In a thrift shop just off Atlanta’s DeKalb-Peachtree Airport, a wooden case caught my eye. Amy and I spend a disproportionate amount of our time in secondhand stores. A lot of trips are busts, but there are times we strike gold. Sometimes, I can even tell in advance, like once when we walked into a thrift store outside Charlottesville, Virginia, and announced, “We’re going to find a hardcover of Grisham’s ‘A Time to Kill’ here,” and we did. I had a similar hunch as I neared the case. A business card taped to the box bore a familiar logo, and I popped the clasps with bated breath.
The light peeked into the gap to show the lines of a turboprop transport that looked familiar but not quite right. “Wonky-looking model of a Fairchild F-27,” I thought, and posted a similarly captioned picture on Instagram. My buddy Adam Wright, an avid planespotter and airline pilot, corrected me and introduced me to the man with all the answers. I had found a unique model of the Fairchild-Hiller FH-227, and his friend Gary Orlando was plenty happy to tell me all about it.
Gary is one of those souls who walks the earth every day with eyes turned skyward. He’s not a pilot, but he knows the tail number of almost every airliner he has ever flown aboard. He can tell you which airlines have owned said aircraft, how many are in their fleet and notable historical facts on almost any design that’s seen service in the last half-century.
Gary and his friends are the sort who step outside and look up to catch a contrail, then fire up an app to see which flights are overhead before they head on to the car.
Fittingly, he’s a travel agent; he may be air travel’s most enthusiastic and qualified salesman. As he told me the history of the FH-227, his all-consuming passion shone brightly. He wanted that model something fierce. Then, the topic of the price tag came up. The passion dimmed audibly.
If it gives you any idea, when there was a documentary on the crash of an Uruguayan Air Force FH-227 in the Andes, the producers went directly to Gary for their information. He lives, breathes, eats and sleeps FH-227s—an odd pick, with the type ending its production run after only 78 were completed. But some of the operators, such as Britt Airways, frequented his hometown, and he saw them often.
The model had an extra-special connection. The business card belonged to Fairchild-Hiller’s Director of Marketing (Transport Aircraft). This was the model he took to display when he went calling on airlines trying to make the sale. This model was the centerpiece of every FH-227B dog-and-pony show. There was only one place that model belonged.
Gary and I hashed out a number that he could afford to pay.
Adam and I hatched an alternate plan.
I picked up the model before leaving on a trip, and on returning I bought a few large boxes and reconstructed them as a shipping container for the model and its case. The FedEx guy gave me a suspect look for the oddly shaped box, but I told him that it would make the journey. It was made with the engineering of an A&P mechanic and the heart of a man on a mission. “It’ll survive. It has to.”
A year later, I crossed paths in person with Gary for the first time. The Airliners International 2019 convention was in Atlanta, just a few miles from home. I rode down a couple hours ahead of the show’s opening to join Gary and my friend Clint Cottrell, an Atlanta air traffic controller, for lunch at a barbecue joint on Virginia Avenue. I had never met Gary, and Clint had never met him either, although they had been moderators for Airliners.net together.
Huddled around the table, we told stories for a long while, grown men with the energy of children, so very passionate about the idea of flight and each bringing different perspectives to the conversation. Gary told the rest of the story about the arrival of the FH-227 model, and how much it meant to him was readily apparent long before he said as much. Blinking back moisture at the corner of my eyes, I insisted it was time to get going.
After all, they were about to open the convention without us.
Gary got to walk right in. He had ponied up for the full admission to include early access. Clint and I, the cheapskates by comparison, waved our airport and employee badges for a $5 ticket that got us in a little later.
In the holding corral, I listened to the conversations around me. Clint was on the phone, trying to book the Dixie Wing CAF Corsair into an airshow. Older guys, retired from various airlines, held forth on favorite aircraft and destinations. One gent behind me commented to his wife, “These crowds just keep getting older and smaller.” I had never been to such an event before, so I had no baseline to judge against. I’ll tell you that Clint and I both were probably at least 25-30 years younger than the average attendee’s age. But the old man pointed out a very valid point—the crowds were there to reminisce. There’s just not enough mystique about air travel anymore to draw the same level of starry-eyed wanderlust. I didn’t see a single young face in attendance that wasn’t being dragged by a parent or grandparent.
The corral keeper started asking trivia questions. “Who remembers their first ride in a propeller-powered airplane?” Hands soared. “Who’s flown in a DC-3?” Some hands raised. A deck of airline playing cards went to the man who said he’d flown the farthest in a DC-3. Finally, the green flag waved and we were off to the races. Surplus galley carts from Delta? Pass. Couple of big belt buckles? Score.
The show was as much museum as flea market, where grown men and women gathered around boxed models of airplanes to gawk and recall tales from their days aloft. Relics, some as simple as a galley dustbin, drew throngs of men and women, attracted more to the stories than the items themselves, one’s story often beginning before another’s could finish.
My shopping spree continued, reckless as a gambling addict on the Vegas Strip with a fistful of someone else’s dollars. I swooped up coffee cups from defunct airlines friends had flown for, names lost to the winds of history and corporate failures. Kiwi. ValuJet. Another coffee mug bore the beautiful lines of the Lockheed Super Constellation. I’m not predisposed to violence, but if anyone tried to tell me a more beautiful bird had ever hauled paying passengers, we might have to fight. Clint was on a mission for anything from Wien Air Alaska. His selectiveness was a smart move—he had a free hand to help me get to the car later.
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I found a POH for my Mooney for five bucks, complete with expired 1970 aeronautical charts stuck inside the cover and hand-annotated approach plates. I could imagine the Mooney’s owner hunched over a dining room table, planning his trip to Aspen as he marked up the charts. I wondered what became of him and what became of the plane. Having just become the owner of a 1965 bird, I’m now keenly aware of how airplanes often outlive their keepers. I closed my eyes for a moment, connected to the aviator who had used these pages before. I reached into my pocket and dug out my last fiver.
The lump in my throat grew three sizes and I did a double-take at a display of pilot wings for sale. There, between legacy carriers everyone recognizes or remembers, were a set of wings from the regional where I began. The name is no longer on any airplanes, the unsuspecting victim of a merger gone bad. Most of the pilots have scattered to the winds, and those who stayed are flying different routes for different carriers. It’s not a shadow of its old self. It’s just gone, in my mind. Ironically, the asking price for our wings was higher than those of the mainline partners we had flown for.
My wallet soon was as empty as my hands were full. Strategic stops every 10 steps were needed to catch the retro prints of airline terminals that were determined to slip my grasp.
After a quick run to unload stuff into the car, I came back and rejoined Gary, who had found Adam, and we enjoyed a few moments of visiting before reality sank in. My time was up, and my obligations were inescapable. I had to get home. We said our goodbyes, and Gary stammered into one of those heartfelt thank yous for the model, words of gratitude that are often much more awkward than they need be. “You’re welcome, buddy. You’re the only rightful home for that model.”
Nerds like us, after all, have to look out for each other.