Catch Us If You Can by Chuck Thurston

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Seaplanes used to be a staple of the US Coast Guard search and rescue business. As with any aircraft, periodic training is required to stay fresh in its operation. With seaplanes, “water work” – takeoffs and landings on the water must be conducted now and then.

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Greenwood Lake is a seven-mile long lake that runs roughly northeast to southwest straddling the New York and New Jersey state line. That’s where the pilots and crews of the Coast Guard Air Station in Brooklyn did their practicing when I was part of that unit back in the 1950s.

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The lake was a popular resort area then – it still handles a lot of boating activity – and there was a small Coast Guard unit on the lake. This unit was alerted beforehand if we were planning to do our maneuvers there. These were always conducted in good weather. To be sure, there are no landing strips as such on a waterway, but our plane would come in on an announced heading and the unit would send out a 40 foot patrol boat to “sweep the sea lane” as we made our approach. This meant that they would criss cross the anticipated descent path of the plane and look for debris in the water – perhaps a half sunken log – that could easily puncture the thin aluminum hull of the Grumman Albatross that we flew.

Such activity wouldn’t go unnoticed by the lake residents, of course, and as we approached the lake, boats from all corners of the lake would head toward our intended landing path. When we touched down, watercraft of every type and vintage would look to surround us. One of the pilots would bark out to me, “Hey Radio, get up in the bow and tell those *!@#$&!’s to get their *!@#$&! away from this plane!” Understand that the plane would be settled in the water at this time – plowing – with the big props still turning at idle. A miscalculation by one of the boaters might send him and his craft under one of them with catastrophic results.

I would climb down out of my radioman’s seat on the flight deck, get on my hands and knees and crawl forward between the two pilots to the nose of the plane. I would open the bow hatch there. Before standing up, I would settle my cap low over my stern visage, and put on my aviator’s glasses. Then I would rise up out of the nose of this big plane and holler at the boaters edging closer to the aircraft. “Hey you dumb *!@#$&!’s! Get your *!@#$&! away from this plane!” I took particular delight in this task if there were several hot speedboats (and there always were) with young dudes and their girlfriends – the bathing beauties of the day.

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The best was yet to come, though. The pilots had executed their water landing to their satisfaction and now would come the takeoff! I kept the boaters shooed away from the plane as we taxied down to the end of the lake where we would start our takeoff run. Naturally the little flotilla would accompany us. As we make the turn, I duck back down into the nose, secure the hatch, crawl back to the flight deck and my seat, strap in and wait for the real excitement!

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The CG lake unit’s patrol boat has swept the sea lane for our takeoff and the pilots pour the coal to the two big Wright Cyclone engines. The boats have made the turn with us, and as we start our takeoff run they are off to either side of the aircraft and running full throttle themselves. A few have gotten the jump on us and are ahead. We soon overtake them until our only competition is from the fastest of the lake’s speedboats. Not for long, though. Our takeoff speed is almost 100 mph and we show them our rooster tail as we sail down the lake and lift off into the blue of a lovely day.

 

Chuck Thurston is the author of Senior Scribbles Unearthed and Senior Scribbles Second Dose, available from Amazon and SecondWind Publishing.  

 

Take ‘er For A Spin by Chuck Thurston

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Car salespeople sell Fords and Chevys; door-to-door salesmen sell most anything, and politicians peddle baloney now and then. But my friend Joe — now retired — sold airplanes! Imagine that!

He is the only airplane salesperson I ever knew, so I was always curious about his experiences. Did his customers kick the tires as they walked around his product? Were they interested in the gas mileage? How many wanted to listen to the radio or take it for a ride around the block…um….local airport?

After discharge from the Navy, Joe worked as an aircraft mechanic and ultimately became a licensed FAA Airframe and Powerplant mechanic. A flying club in Toledo asked him to maintain their club aircraft, and Joe accepted — with the condition that his work on their aircraft be traded for flight training. Such a deal! After 2 years of moonlighting maintenance work, he got his pilot’s license.

Joe was off and…flying, and before long found himself in aircraft sales — eventually at Grumman, a big name in aircraft design and manufacturing, with a penchant for feline nicknames, e.g., Wildcat, Hellcat, Tomcat, Tiger, Cheetah, etc. In the 50s, they designed an agricultural applicator aircraft ( crop duster to you) known as the Ag-Cat.

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His customers were the kind of folks who…dusted crops. Right away, this tells you that these are not your garden variety pilots — flying the girlfriend down to Myrtle Beach in the old Cessna for a weekend. Nope, this is flying at hair-raising low altitudes belching out a load of toxic chemicals behind you. And flying this contraption is no walk in the park, either.

Joe took an Ag-Cat — specially outfitted for fire-bombing — to France. South France has an active forest fire season due to the hot, dry winds from African deserts. Joe checked out 4 government pilots on the plane — power settings, take off speeds, landing approach speed of approximately 70 MPH, propeller reversing for short field landing, etc.etc. — and what to expect in flying a Biplane. All four did fine and Joe thought he was finished when he saw striding across the ramp a guy with a black leather jacket, dark mustache, sun glasses, and — as Joe was to discover– an ego bigger than the Eiffel Tower. He was the pilots’ Supervisor, and he also wanted to fly the Ag-Cat.

Joe figured this French Eagle might have some influence on the purchase, so began to check him out. As he stood on the wing next to him and went over the aircraft’s performance characteristics, he noticed that the supervisor was obviously annoyed. What did he need with this simple instruction? Joe became a bit concerned that he might have a problem when he saw the other pilots rolling their eyes. Uh-Oh.

Joe watched him take off OK and felt relieved. On his first landing approach, however, he was doing about 90 MPH. An Ag-Cat characteristic – it will continue to fly at that speed. He didn’t touch down, ran out of runway, and went around for another try.

On his second landing approach he repeated the same problem — too fast. When he was about 10 feet above the runway, he decided he was going to land by one means or another, and put the prop in reverse. Another Ag-Cat characteristic — this maneuver will cause the Ag-Cat to stop flying very quickly. It ended up on its nose. After a quick trip to the bathroom, Joe took a good look at the damage. The first 4 feet of the aircraft was destroyed.

That evening after a couple of drinks, Joe called his company and said that he would need some spare parts sent via air freight — one each, including engine, propeller, cowling etc. — everything forward of the firewall, to be exact. There was a long pause on the phone, then his boss said, “Don’t sweat it, Joe. This happens in this business!”

Joe got to spend another three weeks in South France — certainly not the worst duty in the world — helping to repair the Ag- Cat. “And then,” said Joe ruefully, “they didn’t buy the damn plane!”

 

Take ‘er For A Spin was first published in Chuck Thurston’s Senior Scribbles Unearthed – available on Amazon and Second Wind.

Promises, Promises by Heidi Thurston

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While working as a reporter and weekly columnist for a local paper some years back, I suddenly began to feel like The Remarkable Mr. Pennypacker; the main character in the 1959 movie starring Clifton Webb. He is a respected and charming man with a slight problem. Unbeknownst to anyone, he has two families – one in each of two cities. Before you jump to conclusions, let me assure you that I only have one; the one I have had for many years.

However, I suddenly noticed that people around where I lived and worked, began to think I had more than three children – the three I lived with and the three I wrote about. I should have suspected something was out of the ordinary when I offered to treat the kids to a movie on an evening my husband was at a meeting. This was a film they all had been anxious to see and I was surprised when they all came up with one excuse after another.

My oldest son informed me he felt compelled to do some laundry (this was a first), his younger brother said he had to find some stuff in the attic (we never had one) and their sister insisted it was her turn to walk the dog (we have a fenced in back yard). By the time I realized these were lame reasons not to join me, they were gone and I went to the movie by myself. It was not until I received a call from the boys’ homeroom teachers telling me they had requested a transfer to a school outside the circulation of the local newspaper that the light began to dawn: they had become afraid to say or do anything that I might find good column material.

I questioned their younger sister and she admitted they had told everyone that they were not the children I wrote about in my weekly column. That, of course, started the rumor of my additional offspring. After a confrontation, I promised to try to be more tactful in the future; mainly because I dislike going to the movie by myself. My husband would rather stay home and read. The problem with going solo to see a film is that I invariably need to visit the ladies room at the most interesting parts in the movie and have to be told – in a whisper – what happened while I was away.

I have, by the way, tried for many years to estimate the dullest part of any flick, to no avail – it just escapes me. Waiting for the movie to come to television does not do me any good either – for the same reason. To this day there are action parts of most movies I have still not seen.

Back to the kids who all promised to begin to relate to me again provided I gave up my weekly yell: “that’s a great idea for a column,” every time one of them did something a little different, which was quite often. I had to promise not to comment on the way they left their rooms and the bathroom in complete disarray, how they left lights on all over the house and refrigerator door open.

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I was also not to write about our daughter sleeping open mouthed on the floor in front of the TV. I further promised not to mention how our youngest went to school in second grade with his clothes over his pajamas and had to be sent home to change; nor about how our oldest son flunked singing – in kindergarten!

Oh, there was a list a mile long of promises I had to make. They all, in turn, told me that for keeping all this, and any other of their peculiarities, a secret they would keep their clothes picked up daily, turn off the lights when not in a room, and at all times leave at least one clean towel for me to use.

They promised, and I promised – while I kept my fingers crossed behind my back – knowing full well they were all just kidding. Keeping their rooms clean – never! Just the same, I removed any incriminating column from the paper before any of them picked it up to glance through. I saw no reason to provoke my best resource material.

Heidi Thurston moved up from her newspaper column to full length novels.  Her adult romance, “The Duchess, The Knight And The Leprechaun” is available on Amazon.