The Man Who Loved Planes (e-book)
A tale of airplanes, pilots, love, flying, loss, discovery, and other devilish things
— Excerpt from The Man Who Loved Planes —
The Man in the Moth
The old man strolled around the airplane, patting the lower wing, stroking the fuselage, caressing the propeller. His face was calm, untroubled, and unlined. And yet his eyes gleamed with knowledge gained through years of experience, brown eyes that glowed with a vague hint of red.
The airplane was a perfectly restored DeHavilland DH-60 Moth biplane. Not the type of aircraft you usually see in the back forty of some guy's farm in southeastern Oklahoma. It was perfect—slab-sided, sharply angled vertical stabilizer, tall and boxy engine cowling—without a scratch or dent to be seen. The entire surface glistened and shone, reflecting the warm light of the rising sun.
Brian Johnson leaned over the top of the three-rail fence and watched the old man preflight the ancient flying machine. Brian began to feel a bit uncomfortable, as if intruding on a very private ritual. But he couldn't look away, not from that airplane…not from the first Moth he had ever seen outside of aircraft history books or old movies. He hoped the man was about to fly it. he wanted to see it lift from the sod runway and soar into the heavens as its sisters had done by the hundreds over 60 years earlier.
The old man, oblivious or uncaring that he was being watched, pulled a clean cloth from the back pocket of his overalls and gently—lovingly—wiped a thin smudge of oil off the lower engine cowling. Then, slowly, he straightened—he was slightly over six feet tall—and considered the sky. He smiled at the few wisps of high cirrus clouds that reflected, in variegated hues of orange, the sunrise that was washing over the runway and the huge wooden hangar that dwarfed the Moth. He stuck an index finger into his mouth, and then raised the moistened finger high over his head to test the winds. He nodded, seemed to chuckle softly, and bent over to check the pair of wooden wheel chocks.
Brian watched in amused fascination as the old man, satisfied that the chocks would restrain the 1200-pound craft, patted the prop spinner and carefully, slowly rotated the prop once…twice…three times…four times. The old aviator walked around the left wing, stepped gracefully onto the lower wing and leaned into the rear cockpit. He made a few adjustments—setting the throttle and mixture and switching on the magnetos—and returned to the front of the plane.
The old man placed his hands on the spinner and rested his forehead on them for a moment, as though saying a brief prayer. One step back. Hands on a prop blade. One quick, graceful motion to spin the prop—and engine—into life…and the ancient Cirrus engine sputtered once, caught, and settled into a smooth idle. Grayish-black smoke puffed once from the exhaust. The old flying machine rocked slightly from side-to-side in time with the engine's beat, the airframe seeming to quiver with anticipation.
Brian, feeling caught up in some heady time-warp, watched the old man deftly kick the chocks away, sprint around a rocking wing, step onto the left lower wing, and slide easily into the small rear cockpit. He donned a white silk scarf and an old leather aviator's helmet. He tugged on a pair of leather gloves and pulled a pair of goggles over his eyes. The Moth was beginning to creep forward on the smooth carpet of closely-cropped grass. The old man cycled the controls and watched the ailerons, rudder, and elevator respond to his inputs. Checking the left aileron, he noticed Brian leaning over the fence and smiled and gave a two-fingered salute off his brow. Brian saluted back, grinning broadly.
The engine's idling lope increased to a louder, rumbling sound as the old man pirouetted the fragile craft and taxied away. The plane seemed to glide over the grass, with no bumps or weaves. Either the grass was as smooth and soft as it looked—like an expensive carpet—or those wheels were not really touching the ground. Brian had flown many times from sod airstrips and, no matter how smooth they looked, the planes always bounced and rocked across every little lump and hole. But not this Moth…not here on this old man's private sanctuary.
While Brian marveled at the scene and the airplane, the Moth pivoted to align itself with the whisper of wind. The engine's pitch became a growl as the in-line four-cylinder achieved full power. No sooner had the aircraft begun to move, than the tail skid rose nimbly from the ground…the Moth accelerated smoothly…the tail dipped lower…the craft lifted clear of the grass and, graceful and elegant as a porpoise returning to the sea, soared easily away from the field.
Brian shielded his eyes from the sun—now bisected by the far horizon --and watched as the Moth wheeled around overhead, dove lower, and passed directly over him at 50 feet. A wing dipped gracefully, and the old man again saluted. Brian waved and stood transfixed as the Moth rumbled and soared away into the sunrise, He didn't move until he could no longer make out the tiny speck against the glare of the sun.
Even then, he didn't leave. Self-consciously, feeling as though he were transgressing on hallowed ground, he climbed over the fence. He walked across the manicured grass, amazed at the firm, smooth texture of it, and turned the corner at the hangar. The big, wide doors were open. Brian stopped and stared into the dark shadows. Eyes wide, he pursed his lips and whistled. He swallowed once and whispered, "Holy shit! I just walked into the frigging Twilight Zone!"
Arrayed before him as if readied for inspection were six more airplanes. Airplanes he had read about…seen in movies…some he had seen in air shows but none he had seen—or ever expected to see—up close and in such perfect condition. Each one seemed to have just rolled off the assembly line. There was no machine shop equipment in sight. No tools. No spare parts. Nothing except these beautiful old winged wonders. Cautiously, expecting some hidden security alarm to suddenly announce his presence, he walked into the hangar. The first five aircraft he quickly identified:
Sopwith F1 Camel
Curtiss JN-4D "Jenny"
Brian stopped. In a dark corner, a small, rotary-engined biplane that he couldn't identify rested, poised and ready for flight. He circled it, considered it from every angle, but still couldn't identify it. He reached out to touch it, but quickly pulled his hand back. It was as if a warning had flashed in his brain—like the warning lights in the T-37 jet trainers he flew at Vance Air Force Base, 175 miles northwest of this surreal strip of sod and sorcery. He was afraid, if he touched one of these machines, they would all vaporize into the figment of his imagination that he was sure they were.
He hadn't really seen that old man fly off in a 60-year-old DeHavilland Moth. Hadn't trespassed onto the impossibly smooth grass of this imaginary airfield. Hadn't stumbled onto this priceless hoard of antique aircraft. Couldn't have.
His growing disbelief and unease were interrupted by the rumbling of the Moth he was about to convince himself didn't even exist. It was still far away, just a distant sound, but—having heard it once—he was sure he recognized the sound. He backed out of the hangar into the full glare of the risen sun, blinking and squinting. Then, as if he were afraid the six hangared aircraft would—of their own volition—start up and thunder after him, he turned and raced across the grass, vaulted the fence, dashed to his Fiat 124 Spider parked on the gravel along the dilapidated road, and leaped into the driver's seat. He sunk into the seat, heart pounding in his ears and chest heaving, and leaned his head back against the headrest.
The top was down, and he stared skyward. The beautiful, grey and yellow Moth coasted overhead, engine idling as the pilot banked it around to a downwind leg. The engine remained at idle as the small biplane glided effortlessly to a flawless landing and rolled to a stop in front of the hangar. Brian wanted to start the car's engine and get out of there, but his fascination with this old pilot and his old airplanes held him as surely as if he had been roped and tied.
The old man looked inside the hangar, a scowl flitted across his face, and he looked across the fence at Brian, who was slinking low in the seat as though embarrassed. The old man peeled the leather helmet from his head, exposing again his tousled grey hair, and waved the limp helmet at Brian. There was no smile of greeting, but neither was there a hint of anger or displeasure. He waved again.
Brian opened the door and stood beside the Fiat, holding the door open…for what? A quick get-away? He waved back—a tentative, uncertain wave.
The old man motioned for him to come closer. He pointed to the open hangar doors, and that scowl again appeared—briefly, like the shadow of a small cloud darting across the sun. But then the sun rose in the old man's red-tinted eyes, and he smiled. He laughed, pulled off his gloves, and unwound the scarf. Still laughing, he motioned again for Brian to come closer.
Brian closed the car door and walked slowly to the fence…and paused. The old man waved him on. Brian slipped over the fence and, with short strides, covered the fifteen yards to the shiny Moth and the laughing old man. Brian waited for the man to speak.
He stopped laughing and, cupping his chin in one hand, considered Brian. His dark brown eyes were amused. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. But he remained silent.
"H-Hi," Brian stammered. "Name's Brian Johnson." He extended his right hand.
The old man said nothing. He just turned away and walked into the hangar and was soon swallowed up by the dark within.
Brian slowly lowered his hand to his side. He waited…for a verbal invitation to enter…some indication that he would be welcome inside.
Nothing. No voiced welcome. No old man returning to offer hospitality. Nothing.
—end of excerpt—