By DAVID NIXON
Maybe there is a little bit of the Stone Age hunter in me that makes me always on the look-out for airplanes in out-of-the-way places.
I don’t really want another project. I have enough to keep me busy, but you never know if you’ll find something that someone else needs.
I become interested when I stumble across an airplane in a field or backyard. I think about who owns it, why it’s there, when did it last fly and, probably most perilously (i.e., most expensively), what would it take to get it back in the air? What I found when my wife, Brigitte, and I were taking a drive through the Eastern Oregon countryside one spring day set me on my most recent hunt.
While driving a section line road back to the main highway, I glanced across a field and saw an amazing sight. It was a row of crop duster fuselages parked nose to tail like a row of elephants traveling through the savannah. They were covered in fabric, without engines, with the “RESTRICTED” placards visible below the cockpits. They looked old.
“Whoa, Nelly,” I said to my wife as I slowed down and pulled off the county road for a better look. I turned around and scanned the area to see if I had missed anything, and saw what looked to be stacks of wings peeking above the grass-covered wire fence.
I turned up the next intersecting road to try to see them from a different angle. There wasn’t another way to the airplanes from here and the tall grass and barbed wire fence kept me a ways off. The corrugated building near all these treasures didn’t have a large enough door to allow even a small airplane to be stored inside, let alone a big old duster.
I stood on top of my car babbling to my wife, who is used to my excited ramblings of esoteric aeronautical information. My rooftop vantage point helped a little. I could see the airframes and wings and who knew what else, but I had to get closer.
I am not ashamed to go up to a perfect stranger’s house to ask them all kinds of questions about the airplanes they have in the Back 40 and that was exactly what I planned to do. I thought of my position as president of the local EAA chapter as a passport to the inside story. It couldn’t hurt. Brig was too embarrassed to participate in my hunt, so I would have to come back alone. I knew who lived on the property from the name on the mailbox. The rest needed a bit of filling in.
The next week, I came back with my loyal sidekick, Ruby, a black Lab, my wing pup. This is field dog country and having one in my company wouldn’t hurt. Think, “Ma, there’s a stranger coming down the driveway, git the shotgun…ah, wait a minute he has a fine looking dog with him, hold your fire, you might hit the dog too.”
I drove back to the farmhouse and knocked on the door. I introduced myself and asked about the airplanes in the field. The woman who answered the door was surprised that I had seen them, but explained, “They belong to my husband. He has a soft spot for crop dusters and someday wants to fix up the pieces of junk out there. He bought them from the aircraft salvage outfit that closed down. He used to fly right off the duster strip two miles that way,” she said as she pointed north.
Duster strip? I’d have to look for that too.
She continued to chat and fill in the history she knew about. I wanted to ask permission to look at them closely, but felt that was pushing it, so I didn’t. I thanked her for her time and for the information.
“By the way, that’s a nice looking dog you have there,” she said, pointing to my wing pup. “Thanks,” I replied. Ruby did come in handy.
Driving home, I planned my next step — aerial reconnaissance. This is one of the best parts of having a small airplane. This was my ace in the hole. Looking out the window for what you cannot see from the ground separates the wheat from the chaff.
On my next flight I brought my camera and county road map. I took off and headed toward the farm. From the air, I found the spot and was amazed to see the amount of old airplanes stacked out there. I could see the fuselages and wings easily enough, but there was also another small airplane carcass, stacks of tail surfaces, and radial engines invisible from the road. It was an elephant graveyard. I quickly snapped pictures, as the engine was powered back and quiet. I made several passes and then, to break up the orbit, headed off to the duster strip she pointed me to.
I found the strip and was surprised to see the remains of a Piper Pawnee duster sans engine. The strip looked abandoned. It was not on the sectional and the sagebrush on the runway was tall and thick. The Piper sat like a cemented-in tetrahedron. “Nothing has been in or out of there for a while,” I thought to myself. The grime on the airplane was visible from my altitude. I snapped a few pictures of the derelict as I did a simulated approach to land on the strip.
Not wanting my day to end too early, I thought I’d head over to an airport where a friend was based. He had invited me to drop in and land anytime. Besides, it was close and you never know what you’ll find, so I headed west and flew over it above pattern altitude and did a wind check. The windsock was limp. I elected to land to the south, so I set for a left downwind and entered the empty pattern.
At that point, something big caught my eye. It was an amphibious seaplane, but not just any seaplane — it was a G-44A Grumman Widgeon. That was easy enough to see from pattern altitude. I shifted my concentration back to my approach and landing. I pulled off the runway and parked. I looked for my friend, but he wasn’t home. I then walked down to the Widgeon, a seaplane parked in a desert.
From a distance I could tell it had been modified and updated at some expense. It no longer had a pair of Ranger engines but now sported a pair of Continental IO-470s and constant speed propellers. The wingtips were retractable.
At first it looked like a flier, but closer inspection revealed another story. The tires had rotted on the rims. The fabric-covered control surfaces were in tatters. Bird droppings covered the open area of the cowlings indicating that the nests inside were active and had been there for a while. Despite all that, it still was a beautiful classic seaplane. The pilot side of me thought of all the places a person could go in such an airplane — isolated coves, lakes, and rivers would all be in reach from any city, large or small. A person could travel in comfort and at a reasonable speed. A real go-anywhere airplane, just what the designers envisioned.
As a mechanic, I thought of the bilges and bowls that suffer so much from corrosion on a maintained seaplane, let alone one parked in the rabbit brush that becomes a home to varmints. The hydraulic system that runs through the airplane would need work. All the seals that are exercised by use suffer from stagnation. The coarse volcanic dust being blown into the cracks and crevices doesn’t help matters. There are a lot of cables, pulleys, and engine controls that would chafe and bind up from the grit.
Walking back to my airplane, I thought I’d love to work on rejuvenating the Widgeon or the old dusters, but the airplanes I found would need deeper pockets than mine. I patted the spinner on my little airplane and told her she doesn’t need to worry. None of the airplanes I saw today would distract me from her.
Later, after a nice return flight and pushing my little airplane back into my hangar, I continued to wonder about the pinioned airplanes I saw. I had been hunting elephants, but I had found something else. I thought it was an elephant graveyard, but it wasn’t.
Graveyards mean death and finality. But old airplanes are hard to put down. They can be resurrected from just the paperwork with enough time and money. It was sad to see such beautiful airplanes slowly disintegrate. What I had witnessed was more akin to watching dinosaurs wallowing in a tar pit.
Driving home, I continued to ruminate on the day when I had a thought, a ray of hope. After many years, a new generation comes along. They seek out tar pits, to excavate what is there. They take their discoveries and make celebrated museum pieces out of what they find. I hope these old dinosaurs have the same fate.