squall-line-photo-by-michael-corneliusSo. I signed up for flying lessons, got an instructor (old cigarette-breath baggy-eyes), and eventually struck a neat deal with the flight school. They had a “discount club” that got you scrip to use for payments, instead of real money. All were encouraged to join. $80 bought $100 in scrip; play money, we called it. The guys who’d been around a while pointed out to me that when the bills were due for the company – once a month – the boss would do anything to get more cash – including giving “club members” a better scrip swap for dollars. Naturally we waited till the moment when he was scampering desperately down the back stairs to avoid creditors coming up the front ones – and there snagged him for a better deal. I got 100 scrip for 50 real. Not bad.

This company CEO was a round, bowling-pin -shaped fellow. Short, with feet that pointed outward like a penguin, and wore coke bottle thick glasses. Those enlarged his eyeballs like bulbous fish eyes. But they also enabled him to fly, with a waiver. He could settle a plane on the runway just like thistledown. Not seeing well, he did it like this… First he slowly descended almost to the end of the runway, just a 100 hundred feet up so he could see the big runway numbers, then fully extended the flaps and slowed the plane to a walk – and peering out over the panel he cut the power, sank gently to the concrete – and tip-toed it on. I can still see him leaning forward, pointing his nose with those thick glasses on them, to see through the windscreen and down onto the runway.

Penguin had high ambitions about a large flight school and charter business. To this end he had rounded up 12 aircraft, mostly single engine for training, most on lease-back (“buy this Cessna, Donnie – lease it back to me to use, and you can pay for it with the income from rental and lessons! Just put it on our flight line… Fly it whenever you want!”) – and thus he had a bunch parked behind the maintenance hangars. Apparently he overextended himself with promises, believing rentals and training would indeed pay their bills. That was Cessna’s leaseback sales mantra, and he believed. And they might have – had the aircraft continued to be airworthy. You know – a workable set of wings, usable propeller, nice upright tail. Well, in his eagerness, he took his eye off the ball. He gave orders for tie-downs – but he neglected to make sure that happened.

There is a reason to tie down an airplane. A strong wind, all by itself, will lift it right up – and not nicely. When disaster came, five were merely set with parking brakes, awaiting the ropes. You know how workers can be… You have to remind them, maybe be on their case. The Penguin wasn’t. He liked to analyze, give orders, sit back – and wheel and deal. It was summer, there were storms. One afternoon while he was leaning back in his office chair, ear to the phone with his mind on his dreams, a shocker of a squall line suddenly whapped through with 80-mph winds punching over everything upright. Buildings shuddered, people grabbed supports, cars wobbled.

From way off you could see it coming, the black clouds ferociously bucking in, with serious force. But he hadn’t been looking out of the window. Behind the hangars, those loose airplanes got flipped into total ruins. Baggy-eyes and I looked at the sad aftermath and clucked. What would he use for a trainer? That scrip was going to be useless. Poor Penguin.

An old wheeze from the field: “How to make a small fortune in aviation? Start with a big one.”