Ramp Tales

Ramp tales: stories told by old pilots. Some tales are of questionable veracity.

I used to fly. Not a lot but it was an item on my bucket list. One item that I finally accomplished in my fifties. Although I was an Air Force veteran, I didn’t learn to fly until long after I was out. My flight instructor was Charley Craig, a 30,000+ CFI based at the Gardner KS Municipal Airport—K34 on the Kansas Sectional.

Gardner is a small airport; not much different from many small town airports. It has the usual string of T-hangers, a small FBO for dispensing gas, cokes and the often needed restroom, and a small job A&E shop. Charley, Ellen (Charlie’s wife), his sons and daughters ran the FBO and a flight school. Charley was my CFI or Certified Flight Instructor.

During this period I used to spend my Saturdays flying with Charley or hanging out with an assortment of Ramp Rats, most of whom were former WWII and later military pilots. Whenever pilots gather, Ramp Tales are told. Frankly, I’ve forgotten most of them, but I did acquire a few of my own.

One of the Ramp Rats was a former WW2 pilot, Billybob. I don’t actually remember his name, but Billybob seems appropriate. Billybob was a US Army Artillery spotter. He flew a J-2/J-3 olive green Piper Cub over most of Italy and other parts of Europe.


Air Coupe

Billybob lived somewhere near the KS/MO state line and owned an Air Coupe, a single-engine, all aluminum, twin-rudder, two-seat small plane popular after World War II.

Billybog kept his Air Couple stashed at a private field that had no services. Whenever he needed fuel…or groceries for that matter, Billybob would fly in to Gardner, top off his Air Couple and beg a ride into town to buy whatever he needed. Usually there was always someone around who would chauffeur Billybob around. I did myself a time or two.

Billybob loved his Air Coupe. It was highly polished bare aluminum. Billybob had no radio in his Air Couple. If he did, he never used it as far as I know. The first inkling that Billybob was on his way in was seeing a shiny spec entering the pattern for a landing. Another Ramp Rat told me that at one time, Billybob had painted his Air Coupe a bight canary yellow. A color also known as Piper Cub Yellow. The story told by that Ramp Rat is why Billybob stripped the paint off his plane leaving nothing but bare aluminum.

Pilots and Ramp Rats in particular have a weird sense of humor. Unusual because most of their humor is expressed in practical jokes. Those jokes tend to be more mental than physical. No pilot would interfere with the safe operation and flight of an aircraft. Just about anything else, however was fair game.

One of the favorite excuses of weekend pilots to fly is to fly to fly-ins. Billybob, like many pilots, loved to show off his plane. He would go to a fly-in, park and display his Air Coupe with a placard mounted inside its bubble canopy giving all the Air Coupe’s specifications and history. A bright yellow airplane drew the attention at fly-ins like honey draws bees.

Garner, K34, has an annual fly-in sponsored by a local EAA chapter. When fly-in time arrived, Billybob and his bright yellow Air Coupe would arrive without fail. A number of the local Ramp Rats began to call the yellow airplane, Tweety, after the yellow cartoon character.

One year, a Ramp Rat replaced Billybob’s placard with another one that contained, along with a more humorous description of the Air Coupe, a large cartoon—Tweety. That new placard drew all the kids and it wasn’t long before Billybob’s Air Coupe was surrounded with kids, some of whom asked for rides in Tweety.

Billybob was a bachelor. He’d never been married to anyone’s knowledge and had few, if any, relatives. Kids terrified him. At first he would discard the new placard and politely refuse the requests for rides.

A number of Ramp Rats entered into a conspiracy. They would follow Billybob to fly-ins and, when Billybob wasn’t looking, switch his placard with a Tweety placard. Billybob became known as Tweety on the Fly-in and Airshow circuit.

At first, Billybob took it all in grudging good humor. That is until a Ramp Rat took the joke one step further. At one airshow, a small local thunderstorm passed through. Everyone headed for the FBO and hangers to get out of the rain. While everyone was distracted, one enterprising Ramp Rat scotch-taped the name, Tweety, in foot-high letters on the fuselage and wing of Billybob’s Air Coupe.

Thereafter, whenever Billybob came to an air show or fly-in, someone announced over the unicom, “Tweety arriving!” If a PA system was available, the name was announced over that as well.

It was the last straw. The next time Billybob was seen, his Air Coupe had been stripped of all paint except for his registration number. Instead of the bright yellow paint, the Air Coupe was bright, polished aluminum. Tweety was gone, but not the name.

I was told this story one day when I was hanging out at Gardner. I had been up with Charley Craig practicing timed turns. It was hot and I was cooling off under the shaded porch of the FBO with a Coke and a small scanner at my side that I used for eavesdroping on the local unicom. I noticed a bright spec low on the horizon and over the unicom came the call, “Tweety arriving!” A Ramp Rat standing nearby saw my surprise and told me the story.

In another sense, the call was a safety warning. The  pattern height for Gardner was 1000′. Billybob, perhaps due to his wartime experience as an artillery spotter, had an aversion to flying at altitude. He preferred to fly lower, much lower, as low as was legally allowed for the location. At times, he ignored the minimum height rules when entering the pattern. That could cause problems.

However, Billybob, was well liked, given his eccentricities. The local pilots knew his habits and kept an eye out for him. As long as he didn’t cause problems with transient pilots, no one called him on his practices.

Billybob is gone now. His Air Coupe was sold along with the rest of his estate. There’s nothing left except the echo of an announcement over the unicom, “Tweety arriving” in remembrance of Billybob and his bright yellow Air Coupe, Tweety.

You gotta be a pilot to appreciate this.

Those of us who are pilots and have seen some of the truly weird designs that have taken to the air—and returned more or less safely, can really appreciate Sunday’s BC cartoon.

The weirdest that I’ve seen was a home-built with circular wings.

I want one!

After receiving a FAA waiver for being 120lb overweight to qualify for a Light Sport aircraft designation, the Flying Car finally takes to the air for a test flight.

The Terrafugia Transition, a light aircraft that can convert into a road-legal automobile, is to go into production after being given a special weight exemption by the US Federal Aviation Administration. — UK Telegraph, June 29, 2010.

For more information, check this website.


I want one!

After receiving a FAA waiver for being 120lb overweight to qualify for a Light Sport aircraft designation, the Flying Car finally takes to the air for a test flight.

The Terrafugia Transition, a light aircraft that can convert into a road-legal automobile, is to go into production after being given a special weight exemption by the US Federal Aviation Administration. — UK Telegraph, June 29, 2010.

For more information, check this website.


Brownie’s: Revisited

In general aviation, there is, euphemistically, an item known as the $25 hamburger. With inflation and the increased price of avgas, it’s more appropriate to call it the $100 hamburger.

A decade or so ago, the place to fly for that hamburger, breakfast or one of the best BBQ sandwiches in the east central portion of Kansas was Brownie’s BBQ at K81, the Miami County Airport just outside of Paola, KS. It was a favorite spot for weekend fliers and every Saturday morning, the grass ramp next to Brownie’s would be covered, wing-tip to wing-tip with aircraft—spam-cans, bi-planes, homebuilts and ultra-lights. It was the place to go in eastern Kansas.

Yesterday, our church’s free clothing store, The Master’s Closet, was closed as it is every Holiday weekend. Joyce had the day off and after our daily walk, we took off to see what we could see. By mid-afternoon, we’d arrived in Paola.

It occurred to me that I hadn’t visited the airport in more than a decade. I soon discovered it is harder to find the airport from the ground than from the air. An additional hindrance is that Paola is not laid out in the usual checkerboard fashion. The street layout was not helpful. I remembered that the airport was situated on the south-western edge of town. Finding it was more adventurous.

After a bit of hunting and seeking I saw a row of t-hangers along the side of the highway. Memory has a tendency to morph over the years. I remembered the FBO and Brownie’s being next to the highway. Instead, it was a hundred yards off guarded by dual rows of newer hangers.

The BBQ was still there. We could smell the smoke as we turned off the highway but the sign no longer spelled Brownie’s. It now said We-B-Gone. The original Brownie’s was gone but the BBQ remained and was still a family-operated enterprise. It had not changed very much.

Brownie’s, as I remembered, was encircled with grass parking areas with tie-downs for visiting and overnight aircraft. The current BBQ now sported concrete instead of grass. The parking area remained but was paved instead of grass and the occasional mud puddles.

The last time I’d visited was with my wife and daughter sometime around 1994. My daughter was still in high school and we’d come down for some BBQ. The interior of Brownie’s had been covered with photos—some from WW II when the airport had been an auxiliary for the Olathe Naval Airstation. More photos of visiting aircraft lined the walls taken by Brownie and others to commemorate their visit.

Those old photos were mostly gone as I discovered on entry. The FBO on the left side of the building remained with its terminal to the FAA and weather services including a long table covered with old copies of Flying, Trade-a-Plane and Sport Aircraft scattered randomly along its length. A few chairs around the room completed the decor. The rest of the building contained the restaurant with checkered plastic covering the tables.

Most important of all, the BBQ was the same as I remembered. Joyce and I ordered a Beef ‘n Ham combo BBQ sandwich each. When it arrived, the stack of meat was over two inches thick. A couple of pickles accompanied the sandwiches and it was more than enough for a quick afternoon lunch.

The menu had been expanded from the traditional BBQ fare. Hamburgers and hot dogs were available for the kids and a new breakfast section had been added. The last time I flew to Brownie’s was with Charlie Craig on an early morning check flight. The breakfast menu had been limited to Fried Egg and Bacon sandwiches. Now it included various egg platters with Ham and Sausage along with Bacon. Pancakes were available as are Biscuits and Gravy and other traditional breakfast items.

I miss the old Brownies. It had an atmosphere as raw as post-WW2 aviation. But that century is gone and the new BBQ, We-B-Gone, will faithfully maintain the tradition.

On the wings of Eagles…

A friend of mine sent me the link to this video. It is about the P-51 fighter, the men who piloted them and those remaining still today. It is a story about Jim Brooks, a Double Ace, and his Grandkids.

I know someone like Jim, who, by coincidence is also named Jim. My friend flew B-17s in Europe, completed his tour and then flew B-29s on missions over Japan. A few years later, he flew B-29s over North Korea—a time where the life expectancy of a B-29 was measured in single digit missions.

Follow this link to the video about the Gray Eagles. It a bit long but worth it. It’s in HD and if you have a broadband connection, watch it in full screen (check the little box with a rising arrow.)

The Gray Eagles. Enjoy and remember them.

What’s the slowest you’ve flown?

From time to time, I receive stories from Internet friends that I just have to post for my blogger buds. This is such one. I think Brigid will like this as well.

(H/T to Norm Glitz.)

What was the slowest you ever flew the Blackbird?

Brian Shul, Retired SR-71 Pilot via Plane and Pilot Magazine

As a former SR-71 pilot, and a professional keynote speaker, the question I’m most often asked is “How fast would that SR-71 fly?” I can be assured of hearing that question several times at any event I attend. It’s an interesting question, given the aircraft’s proclivity for speed, but there really isn’t one number to give, as the jet would always give you a little more speed if you wanted it to. It was common to see 35 miles a minute. Because we flew a programmed Mach number on most missions, and never wanted to harm the plane in any way, we never let it run out to any limits of temperature or speed. Thus, each SR-71 pilot had his own individual “high” speed that he saw at some point on some mission. I saw mine over Libya when Khadafy fired two missiles my way, and max power was in order. Let’s just say that the plane truly loved speed and effortlessly took us to Mach numbers we hadn’t previously seen.

So it was with great surprise, when at the end of one of my presentations, someone asked, “What was the slowest you ever flew the Blackbird?” This was a first. After giving it some thought, I was reminded of a story that I had never shared before, and relayed the following.

I was flying the SR-71 out of RAF Mildenhall, England, with my back-seater, Walt Watson; we were returning from a mission over Europe and the Iron Curtain when we received a radio transmission from home base. As we scooted across Denmark in three minutes, we learned that a small RAF base in the English countryside had requested an SR-71 fly-past. The air cadet commander there was a former Blackbird pilot, and thought it would be a motivating moment for the young lads to see the mighty SR-71 perform a low approach. No problem, we were happy to do it. After a quick aerial refueling over the North Sea, we proceeded to find the small airfield.

Walter had a myriad of sophisticated navigation equipment in the back seat, and began to vector me toward the field. Descending to subsonic speeds, we found ourselves over a densely wooded area in a slight haze. Like most former WWII British airfields, the one we were looking for had a small tower and little surrounding infrastructure. Walter told me we were close and that I should be able to see the field, but I saw nothing.

Nothing but trees as far as I could see in the haze. We got a little lower, and I pulled the throttles back from 325 knots we were at. With the gear up, anything under 275 was just uncomfortable. Walt said we were practically over the field—yet; there was nothing in my windscreen. I banked the jet and started a gentle circling maneuver in hopes of picking up anything that looked like a field. Meanwhile, below, the cadet commander had taken the cadets up on the catwalk of the tower in order to get a prime view of the fly-past. It was a quiet, still day with no wind and partial gray overcast.

Walter continued to give me indications that the field should be below us but in the overcast and haze, I couldn’t see it. The longer we continued to peer out the window and circle, the slower we got. With our power back, the awaiting cadets heard nothing. I must have had good instructors in my flying career, as something told me I better cross-check the gauges. As I noticed the airspeed indicator slide below 160 knots, my heart stopped and my adrenalin-filled left hand pushed two throttles full forward. At this point we weren’t really flying, but were falling in a slight bank. Just at the moment that both afterburners lit with a thunderous roar of flame (and what a joyous feeling that was) the aircraft fell into full view of the shocked observers on the tower. Shattering the still quiet of that morning, they now had 107 feet of fire-breathing titanium in their face as the plane leveled and accelerated, in full burner, on the tower side of the infield, closer than expected, maintaining what could only be described as some sort of ultimate knife-edge pass.

Quickly reaching the field boundary, we proceeded back to Mildenhall without incident. We didn’t say a word for those next 14 minutes. After landing, our commander greeted us, and we were both certain he was reaching for our wings. Instead, he heartily shook our hands and said the commander had told him it was the greatest SR-71 fly-past he had ever seen, especially how we had surprised them with such a precise maneuver that could only be described as breathtaking. He said that some of the cadet’s hats were blown off and the sight of the plan form of the plane in full afterburner dropping right in front of them was unbelievable. Walt and I both understood the concept of “breathtaking” very well that morning, and sheepishly replied that they were just excited to see our low approach.

As we retired to the equipment room to change from space suits to flight suits, we just sat there-we hadn’t spoken a word since “the pass.” Finally, Walter looked at me and said, “One hundred fifty-six knots. What did you see?”
Trying to find my voice, I stammered, “One hundred fifty-two.” We sat in silence for a moment. Then Walt said, “ Don ’t ever do that to me again!”
And I never did.

A year later, Walter and I were having lunch in the Mildenhall Officer’s club, and overheard an officer talking to some cadets about an SR-71 fly-past that he had seen one day. Of course, by now the story included kids falling off the tower and screaming as the heat of the jet singed their eyebrows. Noticing our HABU patches, as we stood there with lunch trays in our hands, he asked us to verify to the cadets that such a thing had occurred. Walt just shook his head and said, “It was probably just a routine low approach; they’re pretty impressive in that plane.” Impressive indeed.

Little did I realize after relaying this experience to my audience that day that it would become one of the most popular and most requested stories. It’s ironic that people are interested in how slow the world’s fastest jet can fly. Regardless of your speed, however, it’s always a good idea to keep that cross-check up…and keep your Mach up, too.