Once, when I was a teenager manning the pumps at a full service gas station, a gentleman rolled up in a gorgeous Rolls Royce. He claimed it had previously belonged to the velvety-voiced crooner Nat “King” Cole.
You can imagine my surprise when he climbed out and encouraged me to take a seat behind the wheel. That machine was in an entirely different league than the 10-year-old Ford Custom I was driving, and because of his gracious invitation I continue to carry the memory of a rich wood instrument panel, fine leather upholstery, and the magnificence of the previous owners name emblazoned on the woodwork.
As you might surmise, I appreciate a beautiful car, I just don’t own one. I’m more focused on the practical side of the question. Still, I feel the same admiration for them that others do. My heart feels the same desire to climb in, fire the beast up, and drive it around the block a time or two. I’m not dead, after all. I’m just cheap.
Knowing all that, it may surprise you to know that I have friends who drive some pretty nice automobiles. One even has a Bentley. It’s a work of art — really it is.
Yet never, not once, have I slid in behind the wheel and turned the key. I’d like to, of course. I’d love to feel the power and experience the whisper soft suspension as it rolls along the road. Yet I don’t. And there is a very simple reason that I have not, as of yet, driven my friend’s Bentley.
It is this: He hasn’t offered me the opportunity. Couple that with an equally relevant point: I have never asked him to, and I think you can see the crux of the issue.
I share this right now because although we are deep in the throes of winter, spring is headed our way at a rapid pace. And with the spring comes a plethora of aeronautical events, many of which involve aircraft on static display. You’ll find them tied down right there in the middle of everything — many with their doors open.
When you encounter this scenario, please remember that this is the exact time and place where a bit of etiquette and respect should come into play.
Just because the aircraft is tied down without the benefit of an armed patrol or a barbed wire enclosure complete with high voltage barriers and an automatic tear-gas dispensing unit, that does not constitute an invitation to climb on the airplane, slide into the front seat, and start manipulating the controls as if you are conducting an imaginary flight.
The aircraft isn’t there for you to do destruction testing on, either. No one appreciates it when a spectator grabs a flying wire and starts throttling it back and forth to see how much of a beating it can take.
Amazingly enough, that sort of cheeky insolence happens more often than you might think.
I once knew a fellow who owned and maintained a beautiful Waco biplane. It was a true classic. Yet he no longer takes it to fly-ins because he once had the unfortunate experience of seeing a woman heft her young child onto its lower wing and begin the process of changing a diaper. When he asked her to stop she yelled at him, questioned his parentage, and encouraged him to mind his own business.
Sheesh. Some people, huh?
Just recently I saw a man walk up to an airplane and start tightening the ratcheting tie-downs with a fervor seldom seen in casual passersby. When one of the plane’s crew asked him to stop, he continued vigorously, explaining that he knew what he was doing. Apparently the fact that he didn’t own the airplane or have any experience with it meant little to him.
Years ago, while I was working on a World War II bomber restoration, a friend of the facility’s owner flew in and taxied up in a pristine P-51. While he was inside the office, visiting, visitors to the facility decided on their own that any airplane on the ramp was fair game. The shouting and arm waving that resulted from the discovery that entire families were climbing onto the wing of this privately owned masterpiece was something to see.
This oddity of human behavior seems to be limited to the airport, at least in my experience.
I have rarely heard of a couple driving down the road, and upon seeing a house that catches their eye, stop, let themselves in, and tour the home — regardless of the wishes of the owners. Never have I seen a kid driving an ancient VW Beetle find himself in a parking space near a new Mercedes Benz, and assume that he had discovered the perfect opportunity to try out the car of his dreams.
Imagine if you were pushing your cart through the grocery store and a fellow shopper felt comfortable reaching into your basket and removing any items they found appealing. It would be unthinkable. Unimaginably rude. Shocking. And yet this sort of thing happens all the time at fly-ins.
Consider this as an alternative this year. If you’re walking through the display aircraft and see one that really calls out to you, look around and see if you can identify a member of the crew that is responsible for the aircraft. They will often be wearing shirts and hats that carry the company name. Find a way to catch their attention. Possibly by saying something like, “Excuse me, sir (or ma’am).” They will often turn to face you when hearing these magic words. Follow up with this line, spoken in exactly this way. “May I please sit in the aircraft?”
Trust me. If you take this approach not only will you have a better experience during the fly-in season, but so will the owners and operators of the aircraft on display.