The past meets the present for a mechanic at a small GA airport
By DAVID NIXON
When you are around old airplanes you can’t help but feel part of the fabric of the past. When you grow up in a family that has old airplanes, that is even more apparent. When you work as airplane mechanic in general aviation you add even more to the texture.
Mechanics become part of the history woven in the make and model, N number, serial number, and logbook entries of a flying machine. Your work literally becomes the next page in the life of an old airplane. It is what I like about general aviation and my line of work. How and when the past comes to the present is often a function of happenstance. It happens when you least expect it, sometimes with the simplest of conversations.
I was working at my new job as an mechanic at a small airport when just such a fold in the fabric of aviation brushed by me.
As an airplane mechanic at a small FBO you end up doing more than just working on airplanes. In the course of a day you answer the phone, sell charts, pump gas, promote flying and, oh yeah, fix broken airplanes. I was a new face around the airport and it was while pumping 40 gallons of 100LL that I struck up a conversation with a customer. I had seen him before having the gas cans filled by my boss. Today he was filling eight 5-gallon containers of fuel and I asked him what it was for. “An old airplane I’m finishing up the restoration on,” he said.
An old airplane? My interest was piqued as I love old airplanes. “What kind of old airplane?”
“A Beech Staggerwing,” he said.
“Really wow, they’re beautiful airplanes.”
“They sure are,” he affirmed.
“I know a little bit about Staggerwings,” I volunteered. That’s when he stopped and sized me up like a matador looks at a bull. I could tell he was skeptical of my statement. Young airplane mechanics aren’t supposed to know of such things. Wooden wings and round engines are not taught in A&P schools much anymore. The conventional wisdom is that today’s mechanics are only interested in corporate jets and the airlines because that’s where the careers with salaries, benefits, and retirements are made.
“Oh yeah?” he responded with a questioning tone.
“I had a customer where I used to work with a C-Model Staggerwing with a 300 Lycoming.” I said. I mentioned the name of my customer and the man said he had seen his name in the Staggerwing Club roster. I could tell I’d cracked the door open with this man at the gas pump. We had something in common, a mutual interest.
“But that’s not all — my dad had one when I was a kid, a D-model,” I blurted out. Now he looked at me with a serious look of concentration.
He asked where I grew up. When I replied Port Angeles, Wash., he looked puzzled. “I knew there was a Staggerwing in Port Angeles, but it was an F model,” he countered. “Oh, yeah, I know all about that one,” I said. “It belonged to a good friend of mine, but I think he sold it. He’s my A&P mentor really. He was my Dad’s mechanic.”
Now he was totally flummoxed. His face revealed that he was trying to put all my statements together in some logical order, but it didn’t fit. The Staggerwing community is small and folks know of airplanes and owners. A tall tale would be easy to ferret out.
“What’s your name? What’s your dad’s name?” the man asked me.
When I told him my name and my father’s name, Rod, his jaw dropped, then he broke into a big smile.
“Your dad was a very good friend of mine,” he said, introducing himself as Norm Coffelt. “In fact we flew our Staggerwings together in formation from here in the Pacific Northwest, across the country to the annual Staggerwing Convention in Tennessee back in the seventies.”
I was amazed. It really is a small world. He then told he has a framed collection of pictures from that trip in his kitchen and one of the pictures was of my dad and our family Staggerwing. “I look at those pictures every day,” he continued. “I think of your dad often. How’s your mom?”
I was a bit startled at all this and gave him an update on the family. He asked about my older brothers who were also on the flight to Tennessee. I was too young to go.
“You know I bought a windshield from your Mom after your dad died,” he said. “It’s now on my airplane. We spent a nice afternoon having lunch in your backyard when my wife and I visited.”
I completed the gas fill up and after a few more shakes of the head to counter the disbelief of the chance meeting, Norm drove home and I went back to work.
The next day he returned to the airport, not with empty gas cans, but with the framed pictures of that flight to Tennessee. I could see they meant a lot to him. That bond of friendship from another time and place, still respected, touched me. It felt good to think that those connections, made three decades in the past, were still there. One of the pictures was of my dad putting something in the airplane on a midwest airport ramp. He looked hale and hearty, in his prime.
It was not what I expected when I started a conversation at a sleepy little airport, but you never know where a chance conversation at the airport will ever lead. That’s what I consider a fringe benefit to being a general aviation mechanic at a small, out of the way, airport.