheel chalks, and for his age, nimbly climbed up into the rear cockpit all in the time it took for me to run flat out the fifty yards from the office to the Waco’s parking spot. As I was just coming to the side of the plane in a rush, the old man advanced the throttle and with his left hand swung out and knocked me square across the nose. I tumbled to the ground, my nose on fire. As the plane advanced forward, I looked up and saw the tail heading straight for my head. I ducked and rolled to my right, avoiding the tailwheel by inches, nearly clipping my left foot.

The old man wasted no time, and put the power to the Waco, and though still on the ramp, that man clearly intended to take off directly. He had the tail up and the plane accelerating out of our reach. Mike and Sarah came to my side and lifted me to my feet, blood spilling from my nose, down my chin and onto my favorite Johnny Cash t-shirt. We watched helplessly as the plane started to lift, departing our little field using the alternate runway – Taxiway Bravo.

Just like that, a fun filled, relaxing, and good spirited day turned to shit.

bigred1946

Just a guy, happy with life, happy with my wife, dogs, antiques, and a passion for aviation, classic cars, and writing.

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