A Bucketful Of Blues


Instructors know that student pilots teach us much more than we give in return, particularly when failure is involved. One student who showed me the meaning of dignity while floundering in the borscht of humiliation was Karl. But what’s in a name? Any veteran knows that if you do something outlandish, you’ll receive a nickname. Mine, when I was stationed at the Presidio of Monterey, California, was “Bronson,” gleaned from the forgettable TV show “Then Came Bronson” (1969-70), starring Michael Parks as a lugubrious motorcyclist on his Harley Sportster, seeking Zen cred by emulating James Dean. Questionable choice since Dean’s quest had ended in a 1955 road accident.

Karl and his Cessna 150 were decades into my future when at age 19, I received my nom de crétin by crashing a Honda 350 one foggy afternoon. With my ego splattered on damp pavement, I faced Sergeant Powell, who’d caught my wipeout, and after ascertaining I’d survived, he asked, “Learn anything from that, Bronson?” I mumbled, yes, but the truth was, no. Days later, I bought a Honda 450, figuring the extra 100cc would protect me. That was 1973, same year I took my first flying lesson that, luckily, included an adult instructor. For years, motorcycles and airplanes molded a fantasy self-image, with my favorite brace being a Triumph Bonneville and an Aeronca Champ. They looked and sounded like unencumbered youth itself, marking their territories with oil stains on the ramp.

I’ve dumped several bikes, but never completely crashed an airplane. Although I’ve come puckeringly close at times due to ignorance and hubris. That’s not a law firm, but motivation to explore how far to run with bad decisions. Or scissors. That I’m alive is testimony to luck, a commodity I figured Karl might need to become a pilot after a humiliating disaster during a pre-solo lesson.

Karl was a nice guy and an accomplished business type who took to flying like a duck to soup. One quirk, though. He often arrived late for lessons, rushing from work in his three-piece suit, which clashed with the dusty Cessna inside its ratty hangar. One day, due to the Armani duds, he was hesitant to clean the filthy windshield. That’s a no-go with me. I wanna see our mistakes in flight.

Sensing my intransigence, Karl looked for a stepladder but finding none, selected a five-gallon plastic bucket, and before I could say, “Might wanna rethink that,” he climbed onto it with both calfskin loafers planted atop the pressed-on lid. Then, while spraying Lemon Pledge on the windshield—Crack!—the lid failed. Didn’t fail as a lid, just as a platform.

Time suspended, and in Wile E. Coyote contemplation, Karl grasped the enormity of his impending doom. A millisecond later, the condemned man dropped through a trap door, plunging feet-first into the bucket—three-quarters full of used Phillips XC 20W50.

An ugly sound. Like a clogged toilet exploding from a cherry bomb inside a Jersey Turnpike rest stop. Karl’s expression was disbelief of how quickly the Universe could turn on a well-intentioned student pilot. Immutable hydraulic principles unfolded in slow motion, and the 150-pound (10.7 stone, U.K.) student atop the descending lid—now a piston—compressed the oil inside the cylinder. Then, instead of ignition and power stroke to extricate him, a sludgy geyser enveloped the nattily clad Karl, who stood dumbfounded, feet inside the bucket, his life forever changed. His mouth flapped in wordless shame, knowing he could not escape the inevitable moniker, “Oil Feet.” And yes, that was inscribed on his shirt tail, days later when he solo’d in more appropriate flying togs.

It’s rude to laugh at others’ misfortunes, although that is the essence of Three Stooges comedic genius (pre-Shemp). Derision is completely inappropriate in the instructional environment but frequently tough to stifle. Pilot lounge walls sequester the vapors of smug chuckles from those who rarely fly, righteously deriding those who do but occasionally stumble. The chuckleheads inwardly know that there but for fortune go they. I’ve snickered and I’ve stumbled, and recently as I stared at my Citabria’s wingtip after scraping a hangar while trying to taxi as close as possible without hitting it, I recalled another Zeusian bolt to an unsuspecting pilot.

There’d been a flight breakfast, and when the last Styrofoam pancake left its plate, we scrambled to get airborne, like Hurricane pilots in the Battle of Malta. Before starting my Tri-Pacer, I saw a Cherokee taxi from its parking spot. While the pilot was careful to keep her right wingtip clear of a Bonanza, she overlooked a wire fence beneath her left wing. A post sliced through the Piper’s .032 skin with the ease of a saber through lime Jell-O. It wasn’t funny; Jell-O rarely is. But in a flash of self-puffuppery, I thought, “How could anyone be so oblivious?”

My attitude injected foul karma into my future where, now, I stared at the Citabria’s mangled position light and composed an overdue sympathy note to that unknown Cherokee pilot: To whomever you were, I hope you had enough duct tape to get home. And to Karl, who aced his private pilot checkride a month after buying new shoes, understand that we all make mistakes but take comfort knowing that the most egregious screw-ups always occur before an audience. When that happens—and it will—gather the shards of your mangled position light and bruised ego, then do as I did at age 19. Get back on that horse. Not metaphorically.

After crashing my first motorcycle and before dumping the second, I took up horseback riding—with jumps and such—which inevitably led to the ER. There, in a pain-induced haze, the overhead exam light beamed enlightenment from Thalia, the Greek Muse of Comedy, who resembled Curly Howard: “Life on Earth,” she whispered, “is dangerous. Best to fly above it.” Then adding, “Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk,” she vanished after telling me to wear any nickname with pride.

Other AVwebflash Articles


  1. Flying is an endeavour that is remarkably good at reminding you that you are not quite the Sky God you secretly imagine yourself to be.

    What I want to know is why are those perfect landings, the ones where you can barely feel the wheels spin up, only occur when there are no witnesses….

  2. I dumped a Harley Davidson. They taught me how to ride, but never taught me how to pick one up. And at 900? Lbs, I couldn’t do it. Had to have another biker help me. Luckily the only damage I have done to an aircraft is take out a wing tip light. After 21 years of flying.

    • I still have a Harley, and hadn’t dropped a bike in 40 years… I didn’t study how to pick up a bike until I got a rather large dual sport BMW R1250GS Adventure with a 8 gallon tank. It is a bit like going off road on a Honda Gold Wing. My greatest fear was trying to pick it up, if I dropped it. It has crash bars all over it, so I figured it was designed to fall over in the dirt. I wouldn’t have ever got it picked up, without doing it the right way. I can’t arm and back lift 750lbs anymore without casing serious injury to the back.
      The squat and push away with the legs and butt is a must to learn.

  3. I’ve dumped a bike too. And had to ask a passing motorist to assist my righting the fallen steed. Fortunately, I’ve not crashed a plane. I’ve crashed cars, and interestingly, been crashed INTO twice, both times could have easily killed me, if it were not for luck. Oh, wait, there was a third time when I was T-boned by a Yellow Taxi running a light in the rain. My 1970 VW swung around on it’s skinny tires and I ended up going backwards into a fire hydrant, which of course broke and sent a geyser of water skyward.

    I’ve now discovered horses. But at my age, I have no intention of galloping or jumping. Prancing dressage style might be as far as I go. But what I find most satisfying is just being with my new equine acquaintance. Grooming takes a lot of time and is a pleasant bonding experience. She becomes very relaxed when I curry and brush her. Her muscles relax, her eyelids droop, she occasionally swings her head around to nuzzle me, and occasionally, she’ll lazily lift a foot. On the other hand, for me, it is a bit of workout, especially bending over and cleaning her hooves. Overall though, the experience for me is surprisingly calming and rewarding. Who knew?

    • Never got into horseback riding… my first ride was bareback using dog leashes on the bridal of a horse that had not been ridden in years… she tried every way she could to get me off her back. And was only successful by scraping me of entering a low part of the barn.
      After that I always felt sorry for the poor horse. I was rather skinning as a young man. In Spain I thought I was going to kill the poor horse it was sweating so bad. At 6’2” 200lbs I was probably the largest human to ever be on its back.
      Horses are a bit like dogs… if it isn’t yours, you don’t really know if it will try to bite you.

      • Sign seen at the ranch:
        “For slow riders we have slow horses.
        For fast riders we have fast horses.
        For those who have never ridden, we have horses which have never been ridden.”

    • Had a CB350 in college, sold it to take flying lessons. Mom hated both modes of transportation! Ever tear down a bike in a 12 x 12 dorm room? My buddy did and rebuilt what was needed.

      As far as doing dumb stuff, I’m not sure if backing the plane into the hangar corner or getting the lumber company’s box truck stuck under a railroad overpass was worse. We all learn the hard way at times.

  4. Paul, Thank you for the chuckles this morning! You’ve made my Monday start off on the right foot.
    Looking back at my past, I’ve got the trifecta of crashing both MC and AC and being ejected from my steed. The steed was correct as I was inebriated and had NO business…
    Somehow I managed to escape without a moniker.
    I look forward to your next offering.

  5. It has been said that “The basis of all humor is the misfortunes of others”–and you’ve certainly proved that adage!

    Love the alliteration and obscure references–causes one to stop and consider the reference, and to re-read the passage–resulting in MULTIPLE LAUGHS.


  6. I can attest the bottom of the bucket doesn’t work either as a platform… and riding motorcycles like flying planes is a constant learning experience. I didn’t drop one for almost 40 years until backing down a hill using the wrong break on a new BMW R1250GS Adventure. It was a slow drop that didn’t leave a scratch. But, it left me humiliated, because I immediately knew I braked wrong going backwards, and worried if I could pick up this very large bike. Luckily I studied how to properly pick up the bike without causing injury, just in case. It was much easier than I thought lifting it the correct way, so I did end up with a broken back. I’ve seen the panicked lift after a drop, hurt people more than the crash.
    Think, before reacting.

  7. Can’t stop laughing. “An ugly sound. Like a clogged toilet exploding from a cherry bomb inside a Jersey Turnpike rest stop. “

    • One of his better, more memorable quotes. I recently broke 5 ribs in a fall from 10’ up a ladder, and it hurt this morning reading this!! Bravo!

  8. John’s Law states that the severity and degree of stupidity of an event is directly proportional to the quantity of observers of said event. (I made that up – mostly from years of experience). Had no one been there to witness the bucket lid fail, it would have most likely supported him ( ie: if a tree falls in the woods, and no one is there to hear it……). And as for motorcycles, I relate a recent event that my son witnessed first-hand. He pulled into a parking spot, along with my just-4-year-old grandson, at a convenience store. Moments later, a beautiful BMW bike pulled in beside him and the rider proceeded to dump the thing onto the pavement. Fortunately, only his pride was hurt, and it took both adults to right the beast. As the rider collected his thoughts (and what little remaining pride that existed), my grandson announced boldly, “You are supposed to put your feet down first!”

  9. Thalia and Curly Howard–now that’s a combination (and pre-Shemp no less!). I’m so thankful no smartphone was around to witness my less than graceful ingress/egress during my seaplane training last weekend in a SuperCub–I’m sure I would have come away with the moniker “Spaz”!

    Thanks for another hilarious missive across the mortal spectrum!

  10. Thanks for the laughs, Paul. One of the first pieces of advice I received when learning to ride a motorcycle was “Never ride anything you can’t pick up by yourself.” Subsequently, I raced motorcycles for number of years and in almost every case of unintentional dismount, the biggest injury factor was at the end of the trip from the seat to the ground. And BTW, re: bikes and horses – I know of a guy who always got scolded and belittled by the staff at Urgi-Care when he showed up with injuries from bike falls. Then he started telling them he got hurt falling off a horse. Instant compassion from that point forward.