Airport Derelicts Offer High Hopes In Low Times

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An airport hath no soul without a pilot lounge … or pilots/pilot’s lounge, depending on possessive plurality issues unspecified in the AIM’s social amenities supplement. Lounge accessories should include: A coffee pot, a bulletin board papered with FAA notices no one reads, a faded copy of Magee’s High Flight (genuflect), and ads for aircraft sold years before. Plus, the Far Side cartoon of a mountain goat in the clouds that’s endlessly shared on Facebook, dulling its comedic edge. Dusty model fighters dangle from the ceiling in frozen dogfights with no clear victors. There’s usually a wall map with a peg in the home airport and a string leading from there to points and possibilities unknown on vectors more imagined than taken. It’s a timeless sanctuary, protected from the outside world and populated by misunderstood refugees—namely, pilots. 

Declaring who’s a pilot and therefore eligible to lounge about, gets tricky. It’s not as simple as toting a plastic certificate in your wallet, especially if you’re like me and can’t always find your wallet. It goes deeper. I’ve been studying the microcosmic lounge phenomenon for a half-century in 49 states and once in the U.K. where I didn’t quite understand the language or why the beer was warm. I’ve eaten boxes of stale doughnuts, slept on couches so uninviting COVID would recoil, but I’ve selflessly made any sacrifice for research that bolsters my preconceived notions. That’s how science works.

So, who is a pilot? According to 61.3(z), it’s any person who looks up at the sound of a passing airplane during outdoor weddings. “Yeah, yeah, ‘I do,’ whatever. … Hey, was that a Luscombe or a T-craft?” Or the lone aeromantic who veers off the road when an aircraft rises above a distant ridge at sunset. There are no exclusions based on age or sex—although, bragging about the latter trends inversely with the former. Medical condition or minimum education levels are irrelevant since no one cares about your BMI or SAT scores. If you can read and ignore Keep Out signs and wander confidently through rows of airplanes that seldom fly, then you qualify. If you can identify the makes and models, then you get seated closest to the coffee pot. Make the coffee, and you’ll be anointed the EAA chapter president. 

Despite this inside-the-circle allure of the lounge, where dreams are shared and aviation feats endlessly reexamined and expanded, it’s what’s outside that makes the airport an immovable feast. Pilots and their stories come and go, but the 1957 Piper Apache with one engine missing that’s been parked behind the maintenance shop since June left Ward Cleaver for Eddie Haskell is never going anywhere, even if someone, particularly the airport manager, dreams it will.  Fossilized Twin Navions or a Mooney Mustang (one of several notions that have scuttled the manufacturer over the decades) are acceptable substitutes. Such derelicts lend an airport the illusion of permanence and fliers a connection to a past that may never have existed. 

To casual passersby an airport is a strange parking lot for objects they can’t understand and frequently attempt to banish. To aficionados, the ramp—administratively maligned as an “apron”—is a palette schmeared with hopes and fantasies rather than inconvenient reality. Fortunately for pilots, reality is as we perceive it. Everyone knows that the guy who’s been building a Starduster in his hangar for 17 years is unlikely to finish it. He’s not even a pilot in the FAA sense and would probably crash on the inaugural landing if, somehow, he managed to take off. But his workmanship is impeccable, his drive admirable, and like the persistent ant in Sinatra’s High Hopes, “he’s got high, apple-pie-in-the-sky hopes.” Meaning, hope springs where dreamers pursue what to lesser spirits is impossible. Or, as Theodor Hertzl proclaimed, “If you will it, it’s not a dream.” Gleaned that one from a Lebowski Quote-Of-The-Day calendar (not available in stores). 

Never underestimate willpower in aviation. Need proof? Consider the VFR pilot standing beneath her Husky’s wing tip, rain dripping onto a wire haired dachshund, shivering at her feet as this pilot—who’s already spent two nights in the lounge without toothpaste—stares at the leaden sky, willing sunlight to release them. And it does. It always does. Sure, she could earn an instrument rating and penetrate the clag with blind faith in a system that safely protects the homeward bounder. But what, then, becomes of dreams? Without them we are mere prisoners of transportation, and where does that get us? Well, home, perhaps. Point taken, but there’s much to be learned from the kindness of strangers on unfamiliar airfields along the way.

One benefit of a room where transient pilots linger in Twilight Zone suspension is the social connection it affords in our increasingly disconnected world. Years back, while waiting for a squall line to pass through Guyman, Oklahoma, I doubtless looked hungry and pathetic, so a local mechanic tossed me his truck keys with directions to a Mexican restaurant that almost made the rain delay worthwhile. When I returned, after topping the truck’s tank, a couple of pilot loungers asked, “That your biplane out there?” I nodded, yes, and the conversation ricocheted out of context, “Bet you never been to a gasworks.” I hadn’t, but knowing that life is an evolving non sequitur, off I rode across the plains with two strangers from a Cormac McCarthy novel toward a distant mirage of curving pipes surrounded by chain link fence. I thought this might be a kidnapping but, instead, received an impromptu lesson in natural gas drying ops. Interesting, but more importantly, I learned how an unscheduled stop can dwarf any destination I might’ve planned. That said, I genuinely wanted to get home, because there’s only so long you can hang around a pilot/pilots/pilot’s lounge before going nuts, staring at that Far Side goat.

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21 COMMENTS

  1. Summer 1994. I am flying #3 in a flight of 3 T28’s on our way back home from Oshkosh. Not long out of Osh the weather is looking distinctly disappointing and it appears a plan B is required. At Osh I had bought one of the first portable GPS, so I press the nearest airport button and it tells me Wildrose Wisconsin is 6 miles off our left wing. I tell lead to turn 90 left and 2 minutes later we are over a nice looking grass runway. A low pass confirms the runway condition, a break for landing and we are all down.

    As the engines are still tinkling we hear the laboured engine of what turned out to be an ancient pickup truck, driven by the poster child for “ Good old Boy” in the best sense of that word. He heard our arrival and came to see if we needed help. We tell him we are going to hang out until the weather improves. Well he says you boys got to go to the local diner for some pie. So we all pile into the pickup, go to diner and have a piece of excellent pie while getting introduced to what has to be the entire population of Wildrose. 2 hours and 3 cups of coffee later (bad idea given the next flight was 3hrs) and the sun started peeking through. A quick trip out to the airfield and we were on our way. A treasured memory…..

    • I live 8 sm south of W23 and know the place well. Twenty years ago, I built a hangar on the next airfield south of there for ostensibly the same reason … the people who inhabit this rural area of Wisconsin are — quite literally — the salt of the earth. The joke around here is the bet of how many vehicles will pass your car pulled over on the side of the road before someone stops to see if you’re OK or need help. The usual answer is three but it’s usually less. You might be surprised to hear that Basler uses W23 as the “final exam” for people checking out in their DC-3 conversions. They use our grass runway and then transition north. Harrison Ford went to Ripon College and took his first flying lessons at Wild Rose, too. Great place.

  2. Yes, most, I mean most of the fondest memories I have of flying were not of the intended destination and what I had set out to do, but, the unintended delay, or, layover due to bad weather and the unfolding events that followed. It is very uncanny how this happens.

  3. Aged 17 I made a cross-country through Germany in an RF-5 and stopped at Hildesheim to visit the Bottlang “factory” (since acquired by Jeppesen, they made a ring-bound airfield manual for VFR fliers – looking back you could amazingly just walk up the front door and get shown around the place). Got invited by a pilot hanging out at the airport to sleep at his house and when I left the next day, he had called up a local newspaper reporter who interviewed me as a curiosity tramping around in an airplane rather than by train.

  4. I too have visited Guyman OK . . . I believe I ate something resembling Mexican food at a diner there, probably the same place. Alas, I did not visit the gasworks. I did however find a liquor store and visit the feed lot. Pretty thrilling place that Guyman.

  5. Great article, Paul! Your description fits the vast majority of pilots’ lounges I’ve encountered. Even those freshly-built. My local hangout had a new Pilots’ Lounge/Terminal (talk about ambitious) constructed and within a week of ribbon-cutting, someone had donated a stack of Trade-A-Planes and Controllers to take the edge off the new-lounge smell. Because while you enjoyed your cup of Pilots Lounge Coffee which had undergone that special 6-hour post-brewing ripening/heat treatment process, the then-current issue was not nearly as much fun to read when you could be going “Holy Cr@p! Six months ago I coulda bought an Apache with no engines or panel for $1500!”

  6. You described every little pilot lounge I have been in since the mid sixties. As a line boy working my way through college I learned as much from the guys in the lounge as from flying training. Air sense can’t be learned on a computer screen like it can be learned from listening to old pilots. Air Force pilot training was a piece of cake after 300 hours of civilian flying and 1200 hours of lounge time.

  7. Very nice article Paul! My career was in many-motors both in the AF and civilian after retirement, thus I have not had the opportunities to visit the various icons of the civil world you describe. I have visited a few along the West Coast back in the early 70’s while driving T-29’s for the USAF Nav School at Mather. After all, with 18 cylinders on each wing flailing away trying to escape captivity, sooner or later the banging and clattering will cause one to land nearby rather than try to stretch it home. Not all of those paved airports were large but for the most part they were homey and the people were fantastic. A couple of places had pretty good hamburgers if you got there before mid afternoon when the owner headed home.
    The part I miss about the various pilot hangouts, yes we had them in the military as well, from back in the day was listening and participating in the “hanger flying”. Hanger flying seems to be a knowledge resource for young pilots long lost to history. Sure, there was an equal amount of fiction and fact in those tales, but there were nuggets and tidbits to save in both. After all, no one can embellish a story faster than a pilot… I know… been one for over 50 years. The other side of that point is that there were hours upon hours of great entertainment to be had for the young (and young at heart) aviator.
    One of the most enjoyable of such sessions occurred approaching the end of my 747 career. My company operated for British Airways for a while out of Stanstead in the UK. We stayed in a small hotel (like every UK hotel that wasn’t one of the global chains) not far from the airport. On one layover, the restaurant was “closed” for a private function so one had to eat at the adjoining bar. The crowd at the function, all male, were certainly no spring chickens. The “lads” at the function were certainly having a great time, were quite lively, and clearly were an aviation oriented group. While finishing the meal at the bar, the bartender asked if I was former military and I replied that I was retired USAF, he knew I was a 74 pilot from long experience there. He went on to explain that the group was all local “lads” that were former RAF from WWII. He proceeded to holler at one of them and told him that I was a 74 driver and former AF as well. Well, I was instantly dragged over to the crowd, a chair was found, and I proceeded to have one of the most entertaining evenings of my life. Just listening to them recount the old stories of their youth from the their time spent saving Britain from the Hun was superbly enjoyable. They probably had told those stories a thousand times but to watch the wrinkled faces turn to smooth, sunburned leather behind flying goggles was simply amazing.

    • David. While you were trucking along in those T-29s, early ’70, I’m sure we talked frequently. I was Los Angeles Center during those years and talked to a bunch of those navigator training flights as they proceeded through the desert area east of the mountains, out around Twenty Nine Palms and such.

  8. Paul, one of your best columns (and I am not saying that as an insult ). Up there with the best of Gordon Baxter. Thanks. [Although I prefer the Far Side with the pilot of the airliner saying to the co-pilot “The fuel light is on, Frank. We are all going to die! … Wait, wait uh, my mistake. That’s the intercom light.”

  9. A really excellent piece. Years ago, I was left in charge of our 3 daughters on weekends to give their long-suffering mother a break. Naturally, we spent them at our hometown airport (KIOB). There, they met and interacted with pilots and would-be pilots, passengers, other airport bums, and, most importantly, the WWII veterans who operated the place. None of the daughters (now adults with children of their own) became pilots, but they still talk fondly of those weekends and delight in telling stories (some true) about the many characters whose tales they heard.

  10. It’s amazing how quickly time passes. When I started flying in the mid-seventies, my steed was a well worn 1938 J-3, long victimized by a past history of windstorms and neglect and scarred by numerous spar splices and welded repairs. But we were a team, exploring every small community airfield and farm strip that we could find within an afternoon’s radius of flying, almost all of which were grass strips.
    Paul’s words bring back a flood of memories because the airport lounge at nearly every field we visited was always worthy of a visit. Even now I can still remember the musty smell of old airplane magazines and moisture soaked wood and dusty over-sized lounge cushions guarded by a few dead flies. Like as not, the airport lounge at such fields was usually quiet for the day, almost abandoned, except for the wind whistling through the screen door or the distant popping of, what is now, an elderly John Deere. There was even one grass strip, about 50 miles distant, where you pumped your own gas and left your check in the lounge on the manager’s desk because he trusted everyone. At the same dirt strip, just outside the office, a row of red and silver J-3s stood on their noses, their tails hanging from the rafters. And I’ll never forget the good friends I made in those lounges.
    Thanks for the memories, Paul!

  11. Don’t tell anyone but…

    On long road trips and in search of a bathroom and someplace to stretch our legs, I’ll sometimes open up WingX or AirNav and look for the closest airport…

    After all, the plastic thingy in my wallet says I’m a pilot, and chances are I do know the lounge combo (or can at least surmise). And it’s not a “I flew in from Kansas in my J3 lounge”…it’s a pilots lounge. I think I qualify.

    Nothing like getting away from the big box automobile refueling stations and milling about the local airport.

    As much as these small airports are the same, the differences make the stop worthwhile. It’s usually late afternoon and early evening when we make our stop, and no mater the questionable condition of said lounge, it’s always worth the pause.

    I then imagine where I would make my base to final turn. Is this place left hand traffic? Bunch of deer and turkeys around this airport, I’d have to keep that in mind. That windsock should be changed out, Keep that in mind to..They do have self-serve, this would make a perfect stop.

    Pretty soon, I’m imagining that I am flying in from Kansas in a J3. Problem now is, I’ve got dozens and dozens of small airports on my bucket list.

  12. “There are no exclusions based on age or sex—although, bragging about the latter trends inversely with the former.” Paul, you need to copyright that, it is solid gold!!
    Great column, paints the perfect picture of pilot lounges everywhere.

  13. Paul–The title mentions “Airport Derelicts”–but even after reading the article, I see that it’s less about the derelict airplanes than it is about the “derelicts” that inhabit the pilot’s lounge. (smile)

    I’ve been flying for 59 years–and for 52 of those years, I’ve been the “curator” of the FBO pilot’s lounges. I’ve heard and seen almost all that is discussed in pilot’s lounges–I have a 232-typewritten page manuscript of local pilot stories (ALL TRUE–I SWEAR IT!).

    In this business, you’d better love what you’re doing, because the FBO business (and dealing with fellow pilots) becomes your entire life. When we first married, a neighbor asked why I was never home–my wife told her (without a trace of sarcasm)–“Jim’s home is at the airport.”

    Excellent job on the description of the Pilot’s Lounge–AND its inhabitants! How about a “write–off” between you and Bertorelli–this time focusing on the AIRPLANE derelicts to be found at airports? Lot’s of high aspirations to be found–“rescuing” and bringing a derelict back to life–and a lot of “school of hard knocks” in facing the realities of restoring a derelict. My two favorite aviation columnists–it would be great to read your separate takes on a subject–BOTH of you put more knowledge and emotion into your writing than any other aviation columnist!