Tuesday, November 30, 2010

By Ken Crocker

As a boy I loved airplanes, built lots of models and longed for the day when I could take my first ride in a real plane. I was 14 when I jumped off the bus and walked down a two-mile dirt road to the only airport in town. The owner Fred Robinson smiled when I placed two dollars in his hand. He led me to an old Taylor craft airplane. I was filled with joy, amazement and fascination as we puttered over the valley. The blue green river wound around deep emerald trees and golden fields. The road looked like tiny ribbons that went in different directions. “It’s mighty pretty up here, Fred said.”

I was hopelessly hooked. Everything looked beautiful and fascinating from a low flying airplane. Houses were stretched out like a giant architect’s model. The river was smooth, shining and glorious as it wound its way through the Valley.

Fred became my friend and over the next few years I did odd jobs and painted signs on the buildings for flying lessons. Fred was a bachelor and had made the airport his home. He had a flying car that he hoped to finish someday. He said it would work and I believed him. He was a master mechanic, an aeronautical genius and had helped design and build the B-29 and taught pilots how to fly this massive aircraft during the Second World War.

In his shop Parts and tools were scattered everywhere; airplanes were disassembled and waiting for various repairs and always there was the smell of hydraulic fluid, oil, gas and grease. I loved it all.

He never talked about himself much, except to tell me about things like meeting Charles Lindberg. Lindberg was riding a motorcycle wearing a CCC uniform and showed up at an airport Fred was working for in Georgia. Fred suggested to him that he go down to South Georgia and trade his motorcycle for an old Jenny. In case you don’t know that’s a World war one biplane with an open cockpit. Lindberg did exactly that and took a few flying lessons. He nosed the plane over and broke the prop. They fixed it and he was going to have another lesson the next morning. However Lindberg decided he knew enough and headed west just after dawn.

Somewhere in Mississippi he landed and again nosed the plane over and broke the propeller. He convinced a farmer to put the plane on his truck, take it back to Georgia for a new propeller and left again heading west.

Fred told me stories about working at Candler field in Atlanta. Today it’s known as Hartsfield International Airport. Back then it was just a grass field. Amelia Earhart landed her Lockheed Vega there one day and forgot to retract the long trailing antenna for her radio. Someone was suppose to wind it back onto a spool in the plane with a crank but forgot to do so. Fred found it in some brush, repaired and reinstalled it.

In looking back I think I reminded him of his own love of flying as a young boy. He built his first airplane and learned to fly it in his Fathers cow pasture. Later he worked around various airports, sometimes for free and later for pay and the simple joy of flying.

I loved this old veteran pilot with his stories of Aviation. His career was ending and mine was just beginning. I was on the long road to becoming a good pilot. Maybe something about my enthusiasm and love of flying stirred some memories of his life when he was young and eager to pursue his dreams.

He was a master mechanic and kept his dream in one of the hanger bays. He was building a flying car that could drive on a road if the weather was bad, or soar above it all in good weather. I was sure it would fly and was eager to be there when it did.

Fred was a very demanding flight instructor. I didn’t like it when I was in the front seat trying to learn how to fly and he would reach out from the back seat, thump me on the head to get my attention and talk to me about something. “Look at both of the ailerons. Center the stick. Pick up that drooping aileron. Sloppy flying will kill you!” He wouldn’t let me make the slightest mistake without talking about it or doing something to make sure the correction was burned into my brain. One day he reached up, took my head, and physically turned it from side to side.

“Don’t sit up there staring straight ahead like a dummy. Keep your head on a swivel and look around all the time,” he said. “There are other planes up here, weather to keep in mind, instruments to monitor.”

There were times when I felt like he was too hard, demanding, and always “nitpicking” everything I did. Sometimes I felt exhausted, incompetent, and hopeless about ever mastering the art of flying. Once on the ground he would turn back into my friend and tell me I was doing well and making progress. I asked him one day why he was so hard on me.

“Columbus Aviation teaches pilots to fly,” he said, “and they have about 35 students pushing up daisies. I haven’t lost a one and you’re not going to be the first.”

I took flying lesson in the Aeronca Champ which had no flaps, no radio, and just a few basic instruments. Back then the FAA required pilots to do stalls and spins. I hated power on stalls - when the nose was pointed up the plane would run out of airspeed and fall straight down. If I held the stick back and pushed in left or right rudder the plane would spin. To get a pilots license I also had to learn to recover from a spin.

One day Fred told me we were going to go up and do spins until I loved them. He reminded me that the plane was going to stall, and head straight down. “You’re trying to stay up there without stalling and what you need to do is to just make up your mind to go down with the plane.” After a half dozen stalls and spins he was right and I begin to enjoy it.

Suddenly we both heard a loud bang, and he grabbed the controls. He shut the engine off, and pointed the nose toward the airport. The river ran around both ends of the single runway, and I relaxed as he skillfully turned, back and forth and lost altitude. He reached final approach lined up exactly right for a landing. When a sudden gust of wind picked the light aircraft up, he quickly did something he had told me never to do. He used left stick and full right rudder and we quickly lost the altitude and touched down. We stopped just before we ran out of runway and into the river.

A young mechanic had put new spark plugs in the plane and forgot to tighten one of them causing it to blow out. After he chewed out the mechanic, he fixed the plane and told me to get in the cockpit. We were going to go back up and do some more spins. Years later I realized that he didn’t want that bad experience to stick in my mind. He wanted me to fly some more and end the day with a feeling of success.

Later he taught me how to cross control the plane and crabbing sideways loose altitude quickly. He called it a slip and he taught me how to do it. I soon felt at ease doing it. Recently I looked at my old logbook and this is what he wrote to sign off that flight. “Aeronca N82561 Blew spark plug, forced landing, used up heap of field, downwind landing.”

I got his point about precision flying when he started cutting the engine and telling me to find a place to land. He expected me to line up on a proper grass field, check the wind direction, bleed the airspeed off, and come over the end with perfect airspeed and altitude. Often we were close to the ground before he would let me apply full power and climb out.

We kept in touch over the years. I flew my own Cessna Skyhawk into his private airport one day. The Chattahoochee River curved around both ends of the single runway and I felt good as I lined my plane up, made a perfect landing and taxied up to his office. He walked out to the plane to see who had landed on his private strip. After a big welcome I told him that I had become a missionary pilot and he was keenly interested in that. He took the time to give me some fatherly advice on “terrain and mountain flying”. He told me he was proud of me and knew I would do a lot of good.

Several years later I took my daughter and family to see him. My grandchildren walked around in the large hanger full of beautiful ultra light aircraft he designed, built and sold but they soon lost interest and were running outside in the grass—playing with the dog.

We heard something like an angry hornet and went outside to see a yellow ultralight plane landing at his strip. When it taxied up and stopped a man got out. Of course he was a friend who had built his own ultralight with Fred’s help. It had a lawn mower engine in it. He turned out to be a pastor of a church and this was his favorite kind of recreation.

We laughed and talked and Fred told me how his friend has built the wing with so much thickness on the front, (chord in aeronautical language) that it would climb almost straight up, but would only do about 24 miles an hour. Of course Fred told him how to rebuild the wing, let him use his shop and tools, and now it flew about 60 miles an hour. It still climbed pretty steep but that was O.K.

Ron, my son-in-law and I walked over to the old hanger with Fred and looked at the flying car. It still wasn’t finished. Times had changed and it was an old dream that the aviation world had left behind. Things kept getting in the way of working on it. I’m sure he kept it because he knew everyone needs a dream to keep them looking to the future.

The years had taken their toll on him and I had a sad feeling when we drove away that I might not see him again. A year or so later I went back and found the airport fenced off and city trucks and equipment parked in what use to be the hangers. He was gone and no one seemed to know where. The Valley chief of police didn’t know what happened to him. For us there were no good-byes because he will always be in my heart.

We had made a long video of him showing us around his shop, looking at his work, talking and just being old friends. I’m glad I did that, but I don’t look at it very often. There’s no way to put on tape the long friendship and kindness between us. In the hundreds of hours of flying that followed, I often found myself in a tight place and heard him “in my head” telling me what to do. His careful and demanding instructions saved my life many times.

I feel sorry for young people when I see their parents letting them do as they please. I feel sad when teachers allow college students to slide by without really learning anything. I often encounter people who don’t know how to do their jobs and all they seem to want is their paycheck. The craftsman who takes pride in his work is hard to find in our fast world of the bottom line.

Then I remember Fred and others like him who gave me the precious gift of competence and pride in a job well done. The frustration, tedium of doing it over and over until I got it right, the hours of study and hard work has almost been forgotten. It’s been replaced by a loving memory of a friend who gave me the precious gift of self-respect. I wish every young person in the world could have that treasure.

Years later I was working as a missionary pilot. We flew into a very high mountain rock strip called “los chochos”. Jerry, a missionary pilot I was working with thought we could fly into this remote area with two people in each plane and just enough fuel to leave for the return to Durango. We had to leave before the sun got too hot and made the air at eleven thousand feet too thin to fly in.

Instead a doctor was there and asked us to fly a dying woman to Durango hospital. It was a day and a half by road, and about 45 minutes by air. Our problem was that we would leave with 3 people in each plane and high density altitude. I would have to clear a row of tall pine trees with too much weight in the plane. As I flew down the clearing, the stall warning went off every time I tried to gain a little altitude.

Sweating it out I heard in my head my old flight instructor Fred Robinson telling me how he put a plane in the trees and walked away from it. “Don’t fly nose first into the trees he said. When you get to the trees use full flaps and pull the nose straight up”. I did what he told me and managed to clear the trees. On the other side of the trees, the mountain side dropped away. I dumped the flaps, put the nose down to gain some flying speed and headed for the airport at Durango.

We used the radio to have an ambulance waiting and soon the woman was in a hospital and recovered. Thank you Fred for saving our lives. The local police commander of this tiny village was so grateful for our rescue that he asked us to please come back and start a church in the area.

I often think about the wonderful results by reaching people in very remote villages and their amazing stories of encountering the presence of God.