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Why You Should Not Judge A Pilot By Its Cover

Flying, life and the temptations of first impressions.

Super Cub

Many years ago, I was fresh out of college with an education degree from the University of Texas, which meant I had a head full of disjointed information and little practical experience. In short, I had a lot of lessons to learn. Not finding a teaching job right away, I accepted a position managing the retail sales floor of a busy lumber yard and construction supply company in a rural area of central Texas. Our customers were a mix of home builders, ranchers, tradespeople and homeowners. We were kept hopping, filling orders, arranging deliveries and giving free advice. 

I was a bit full of myself, given that I now had an office, several employees and a regular paycheck. So, I set about fixing some of the business practices that, to me, seemed haphazard and unprofessional. For example, the sales staff would regularly allow customers to charge their purchases on an informal basis by recording the sale on a paper ticket, then holding onto the paperwork until the customer returned later with a payment. “How can you be sure the customer is going to pay us?” I inquired. “Well, we know everyone, and they are usually good for it,” was the response. I decided to institute a new process where customers desiring credit would have to complete a formal application and provide some references and banking information. Although there was some grumbling among the staff and a few of the customers, for the most part, this became the new policy.

One day, I was crossing the sales floor and noticed an older fellow at the counter placing a large order for some fencing supplies. He was a bit bedraggled, dressed in a faded chambray shirt and Wranglers. I continued to my office and received a call from up front. “Hey, James Harcourt is here and wants to purchase a truckload of material for his ranch and put it on account. Do you want to talk to him about the new policy?” “Certainly, send him back,” I replied. A few minutes later, the old rancher stood in the doorway to my office. “I’m James Harcourt, and I understand I need to speak with you about my order.” I shook his extended hand, which was calloused and rough, sort of like a piece of sandstone. His grip was firm, and he held my hand and my eye for a beat before taking a seat. 

I had a moment to study this guy as he was getting settled. He set his stained feedstore gimme cap on the corner of my desk and waited for me to begin. As I explained that he would have to complete the necessary application, I watched his expression harden a bit. He remained silent for a moment, then asked to use my desk phone. 

He dialed a number from memory, waited for an answer, then said, “Hi Sallie, it’s James. Could I speak with Woody?” I listened as Mr. Harcourt explained the situation to the caller. Then, without further explanation, he handed me the phone. “Hello, who am I speaking with?” I asked. “Son, this is Woody McCasland. I understand James would like to purchase some material on account and you are wanting some credit information.” I knew Mr. McCasland was the president of our local bank, although we had never met. 

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“Yes, he placed a substantial order, and we need some proof of financial responsibility.” The voice on the phone increased substantially in volume as he delivered his message. “Son, if James Harcourt wrote a check to buy your whole operation, I guarantee it would be good. I suggest you stop wasting everyone’s time here and get about filling that order!” He slammed the phone down, ending the call. Turned out that the bedraggled old guy was the largest landowner in the area and one of the wealthiest men in the county. I quickly apologized and watched as he stood up, thanked me for my time, smiled slightly and departed without further comment. He and I both understood that I had just learned an important lesson.

By 2004, I was actively flight instructing and owned a Piper Super Cub, which I used for tailwheel training. One day, I had a call from a fellow wanting an hour of flight time. I asked if he had any tailwheel experience and what he might want to do during the flight. He explained that he had not flown in the last 20 years, but he had logged a fair amount of tailwheel time in the past. He simply wanted a chance to fly the Super Cub around the area, see the sights and possibly do a couple of landings. I could tell by his voice that he was older, and I imagined him to be very rusty given the passage of time. In my mind’s eye, I saw an elderly pilot who remembered when, long ago, he had the requisite skills and who somehow thought he might still be up to the task. I thought, “This will be a big waste of time, but if he wants to try, then I’ll schedule the flight.”

A week or so later, the fellow showed up at our local airport, logbook in hand, and asked for me. He was rail-thin, casually dressed in khaki pants and a long-sleeve shirt buttoned to the throat. Appearing to be in his early 80s, slightly frail, he introduced himself, and we sat down to visit. “Tell me about your flight experience,” I said. Richard described learning to fly in the service, followed by a stint as a crop-duster after the war. He had flown some charter and worked as an instructor for a few years before retiring. Turned out, he had a couple of hundred hours in Super Cubs and similar airplanes over the years. 

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It occurred to me that Richard had avoided the common habit of embellished memories. We all tend to remember our past aviation exploits a bit more grandly than sometimes deserved. I was used to old pilots telling stories of past adventures where they overcame danger and emerged unscathed, subtly suggesting superior airmanship as the factor in their success. But there was none of this in Richard’s recounting. In fact, I found his recitation subdued and rather matter of fact.

He appeared fit enough to climb into the front seat of the airplane, so we proceeded to the hangar, where he paused as the yellow Cub came into view. I watched as his eyes studied the machine, carefully noting the condition. He followed me as I preflighted, then helped roll the airplane outside. I was prepared to assist with the mounting up, but he smoothly swung into the front seat and found the seatbelt and harness. I connected the headset, explained the intercom and the various switches and controls. He nodded, asked a couple of questions and waited for me to get settled in the back.

I started up, taxied out to the ramp and completed the run-up. I explained that I would make the takeoff, then turn the controls over to him. He sat quietly as we climbed away. “Your flight controls, Richard.” I felt his hands and feet come on, and he proceeded to make some gentle turns. Although his movements were a bit uncoordinated at first, soon the airplane began to carve smooth arcs through the morning sky, and I could feel an increasing confidence in his inputs. 

We did some steep turns, slow flight, a couple of stalls while making our way over to a nearby airport with a long and wide grass runway. I was beginning to relax a bit given his deft handling of the controls, but I still had serious doubts about his ability to land the taildragger. We entered the pattern, and I coached him through the approach. During the flare, he struggled a bit with judging the height, got a little crooked, then sorted it out. We touched down smoothly in a respectable three-point attitude and rolled to a stop. By now, I was mentally passing “pleasantly surprised” on my way to “wow, this guy still has it.” “Would you like to make the takeoff?” I asked. His landings got smoother and straighter as we proceeded to fly several laps around the pattern.

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With time running out on our hour of flight time, we returned to home base and put the airplane to bed. Back in the classroom, I complimented Richard on his performance while filling out his logbook. Casually, I asked him about his military flying. “I flew at the end of the war. I was stationed in England, escorting bombers from the Eighth Air Force on missions to Germany,” he explained. I shared with Richard that my father had also flown in the same theater, flying fighters including the venerable P-51. I related how my dad had encountered the German Me 262 jet fighter and how impressed the American pilots were with the speed of the airplane.

I was idly flipping through Richard’s logbook, noting the entries from that period, when he quietly informed me, “Yes, it was quite fast, but by that time in the conflict, the pilots were not very experienced.” He then casually mentioned, “I shot one down.” He went on to explain how the young German pilot made a basic mistake that allowed Richard to get into position to fire. Dumbfounded and lost for words, I continued reading the entries in the faded record. I found the entry for the day of the sortie. “Shot down ME-262” was all it said. Richard had ended the war with three other downed airplanes, one short of enough to qualify as an “Ace.”

We visited a bit longer before he had to leave. I asked him to come back and fly the Super Cub again and share some more of his stories. He smiled faintly without commenting and took his leave. I never saw or heard from him again, although I think of him often.

As I recalled his quiet humility, the elegance of his flying despite the years, and his joy at returning to flight one last time, I realized that in our short time together, he had provided me a parting gift. Once again, I had been presented with a lesson about being very careful about judging people from their appearance. Assumptions are often wrong, and people are sometimes not as they seem. Hopefully, I have learned to be better next time.

Enjoy more of Ken Wittekiend’s “Wandering Skies” columns here.

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