Plane & Pilot
Monday, August 1, 2005

The Derelicts

Are airplanes ever so far gone that they’re truly dead?

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?


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