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Old Aviator Tales

Fifty years of memories come flooding back on one last run at the controls of a Piper Super Cub.

The underside of the wing catches the slanting morning light as I watch the world waking below. The limestone ridges light up first, leaving the valleys in deep shadow. Riding the butter-soft air before the thermals stir, I follow the old air routes that lead me across the high plains of the Llano Estacado. The morning smells of sage and cedar, cool enough to make me close the air vents. Soon the heat will force me higher in search of smoother air aloft, but for now, as the miles slip easily toward the next fuel stop, there is plenty of time to reflect on this latest adventure.

After a lifetime of flying for a living, it is finally time for one last logbook entry. Faded blue eyes that match my chambray long-sleeve shirt see an old man’s face reflected in the windscreen reminding me that time is a slippery SOB stealing opportunity and capability without warning, and that I had probably waited longer than I should have to launch this journey.

Yellow supercub bush plane taking off from a grassy field in Alaska flying low over assorted items on a campsite. [Photo: Adobe Images]

The airplane is much the same, having spent a lot of years working as a duster and bushplane from Texas to Alaska. It smells of hot oil and avgas and the leather seat is cracked and worn. The varnish is fractured and faded on the birch floorboards, and the scuff plates are polished silver from souls and soles dancing on the rudder pedals. Oil stains the patched yellow fabric, and the airplane feels heavy with all the gear I thought might be needed in the backcountry. It responds sluggishly to the control stick. But, like an old draft horse, it dutifully plows along the isobars carrying both of us toward an uncertain future.

I have decided there is much to be gained traveling this way, alone with no reservations, reminding me of the old sailors who set out in whaling ships leaving Gloucester and Boston for the back side of the world, not knowing if or when they might return. The country below has witnessed other adventurers, including Spanish explorers who walked in the tracks of the ancients seeking their gods through vision quests into the arroyos and washes that would later shelter the Apache and Comanche as the colonists and soldiers fought for a foothold here. All of them felt the pull of unseen shores. That same feeling still resonates with some of us who seem to lack impulse control.


• Read More: Lost In The Wilderness

The old yellow lab sleeping in the back wakes up when we stop in Pecos for gas. White around the muzzle, he needs a little help getting out so he can let everyone know he has been here by raising his leg on several appropriate spots. An attractive lady working the counter in the FBO runs my credit card while inspecting the dog who gives her his best “I-really-need-an- ear-scratch” look. Works every time. “What’s his name?” she asks as he nuzzles her hand for another round. “That’s Banjo,” I reply.

I nod to the old guys around the table in the lobby. “How are you today?” one asks as we pass by. “Older, fatter, and slower,” I answer, which stumps him for a moment before he chuckles at the unexpected reply.

“Where you headed?”

I answer, “Mostly west,” although my requirements for tonight’s destination include a warm bed, cold beer, and cheap fuel. I have learned not to plan too far ahead.

[Photo: Adobe Images]

As I finish paying my bill, a couple of brash, young corporate pilots sporting the requisite epaulets, white shirts, and Ray-Bans are making small talk with the woman behind the counter. I catch their dismissive glances at my grimy ball cap, Wranglers, and faded shirt before they return to their conversation about duty hours, layoffs, and crap wages. Briefly, the woman and I lock eyes. I can tell she shares my silent opinion of this pair, so I wink, and she gives me a little eye roll. Silently, I wish them well, but mostly I am thankful I never had to go down that path.


As I return to the aircraft, an old fellow is standing nearby, studying the machine with a knowing eye. He has registered the big tires and Alaska mods, sized me up, and determined I was fit for conversation. Gray hair and stubble, eyes alert as a mink, he reminded me of a marooned pirate. “I had one like it many years ago. It ended up wrecked on a gravel bar on the Susitna [River in Alaska]. Still there, I suppose. Mind if I look inside?” I nodded and he stuck his head into the cabin, running his hands over the controls, breathing deeply, eyes far away. After a moment, he turns back and says, “Enjoy the ride son. It will be over before you know it.”

Banjo settles in as I crank the Lycoming, which catches on the third blade and rumbles into a smooth idle. Leaning the engine for taxi in the heat-thinned air of this West Texas airport, we make our way along the cracked asphalt taxiway to the active. The wind is kicking up across the runway, so I sit up straight and focus on the takeoff. The old taildragger, like a fractious stud horse, has a way of punishing any woolgathering on my part.

[Photo: Adobe Images]

Just northwest of the Caprock, I see the first buildups forming ahead. “These will bear watching,” I think, wondering if this leg to Las Cruces, New Mexico, will be possible as the afternoon thermals carry the moisture upward to form the typical air mass thunderstorms. Scrunching down in the seat, I try to get comfortable for the three hours to come.

Vast expanses of farmland flow beneath as I watch a lonely tractor pull a gang plow across a dryland farm, trailing dust plumes that swirl like wingtip vortices. The farmer is turning ground once marked by the hoofprints of Longhorn cattle on the Santa Fe Trail. Some of the water crossings still bear the scars of wagon wheels and hold the bones of settlers who perished under the Comanche moon.


In the wavering distance, the indigo outline of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains appear ghost-like on the horizon. These ancient peaks, still snowcapped, emerge slowly from the salt pans and sagebrush, climbing above the horizon like clipper ships rising from the sea.

Flying these long legs provides ample time for reflection, and my mind drifts back to other journeys, most of them solo, others shared with companions, many of whom are gone now but whose memories often fly with me. But today, at the end of the run, there is a buyer who will soon sit in this seat—for the time has come to close out this chapter. Fifty years of memories reduced to lines in an old logbook. One last entry still to come.

• Read More: Reconnecting With An Old Friend In A Super Cub

So many adventures, from Mulegé to Medford, Skagway to Terlingua. A few bumps and scrapes along the way, but through it all, the feel of freedom, life lived close to the margins where the stories are richer.

Ahead, there is a smoke plume rising, and over the radio I hear the aeronautical cowboys, down in the canyons driving their Neptunes and Martins, red scars marking the retardant runs. What I would give to sit with them at their firebase and listen for a while, but there is no time, for I am due in Tucson, Arizona, this evening.

[Photo: Adobe Images]

Off to the north, cauliflower buildups trail a curtain of rain, drifting slowly with the wind. On the surface, the downburst washes the mesa like a sailor up early cleaning the decks. Brilliant white cumulus clouds drop wisps of virga adding blue-gray colors to the afternoon palate of red rocks and dusty tans of the desert below. An adobe ranch house with a weathered barn and a set of catch pens sits alongside a gravel county road. In the yard, a rusted pickup and Farmall tractor suggest a common tragedy of abandoned dreams. Beyond, the country climbs into canyons and mesas marked by jeep trails that seem to lead nowhere. A land gone lonesome.


Ahead, the interstate marks the route to my destination. Long-haul truckers, pickups pulling cattle trailers, and tourists in fancy RVs crawl along the concrete ribbons while I drift westward above. Traffic above and below is picking up, and I get back to the formal dance of vectors and clearances until finally I taxi into the modern FBO, pull the mixture, and watch as the blades coast to a stop. I sit for a moment before unbuckling the harness, unplugging my headset, and climbing down where I am met by a line attendant who welcomes me with a cold bottle of water and a smile. Just beyond, the buyer is waiting, eager it seems. “Good trip?” he asks. I pause a moment to consider: “Just right.” Grabbing my backpack, Banjo and I head for the exit. 


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