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Don't you wish somebody could kill this bastard for you? *


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By Bill Berle


He had given me a bright orange ball point pen instead of a business card. It said "Sunshine Aviation" on it above the number. Every time I called Sonny Zapata to ask if he found the magneto problem on my airplane, I picked up this pen for the number. He finally called to say that the engine had been started and ran just fine, although he had no idea why. He had disassembled, cleaned, and reassembled the mags, and that is sometimes the only satisfaction that an airplane will give you. An airplane like this will leave you with the not subtle possibility of jolly failure at an undisclosed time and place in the future. Two days later, I am once again at Los Angeles International Airport attempting to pass through security with a toolbag, flight case, and a very suspicious looking battery powered electronic remote control terrorist bomb detonator. The security guard is a very large black woman with a nearly identical two way radio on her belt, but it doesn't register in the brain because her hair is pulled back in a bun so tightly that not enough oxygen is getting through. "What is this thing for?" "I'm hopefully going to use it to talk to airport control towers on my way back home." She lets her mind wander to the possible hijacking destinations I'm going to try to take the airliner to. Then she looks in the olive drab tool pouch. A couple of red road flares and I would probably not be writing this. I'm tempted to hold up the radio and scream that I want to be flown to Arizona and negotiate for the release of the people's freedom fighters Orville and Wilbur or I'll blow up the baggage carousel.

The plane lands at Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport at about 10:30 on July 19th. I have brilliantly arranged for a shuttle bus to go to Casa Grande ahead of time. I didn't go to college for nothing, and the thought of another expensive cab ride was enough to convince me to do a little phone work before. The van shows up on time, but we have to wait for other passengers. The elderly couple turns out to be most pleasant company, and ironically they have been traveling in celebration of their winning the junk mail sweepstakes! Perhaps Ed McMahon himself came smiling to deliver the check. On the rest of the way into Casa Grande, I thought of winning the $10 million and flying off into the sunset in my newly manufactured Me-262 jet warbird, of course giving the Auster to the local scrap metal dealer with glee. The closest I think I would ever get to winning the junk mail sweepstakes is to hear Ed's hearty laugh in the silence following an engine failure. You know how there are stories about the image of Christ or the Virgin Mary showing up on a window screen or a church wall? I can imagine seeing the laughing face of Ed McMahon appear in the oil streaked windshield of the Auster, as the prop stops and we descend into the desert below. The dream is interrupted by the announcement that we have arrived at the same motel I was at weeks before when I got to this town. My old friend Flat Top and the Mrs. have stayed up late to check me in, and with no further ado I go to sleep somewhat peacefully.

At 4:30 the next morning I lazily get out of bed, get dressed, and call a cab. It is not only dark but also still and lonely outside. We get to the airport and when the taxi leaves I am completely alone in a quiet place full of sleeping airplanes. I have to take in this moment for a little while because I don't normally keep these hours and it's really a pretty sight. I begin to preflight the Auster after a happy hello is said after two weeks. During the preflight I am stopped dead in my tracks by an eye-shutting smell emanating from the cabin. I painfully remove three deceased apples and discover that it isn't worth it to save the ice chest either. The flight case and three full gallons of drinking water are put into the back seat; I do not know where I will spend the night tonight. I have left some money inside the cowling of a predetermined Cessna 150, in payment for Sonny's managing to fix the airplane. I was happy to pay because the other alternative was a week's worth of wrenches and trailers and gas stations. I got into the Auster's left seat, strapped in, checked the controls, and said "Clear!" to an empty airport. The starter button was then pushed …

 Auster AOP Mk VI:: Taylorcraft Auster 6 in Canada, very similar to my Mk V Auster, but this one has a much larger Gipsy Major engine and the Junkers style displaced wing flaps. Note the tiny propeller on the front of the wing, which spins in the wind and turns the electrical generator!
Remember the "Peanuts" comic strip when Charlie Brown tries to kick the football? Lucy assures him that she'll hold it up time and time again, but always can't resist pulling it away just to see him fall flat on his behind. Her laughter fills up the next few comic strip windows. All the airplanes at Casa Grande Airport laughed like Lucy for several minutes. Some of them left oily puddles they laughed so hard, and you could see many of them sitting on their tails with their heads thrown back in hysterics. One Bonanza couldn't even stand up, and it leaned on its wing to keep from falling over laughing. Somehow the humor of the moment escaped me as I climbed out of the seat to flail my arms in disgust. It was 5:20 AM and my good friend "What am I doing here?" was my only companion. I got a very evil look on my face and marched over to the telephone. I woke Sonny up and told him what had happened with just a tinge of rudeness, and suggested that he come out to the airport post haste.


He was groggy and tired, but still genuinely concerned with why it didn't start. I was angry and tired and had taken the money back out of the 150. He smiled that enormous knowing smile, took off the side panel to the cowl, sprayed car starting fluid into the intake, closed the cowl, and started the engine on the second blade! The airplane sat there laughing and purring loudly through its four inch straight stacks. Sonny looked at me like Moe from the Three Stooges, but somehow I escaped a blow from the Giant Idiot Hammer. At 7:30 the airport manager arrives, I quickly gas up the airplane (of course it starts right up with a roar) and I am once again thundering down the runway like a shot with all of about 100 horsepower. Goodbye Casa Grande forever!

We head directly West to go around the Phoenix TCA. I'm usually relatively cautious about TCA's anyway, but with a questionable airplane and a poorly performing handheld radio I gave it an extra wide berth this time. The aileron pressure annoyance introduces itself to me again since I forgot to bring anything to fix it with. It's 7:45 in the morning and I'm already a little tired but looking forward to an uneventful trip. HA! The oil pressure is down to 35 pounds after climbing only 1500 feet. The airplane is making only about 75 knots. I realize it's going to be a long day with lots of worries about the engine.

8:00 AM- We pass directly over the Estrella Sailport, one of the classic glider soaring sites in America. My mind wanders back to 1979 when I first came to this place as a brand new private pilot. My first two hour soaring flight was here, as well as my first experiences with mountain ridge lift and canyon flying. Years later I would return with my own racing glider and skim along these hills with the best of them; I'm told that my name is still on a fastest race speed trophy in the airport office. Oh God how the lessons I learned here have served me in my life, and many times over I would not have survived a race heat or pleasure flight without the strange, passionate religion that is soaring. It dawns on me that I will be using many of these skills flying this antique British contraption. The greatest talent I acquired was being calm and resourceful in off-airport emergency landings, and I am very aware that I may indeed have one or more of them on this journey.

At 8:30 I am going through mood swings like a manic depressive. One minute we're a comfortable 800 feet over landable farm fields West of Estrella - and the next minute 800 feet means I'm less than sixty seconds away from a cartwheel through the open range of sagebrush and mesquite if the Cirrus Minor quits. Oil pressure has dropped to 25 pounds. A few minutes later we cross the last desolate area and the farm fields of Buckeye, Arizona fill the windshield. A sigh of relief for the last few miles, and a very fine landing at Buckeye Municipal watched by an audience of crop sprayers, two Luscombes, and an oily but flying A-26 bomber. I taxi to the pumps, find the guy, and fill it to the top. The airplane is then pushed to the maintenance hangar where the owner looks at the Auster with mild interest, but he looks at me a little funny 'cause I'm drenched with sweat and look like I went ten rounds with Mike Tyson. I tell him that I'm an actor and we just finished filming a commercial for Gatorade and I'm still in costume. He laughs and tells me I can pull the Auster into the hangar to cool it off. We roll a huge, leaky swamp cooler over to the airplane and point the cool air current into the engine compartment. It takes an hour to cool it off so I could touch the engine. I guzzle almost a gallon of cold water in the same time, and refill the water containers. At 10:25 I prepare for engine start by priming the engine and spraying starting fluid into the intake. I climb into the airplane, knowing I am facing certain humiliation. To my most pleasant surprise, it starts with a good growl the first try. I look at the sky like a TV faith healer screaming hallelujah with tears rolling down his wallet. We rattle down the runway with a fresh 40 plus pounds of oil pressure and a new lease on life. The nose is swung West again to follow I-10 out of the Phoenix area. The stick pressure needed for level flight is a constant minor expenditure of energy that prevents any enjoyment of the flight; this is not to be a pleasure cruise. The power reduction from takeoff to max continuous arrests the climb rate instantly, leaving me with 75 knots indicated, zero rate of climb, a thousand feet AGL, and nearly full power. The oil pressure starts in again. It's almost 100 degrees and this airplane simply doesn't want to fly. Finally we begin to climb and gain speed at the same time, telling me that the air is coming to life with thermals. By weaving slightly into the updrafts and force-climbing the airplane in the rising air only, I put two thousand feet in the bank and get the speed up a bit. What a sight it must have been to see this drunken airplane weaving and pitching over the highway!

Emergency landing fields and roads have been nonexistent for a long time. If it quits I'll be landing on the freeway, trying to explain why I have single-handedly prevented the trucks full of produce and fertilizer from keeping their appointments with destiny. And God the paperwork! The private strip at a place called Ora Acres is the next reasonable place to make a precautionary landing if I need it, but it never seems to appear in view. I cross a low rocky ridge expecting to see it on the other side, but it's not there. Maybe the next low ridge ... no, maybe the next ... no, maybe the next. I'm flying on the oil pressure gauge (30 lbs or less), the tachometer (light and variable), the airspeed (what a slug this thing is), and the altimeter (don't ask). Any change in one alters all the others, and this must be properly woven in to the subtle undulations of the thermals in order to maintain altitude and a reasonable progress towards my goal. Ora Acres looms into view, disappointing after all that grief.

 The Steel Aeroplane is what the Auster was called in the factory advettisements, a title which is certainly earned... the Auster is 25% heavier than the American Taylorcraft, despite being the exact same size and design!

12:00 noon and we finally reach Quartzsite. This is a small speed trap town with no airport, but it does have a mysterious skeleton of a Twin Beech parked in a large dirt lot. My spirits are high because just over the small mountain West of Quartzsite lies the California border. The oil pressure needle is below 22 pounds but the hard fought altitude I've kept in reserve allows me to reduce power and still clear the rocks at the top of the hills. Once past this last obstacle, We both breathe a great sigh and begin a long, grinning descent into California. It may not seem like much now, but approaching my home state after this ordeal was almost a tearful moment for me. Some of you know. Crossing the Colorado river in style at 90 knots and reduced power, we arrived over that most beauteous garden spot in all the world, Blythe, California. The vast windswept airport is a welcome sight, and I waste no time with a regulation pattern. Eighteen pounds of oil pressure and I made a quick, hard left into the wind and plopped down on the wartime concrete. Not a soul to be seen, I taxied to the big open hangar door and let the engine die a merciful death while still rolling. I crawl out of the plane into an inferno like when you open the door of the oven to check the pizza. It's 12:30 on the 20th of July, and we have just arrived in Blythe to a 109 degree welcome. I can just roll the nose of the Auster into the shade of the hangar to cool it. There is no luxury like a swamp cooler to be found here. I take the cowls off and pat the airplane on its nose; it just got me across some very forbidding terrain under conditions it was never supposed to handle, with an out of rig left wing. Thanks, airplane. I shuffle across a hundred feet of skillet to the so called "Pilot's Lounge", prepared for the worst. I'm close to heat exhaustion despite drinking lots of water. I open the door of the building and I'm hit with a blast of the coldest air conditioning imaginable. I'm smiling like a little kid; the guy sees this, and using his brain says nothing but points to the couch in the corner. I collapse onto it like a commercial for a hotel. It's ten minutes before I can even move to take off my glasses.


Knowing that the engine will take a long while to cool, I luxuriate in the air conditioning for half an hour. I was well aware that Blythe might be a long stop or even an overnight, so I made up my mind to wait as long as necessary for the airplane to cool down. I also want to check the oil level and engine compartment for signs of impending doom, knowing that the gremlins must surely be at work while I'm cooling off. Gremlins get really upset if you beat them and fly home. I ask the professor at the desk about the possibility of food nearby. He puts his quantum physics thesis down just long enough to tell me that there is a truck stop a mile and a half down that road. I walk out to the Auster and find that it hasn't cooled much at all, and down the road I went. A slow walk in 110 degree heat gave me time to think about a lot of things, particularly "what am I doing here?" The lady at the truck stop asks what I want. I want three glasses of orange juice and a tall glass of ice cubes. She looks at me funny. The cold juice is so delicious and revitalizing. The hamburger was gross. Another half hour walk in the peak heat of the day, and I was ready to collapse on the couch again. I did, and the professor told me later that I snored loudly. At 3:30 I open the door and walk into the blast furnace. It's 112 degrees in the shade, and the engine and oil tank have cooled off to this temperature. Marvelous. He fills the tank to its brimming eighteen gallons, the damn thing starts right up, and it is definitely time to go. Blythe is a large airport with little traffic, there is a long taxi to the departure end of the runway, and I'm not long on patience under the best of circumstances. We blast off of the taxiway crosswind because the oil pressure and engine cooling are more important to me on this trip than strict adherence to procedure. I remember dangerously overheating this engine by taxiing too much in Willcox. We settle quickly into the standard nervous flight regime of flying on the oil pressure gauge and meandering to keep good landing ground in range. West of Blythe, California this means the I-10 freeway and nowhere else. The only pleasant invitation comes from Ford dry lake bed, just alongside the highway. Past this, there is only miles of open desert with a crowded interstate 1500 feet below us. The flight is a constant battle to climb and make progress without undue stress on the engine. Every foot of altitude that can be gained by playing the currents in this ocean of air is cherished. Gone are all normal thoughts of cruising altitudes, I'll get as high as this thing will go for the sake of safety and slightly cooler temperatures. It's an ongoing tug of war with the stick to keep the wings level; this is not what I had in mind when I took flying lessons so long ago.

The 5 o'clock hour is passed and noted. The oil pressure has stabilized at 25 probably due to the heat of the day having broken. By this I mean it is probably below 95 degrees. We are making a long run over unlandable terrain with nothing but the freeway to land on as usual. The fact that we are cruising at 12 to 1500 feet above the desert makes everything seem further away and out of reach. Without any terrible stress, we make it to Desert Center with its farm fields and the remains of the airport that served General Patton's desert training facility. I look at the forlorn runways and see a thousand ghosts making plans to fight a war only remembered. What have you seen in your lifetime, airport? Funny that even on a difficult and potentially dangerous flight a pilot can always take a moment to think about things like that. The next checkpoint is Chiriaco Summit, a small airport and gas station by the roadside. It is at the top of a long grade between two jagged mountains, and it looks impossibly far away. I go into climb mode again, hoping that the ground doesn't rise up into the tires before we get there. The oil pressure is down to 23 pounds. As we approach the summit more than a little nervous about being 500 feet AGL, I suddenly realize that I've been looking at a dirt road instead of the airport. The real airport is ten miles further and a few hundred feet higher. The Auster climbs very slowly, and individual gusts often take away what little altitude gain was made over the last few minutes. Finally, the Chiriaco Charade is over when we pass by at three hundred or so feet above the narrow runway. I pat the glareshield with a silent thanks, but several miles of open desert still lie between us and the Coachella Valley's farm fields.

5:45 P.M. Jubilation at last! The multicolored fields and cities of the Coachella Valley come into view. Behind this, Mount San Jacinto looms in the distance. San Jack has been waiting for me with a smile and I can see by its expression that it will enjoy thrashing my little airplane. The first serious airspace problem of the trip crops up as we enter the valley. Palm Springs ARSA covers the safest route over farm fields and duster strips. The only clear airspace is under the top layer and North of the agricultural area, behind a low mountain range. I can imagine approach control trying to deal with this wheezing antique airplane, hearing me say "Unable to climb above your airspace, request vectors through the airliner climb corridor and please prepare for a possible unintentional full power landing at Palm Springs due to light downdrafts". We'll go around the back way, slinking low like the family dog after an unwanted deposit is discovered in the living room. I felt like a dope smuggler, except they make good money flying like this. I give up all that hard fought altitude as we descend into a valley much lower than the Chiriaco Summit, giving the engine a break from the hours of abuse it has endured. As we whistle down to a thousand feet, the oil pressure comes up a pound or two in thanks for the power reduction. I thank the engine aloud; we'll be over many good landing spots for the remainder of the trip, and I've gotten a new respect for it after the two long legs of today's flight. It's six o'clock.

 Smiling Rex! :: This is the life size Tyrannosaurus Rex that features in the difficult approach to Banning Airport. This particular Rex is also featured in the movie Pee Wee's Big Adventure. It may have been torn down by now due to a large casino built on the same site.

For the first time in awhile, the fuel gauge is now an item of concern. We have just enough to reach Banning, and I really don't want to land at Palm Springs with a crappy radio. Onward we charge! Just a few miles North of Palm Springs, left wingtip slicing through the ARSA, the mountain strikes. Billions of cubic feet of air blowing through the gap between two 10,000 foot mountains at the Banning pass are flowing outward and downward on the lee side of the pass. The downdraft, the turbulence, and the headwinds smash into us all at once. The Auster bucks and rocks. The rate of climb is a steady 300 feet a minute down. In max climb condition, the airspeed is below 60 knots with a probable groundspeed of 35 miles an hour. The airplane can't nearly outclimb the downdraft, so we are hanging there fighting to keep right side up while sinking towards the ground. The trucks on the highway were passing me, and I thought how I would probably be home and comfy by now if I had put the plane on a trailer two weeks ago in Willcox. I'm no longer worried about the oil pressure, the oil temperature, or the airspeed. We may hit the ground at full power trying to get to an airport ten miles away and 500 feet below our present height! At the most inopportune moment I could imagine, I look out the right side window to see a 60 foot tall Tyrannosaurus Rex smiling at me as I go by. Not being surprised at anything after all I've been through the last month, I smile back at him so as not to be rude to my elders. Besides, he can run faster than I can fly. T. Rex returns to his job of attracting tourists to a roadside market, and I smile at myself and shake my head. Only an airplane nut like me could have all this adventure happen in a month thanks to an old underpowered airplane, barbecuing in the July fourth sunshine, eight hours of nerve rattling - aileron pushing - not climbing - low oil pressuring - road following cross country, and have a hundred million year old dinosaur smile at him as he crashes into the desert a few miles from a good airport.


 Auster MkV J-1 :: This is the factory's logo of the Auster Mk 5  J-1 'Autocrat', the specific type of aircraft flown in this story.

Just then we reach the narrowest part of the pass. The sinking air stops! The headwinds pick up considerably but the turbulence subsides. The fuel gauge shows two gallons but the airport is in sight now and I know we'll make it. The oil is up to 27 pounds due to cooler air temperatures. I turn onto a crosswind leg just past the end of the runway at 500 feet, and the downwind becomes a triumphant parade over the town of Banning. Turning final high, I pull the engine back to idle, but now it won't idle down below 1300 RPM! The heat must have lengthened the linkage so the throttle lever can't pull far enough back. Full flaps and a forward slip is still going to be long, so after all the worries and troubles with the engine and magnetos I'm going to have to shut off one mag because now the engine runs too good! Of all the ironies ... We land in a 25 knot quartering crosswind and taxi up to the transient tiedown on one mag. A guy walks out of one of the hangars and asks about the strange airplane, then tells me that I shouldn't be walking into town after dark in this neighborhood. The tiedown ropes go on, I take my stuff out of the seats, and he kindly gives me a ride into town. Along the way, I decide that I'll call the two friends in Los Angeles who helped me with the Greyhound reservation in Casa Grande, and see if they'll come give me a lift back home. It's only 90 air miles, and I'll come back in a couple of days to get the Auster. My new friend drops me off at a good coffee shop with all my stuff, looking ragged and beat. It's been a very long day for me and my newly trusted Auster; it got me almost all the way home with none of the major catastrophes that I had imagined. I drag myself into the restaurant and call my friends Marc and Renee'. They'll be here later tonight to pick me up from yet another of my seemingly endless adventures, but for now the waitress has brought lemonade . . . dear God ! Lemonade!