“There’s spalling on one of the camshaft lobes,” the mechanic said matter-of-factly. He understood that he was dealing with a buyer-seller situation and what he was saying was a huge stumbling block in the path of closing the deal and that a poker face was in order. The owner of the airplane was not so phlegmatic. He was standing in an airplane mechanic’s hangar halfway across the country from his home, having flown there in hopes of going home with a check for several thousand dollars in his pocket. Those words meant that he was now the owner of an airplane that was for all practical purposes good only for taxiing. According to FAA regulations it would be illegal to fly it until that camshaft was replaced and replacing that part without overhauling the entire engine would be throwing good money after bad.
We had after some days of long-distance dickering and bickering struck a bargain. We agreed that I would pay top price for his airplane if he would fly it from his home in Upstate New York to St. Charles MO where an impartial aircraft mechanic would thoroughly inspect it at my expense. If the mechanic found no problems, we would exchange check for keys and vice-versa. If he didn’t, well, we didn’t go there. We were in uncharted waters.
As we stood there transfixed the mechanic said, “Stick your finger in there and feel for yourself,” speaking to both of us. So, we each stuck a finger in and felt the offending lobe. What I felt was what I considered to be some very insignificant little pits and bumps. I couldn’t imagine they were severe enough to ground the airplane. But in such matters an airplane mechanic has god-like power. If he says “It’s not airworthy,” it’s not airworthy and woe be to the pilot who flies a non-airworthy airplane. As for the seller, had I been in his shoes I would’ve been thinking, “Not airworthy? I just flew it all the way from the east coast to an airport on the banks of the Missouri River without a bobble.” But FAA regs are not to be flaunted and we each knew that.
The mechanic put the pieces back together, pushed the plane out onto the ramp and tied it down. He no doubt thought it would stay there indefinitely or until he was asked to make it airworthy. The would-be seller and I went to lunch together to renegotiate our deal if possible. To some extent I felt sorry for him. He was over a barrel. We sat down, had a drink and made small talk about airplanes in general, flying, and his trip from New York. We were both waiting for the other to blink – to make some kind of offer.
This situation had its origins several months earlier in a terrible accident in which my youngest son had crashed the airplane I then owned. He was grievously injured and the airplane was destroyed. Obviously my first and most pressing concern was for our son, Nathan, but then I became embroiled in a lawsuit brought by Nathan’s friend who had been a passenger at the time of the crash. His injuries had been relatively minor – a gash across his forehead. I had insurance, of course, but I had to threaten to sue my own insurance company because they were balking at settling with that young man. It was a dark, grim period of time for several months.
Nathan had been paralyzed from the waist down when brought into the hospital. A neurosurgeon had “pronounced” that he would never walk again. That had led to my launching into a heated diatribe with that surgeon during which time I told him that as a teacher I would NEVER tell a student he would never be able to master the subject so by what God-given insight could he say that Nathan would never walk again. After months of laborious physical therapy and intense prayer by many people Nathan made a miraculous recovery such that, one year to the day from the day of the crash he walked back into the cockpit to continue his duties as First Officer for “Skywest” airlines. About that same time, I finally received compensation for the loss of my airplane and was now in a position to buy a replacement. This was in 1994, the “Internet” did not exist. There were no web pages, no e-mail addresses. There were, however, “bulletin boards” that bore a slight resemblance in their workings to “Facebook” and by that method I found an airplane that was similar to the one that was destroyed. That led to the point at which I was now having lunch with the young man who owned it.
I excused myself from the table to use the telephone. Prior to moving from the area I had used the services of a first-rate aircraft mechanic whose shop was some 90 miles south from where we were having lunch. I got him on the phone, told him my situation and asked what it would cost to do a complete overhaul on the engine of the now-grounded airplane. With that information to work from I returned to the lunch table and told the would-be seller that I would still buy his airplane if he would sell it to me for his original asking price MINUS the cost of a complete overhaul. To my surprise and delight he agreed. We left the restaurant with me holding the keys to my “new” airplane and he holding a check for considerably less than he expected to be leaving with. I took him to the St. Louis airport where he boarded a plane bound for his home in New York.
I now had a major decision to make. The airplane I’d bought was not airworthy, but that didn’t mean it would not fly. But flying it would be a major violation of FAA Regulations which could the least cost me my Pilot’s License. At worst, should the engine fail while I was flying it I would be fully responsible for any property damage or loss of life that was caused as a result. On the other hand, the mechanic who had “condemned” the airplane was a totally unknown quantity to me. Was he competent? Would he charge more than “my” mechanic had quoted? Those were my options. Risk a disastrous crash or risk a botched-up overhaul by an incompetent mechanic.
I mulled that decision over in my mind overnight and into the next day. Then I called a friend who owned an airplane at a nearby airport. I told him my situation and asked if he would be willing to fly alongside me - hopefully only for the purpose of bringing me home after I delivered the airplane to my mechanic. There’s an old movie whose title describes quite well what I was about to do. It was called: “Risky Business.” Later that day I strapped myself into this little airplane that I had never flown before; an airplane that was considered not airworthy, lifted off the runway and set my course for what I hoped would be an uneventful 90-mile flight. Many people reading this will consider me at best, a fool. Others will judge me even more harshly. I plead “No Contest” to either judgment. My thoughts were that the airplane had just flown many hundreds of miles over some rough and densely populated territory. To me I was taking an acceptable risk.
But I was neither blasé nor without trepidation as we flew steadily south. I was running the engine as gently as possible and asking no more of my airplane than to just fly straight and level with no change in speed. Nevertheless, it was one of the most nerve-wracking flights I ever made. My ears seemed to hear the slightest variation in the rhythms and sounds coming from the engine. My eyes tightened anytime the tachometer needle made the slightest twitch. More than once I thought just how disastrous it would be should I go down into a populated area or destroy some valuable property. I had to chase thoughts of financial ruin, the view from behind bars and the possibility of my crashing as our son had done back into a locked room in the back of my mind. I occasionally looked longingly across my wingtip at my friend flying alongside me. He caught my eye once and flashed me a cheery “Thumbs up” sign which was a nice bit of encouragement, but I knew that as far as him being able to help me in any way should I have trouble; he’d might as well be in Outer Mongolia.
Arriving at one’s destination airport is always satisfying to a pilot but in all the hundreds of airports at which I have landed my airplane I have never been as happy to see a runway below my nose as I was when the airport at Farmington MO appeared. When my plane was within gliding distance of that runway, should the engine quit, I offered a short prayer of thanksgiving to God and settled down to make a nice, soft landing.
Minutes later I wheeled my little airplane around on the tarmac, sat quietly for a moment and watched my friend taxi up and spin his airplane in the spot alongside me. Then we tied my newly-purchased airplane down and walked into the FBO’s office. Since it is pro forma for all pilots to remain nonchalant about dangers they have faced while aloft I simply smiled and thanked my friend for coming along with me. We didn’t mention any of the “what ifs.”
You write like a writer, Don. That is a gift. By now you know that very few Legacy Stories are intriguing, compelling, or memorable. Yours are.
Thanks, Dick. Writing has been a long-held passion for me. I began in high school. Whatever skill I have is talent on loan from God and practice. Analogous to a musician who plays well "by ear." I have more I would like to write, but an unfortunate "trip and fall" accident my wife had a year ago left her in a situation in which I'm her 24/7 caregiver with occasional respites. I intend to write a Legacy Story about that experience ASAP. Thanks again. Don