I’ve mentioned them before—those long-dead, thoroughly baked carcasses I taxi past each day that at some time in the past, were airplanes. Now they’re aeronautically shaped mounds of dust and bird droppings that occupy the last tie-down spots on the ramp. It’s as if they’re purposely quarantined away from “real” airplanes, those that fly, so as to not pass on the lethal disease they may carry. Out here, we refer to those kinds of airplanes as roaches. Don’t ask why. It just seems to fit.
Two of them are square-tail Cessnas—a 1957 C-172 and a C-150 of about the same vintage. For the 13 years that I’ve been flying out of this airport, those two old airplanes have been glued to the ground by their tires, which are nothing more than sun-molded black lumps. For something in the neighborhood of 3,000 hours, I’ve taken off and landed nonstop right in front of their corroded noses. I’ve sometimes wondered whether or not they miss flying and if I’m being cruel by rubbing their noses in it. I’ve also wondered how much longer they could sit there before one of those huge neighborhood garbage trucks comes by, scoops them up and crushes their weary bones into the dumpster. Then, for no apparent reason, things began to change.
I was taxiing out a couple of weeks ago, and there was a car parked next to the roachy old C-172. The airplane had a subtle list to one side because of the tires, and the last foot or so of one wing had a decidedly upward tilt, where it had given terra firma a gentle tap at some point in its life. I figured the Cadillac was using the wing for shade while its owner flew one of the other, less disreputable airplanes. The next time I taxied past, however, the Cad’s trunk was open and a gray-haired gentleman in jeans was busy pulling rusty screws to uncover what used to be an engine.
Over the next several days, every time I’d taxi to the runway, I’d see him making progress. Gradually, new metal appeared at the wingtip. Then the airplane looked vaguely wrong because it was level for the first time in over a decade after he replaced the tires. If it looked strange to me, then can you imagine how the airplane felt? Sort of like an old-time sailor stepping onto dry land after months at sea, not sure of the new attitude.
I was still in the process of marveling that someone would actually be performing CPR (Cessna plane reclamation) on what appeared to be a corpse, when I started seeing toolbox activity at the C-150 sitting next door. What was going on? Some sort of run for the roaches?
The next day, I taxied my bird over to the wash rack and had to laugh when I found the oxidized old C-150, which I know for a fact hadn’t turned a wheel in at least 13 years, sitting in the bay surrounded by people who appeared to know what they were doing. The tiny woman with an AARP card in her wallet fluttering around the airplane was a real trip and was emphatic that it was her airplane, not her late husband’s. She had bought the airplane in 1978 to get her pilot’s license before ever meeting him. Nearly 30 years later, however, she still hadn’t realized that goal and decided to do something about it. Even though the airplane had been sitting in that spot on the ramp since 1980, she and her gang of mechanics were determined to breathe life back into it. To my amazement, they actually fueled it up and taxied back to their tiedown spot. Obviously, Arizona is easier on comatose airplanes than other states.
In the past, I had stopped and given both airplanes a good once-over because there’s something about derelict airplanes that most of us find irresistible. No matter how bad the airplane looks, we see past the oxidized paint and dinged sheet metal and, in my case, I visualize them sitting in my shop, wings off, while I lovingly clean and straighten, rivet and paint. I have this perennial image of myself hunched over a workbench while I perform some sort of magic that, over a dimensionless period of time (daydreams aren’t measured in hours or days), results in one of those eye-catching restorations we’d all love to own.
The rational side of my brain recognizes such thoughts as nothing more than wasted neurons. I know I’ll never do a corroded-to-shining-airplane transformation. I’m close to lots of restorations, so I know we’re talking years here, and I’m not about to invest years in anything. It’s not that I don’t want to or don’t know how to do aerial CPR. It’s just that one really irritating aspect of maturity is that reality finally becomes part of our decision-making processes. When we’re young, we have an amazing ability to turn our heads and ignore reality, and the mental fire that comes with starting a new project propels us over huge obstacles. Now, reality tells me that the time just isn’t available to allow me to inject yet another project into my life. Bummer! Like a new love, there are few things better than the rush of starting a new project. Walk through my shop, and you’ll see that I’ve felt that rush entirely too often.
As I watched the roaches being transformed into weary-looking butterflies, I found it heartening that there are those who, regardless of age, still have the ability to turn their heads and ignore common sense while going for their dreams. It’s because of those kinds of people that some airplanes will be immortal.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at www.airbum.com.