Sunday, June 7, 2015

A funny thing happened at the airport!

"There are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots” is an old aviation adage attributed to aviation pioneer Harry Copland (1896-1976),

I was sitting here thinking about flying when some of funny things that happened at airports popped into my mind. Funny enough to share with you this fine June day! I was involved in most of these stories and am glad to say the statute of limitations has passed. I swear on a stack of Jeppeson Approach Charts that these stories are true.

My first story involved Charlotte International Airport. During the time I was teaching flying after hours at Miller Aviation at the Columbia Metropolitan Airport, we would often take our students on their dual cross country flights to Greenwood Airport, about 45 minutes northwest of Columbia for their flight to an uncontrolled airport and Charlotte NC about an hour north for their flight to a controlled airport. Later, as the students were further in the program, they would repeat these flights solo and then a solo flight to a third airport which was unfamiliar to them.

This particular early summer afternoon, the flying weather was great; scattered clouds at about 8,000 feet above the ground and a light wind from the northeast bringing a brief period of cooler weather; Perfect for a cross country flight. So I told my student that instead of working on maneuvers in the practice area, we were going to take a trip to Charlotte. The flight was uneventful and an hour later, we were on final approach to Runway 5. At that time there were only 2 runways at Charlotte; 36/18 and 5/23 the other two parallel runways to 36/18 were still in the future. In fact, what would become runway 36/18 Center was in the preliminary construction phase. There was a little bump in the air as we crossed over the construction area just before touchdown. My student had just executed a perfect landing about a quarter of the way past the threshold when something flashed by in the corner of my eye. I turned around and spotted a good sized brown dog chasing our Piper Cherokee down the runway. As we turned onto taxiway “AA” and I switched to the ground control frequency, I told the controller that we had been chased by a dog. His response put us both in stitches; “Yup – we know he is there, he almost caught the last Eastern Air Lines’ flight to land there.” Needless to say, this was at a much quieter time in the history of the 6th busiest airport in the world, based on traffic movements.

Union County Airport today, courtesy Google Maps Union County Airport just off the Duncan Bypass today sports a nice asphalt runway, but back in the day it was a well kept grass field. It is the location of my next two stories.

I was flying downwind to runway 23 when I noticed something right at the edge of the runway. It was a goat! “What’s with animals and runways,” I thought as I began my turn to the base leg. I kept one eye on “Mr. Billy Goat” as I turned to line up with the runway on final approach. Sure enough, “Billy” spotted a tasteful morsel of grass right in the middle of the runway so I was forced to apply power and execute a missed approach. I reported to Unicom that I was going around due to a goat on the runway. On my second approach, either “Billy” figured out that I really wanted to land there or he had finished the good clump of grass so he sauntered back to the edge of the runway. I say sauntered because he took his time as if to say; “This is my runway, but I will let you use it this afternoon.”

My other Union County airport story involved seeing another airplane at the departure end of Runway 23 as I turned base leg. It was right at the end of the runway with the nose pitched down in the drainage ditch. It wasn’t going anywhere quick and there was plenty of room for me to land so I proceeded downwind. It was then I noticed a man walking down the runway looking for something. As I flew overhead, he waved at me and walked over to the parking area next to the runway so I could land. After landing and taxiing over to the parking area, he came over to me and asked if I had seen any keys on the runway during my landing. As it turned out, about 30 minutes before my arrival, he and his wife were having an argument as he was taking off. Just as he broke ground, his wife angrily pulled the keys from the ignition and threw them out the window. He was fortunate enough to get the airplane back on the runway and stopped before encountering the pine trees at the end of the runway. If the runway had been paved at the time, I don’t think he would have made it.

I was fortunate in that teaching flying was more of an avocation than my main source of income. It seemed that the full time instructors at the school lived on cokes and cheese crackers sold in the vending machines at the school. For them it was a stepping stone to working with the airlines and many of them are now ending their long airline careers. One of my fellow instructors decided that he would augment his income one summer by dusting crops. Now dusting crops was and still is a very dangerous occupation; not only dealing with poisons but also flying in close proximity to the ground where a mistake could be deadly.

Sure enough, close to the end of the growing season, upon returning with a student from a flight in the practice area, I spotted my friend, who shall go nameless, sitting on the worn brown leatherette couch that adorns every pilot’s lounge. His left arm was in a sling and his left leg in a cast. Before I could even ask he told me that he was dusting a crop next to I-26 in Newberry County. There were tall trees all around the field so in order to dust right to the edge of the crop; he was flying out low over the interstate. Back in those days there was far less traffic on the interstate than today. He would look up and down the interstate as he performed a hammerhead stall at the far side of the field to get turned around for his next pass. What he didn’t realize was that there was a blind spot up the highway and that there was as semi in that blind spot on that fateful pass. When he saw there was going to be a collision, he pulled up as hard as he could and almost cleared the truck. His tires barely collided with the trailer and he pan-caked the duster into the farmer’s corn field on the other side of the interstate. The truck was knocked over onto its side in the median of the interstate. At the look of shock and concern on my face, my friend quipped; “Can you just imagine that truck driver trying to explain what happened to his dispatcher?” It took us a half hour to stop laughing. Oh MY!

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