An All-American Airshow

Five days after 9/11, a cancelled airshow turns into a patriotic event aiming to heal.

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As I was hefting two humongous boxes of maintenance records into the 180, I found myself thinking about the draconian FAA rules for operating a DC-3, the outta-sight fuel prices, the cost of round engines, spare parts, insurance, a hangar and maintenance. And I said to myself, out loud, "Martha, do we really want to buy this airplane?" And I answered, out loud, "You bet we do." So the bathroom doesn't get remodeled and the front walk stays cracked and I cut the grass and wash the windows myself. I can keep the car forever, cancel the cable and buy perfectly good jeans from Goodwill.

And, on that note, I settled on a name for this bimonthly (if Mac doesn't fire me) column. "Flying; A Love Affair." A good idea, but Unusual Attitudes is more accurate and descriptive.

While this was going on, I noticed an old Cessna 310, N131KM, half-hidden in the bushes, looking more like a garden ornament than an airplane. What a shame to let an airplane deteriorate like that. Sitting on top of the wing in a 310 always makes me feel like Sky King in the Songbird. This one was never a creampuff but now it's totally abandoned. The owner graduated from law school and doesn't need the income from renting it anymore ... and I'm sure he shudders at the liability.

I used to rent 131KM in the FAA for proficiency flying but learned to stay out of the clouds. Cruising happily home IFR from Columbus one afternoon, I found that all the electrons had suddenly gone out to lunch. I was off the air. The owner had mumbled something about the instrument panel and canon plugs, so I slid the seat way back and gave the panel a mighty shove with my foot. Lights, camera and action!

Well, the trip I really started to tell you about in 131KM was VFR-ish in thick haze over the hills east of Chillicothe, Ohio. It was a Sunday morning in September, and I was wildly searching for the Vinton County Airport to carry out my mission: enforce the regulations, protect the innocent, violate the guilty, save lives and stamp out disease as monitor of the annual airshow ... and chicken barbecue.

We were in the 310 because the rule I was breaking that day was the one about taking unclean persons, in this case my sister, Mary, in a conveyance owned or rented by the government. I was pretty sure any taxpayer who knew Mary wouldn't mind and anyway, I always had trouble with that rule ... this wasn't my first, or last, transgression. Like taking speakers to FAA safety seminars. What do you say when Bob Stein agrees to speak at Lawrence County Airport about pilot physicals and special issuances? "Hey, Doc, I'm flying over but you'd better be on the road by 2 o'clock if you're going to make it by 6." Eventually somebody ratted and the FAA sent me home for six weeks. The disciplinary action didn't hurt nearly so much as the betrayal ... I rank tattletales only slightly above serial killers. But that's for another story: "My Life of Crime in the FAA" or "How I Became the World's Only Republican Union Steward."

For most of the year Vinton County is a sleepy little strip on a hilltop in Ohio's next-to-poorest (but most beautiful) county where the only legal industry is a powder company that occasionally blows itself and everything around it sky high. And the reason for the 3,000-foot paved runway is an icon in Ohio aviation annals, Norm Crabtree. In the '50s and '60s, Norm ran the division of Aviation and flew his friend, Jim Rhodes, around in the state's DC-3. Norm convinced the governor that every county in Ohio needed a paved airport. Then Norman assumed command of the Appalachian Air Force and slipped into a new career announcing airshows in the bombastic style of Bill Sweet.

"Oh, Billy, don't do that. Somebody better call 911 ... Hey, look out, here's Harold Johnson, the Flying Mayor of Moraine ... Ya' know, Harold's even older than me but he can still turn that Waco on a dime and give you a nickel's change ... There goes Billy Burns ("Bruns") in another outside loop ... Ya' know Billy just loves those negative g's but, friends, don't let your kids try this at home and, for sure, don't do it after a three-way chili and a milkshake ... Ya' know, folks, I raised all these kids ... There's Darrel Montgomery in Miss Piggy ... Talk about smoke and noise ... Hey, moms, I'm warning you that Darrel makes all the babies cry with that 450 Stearman ..."

But back to us frantically looking for the damned airport. Thing was, we HAD to make it on the first pass. Norman, the entire Appalachian Air Force and the Vinton County Boosters and Pilots were down there, ears cocked for the unmistakable snarl of a 310. I'd never live it down if they heard us wandering around in those hills searching for the airport. Visibility was so crummy it was like flying through a bottle of skimmed milk, and this place was too far out in the boonies for radar coverage or even a good VOR signal at low altitude. Why in the hell didn't they have a beacon or at least a landmark to distinguish one hill from another? Yes, GPS would have been great but it wasn't invented yet.

So I doggedly held the last heading off Yellow Bud VOR and slowed the airplane down to buy some time and minimize the noise. Telling Mary to look really hard was usually not too productive. You probably know by now that navigation isn't my sister's strong point ... she thinks charts are true works of art, really pretty, but bear no actual relationship to the real world. Then she sang out, "There it is," and, praise the Lord, I saw an east-west runway through the murk on a hilltop ahead. As we landed the morning haze was burning off, but the airport was engulfed in clouds of fragrant smoke from the barbecue pits. Fortified with beer and tall tales, the Boosters had been stoking their fires all night, lovingly barbecuing every chicken in Vinton County.

The road was lined on either side with cars, motorcycles and pickups, and airplanes were fast filling the grass on both sides of the runway. Norm's son, Steve, marshaled me into a candy spot on the ramp and we climbed out to a scene from a Norman Rockwell painting. The local high school band in spangled uniforms playing only slightly off key, flags whipping in the barbecue-scented breeze, cops and volunteer firefighters proud in their uniforms and official equipment, the local state representative waving and kissing babies, and every soul in the county there for the airshow and chicken feast. Joe Kessler led Mary and me up to an old motor home sitting on the hill. I've never been exactly sure who owns the "Mobile Mansion," but it's the command center for the Appalachian Air Force. And this morning Thelma Johnson was serving up coffee and heaping platters of bacon and eggs to family, performers, friends and anybody who wandered in.

Have you ever just suddenly known you were at home?

Then we all jammed into a room in the musty little terminal for THE BRIEFING. Now the first pages of an airshow waiver list the regulations you're allowed to break, the time and size of your waivered airspace and a list of scheduled performers and planes ... which always changes at the last minute anyway. The rest is bureaucratic nonsense and a few common sense requirements. Anybody authorized to be in or under the aerobatic area is supposed to read and sign the waiver in blood. Well, nobody in their right mind reads the whole thing; you review "need-to-know" stuff like show frequencies, no-radio procedures, the sequence of acts ... "OK, Ken, you'll follow Roger Trump and Barbie's gonna announce you, right? Billy, you wanna fly twice? Darrel, can you and Miss Piggy circle the jumpers with the flag along with Harold? The T-6s want to do a fly-by and leave, then there's Louie's farmer's act in the Champ and Harold gets 'lost' in the Waco and, dammit, Harold don't scare us again staying down below those hills so long ..."

You make sure everybody's comfortable with the waiver, tell some "remember when" stories and hurl insults at each other. Being invited to fly at Vinton County is special and you won't be back if you act like a jerk. The briefings always conclude with Harold's soft drawl, "Just don't do nuthin' dumb," and it's all for free because you love this lonely little airport in a remote corner of Ohio, and you love and respect each other. At "The Home Show" there are no flight suits, no helmets (except the deerskin one Darrel made for Harold) and no egos. And you wouldn't miss it for the world.

I would "work" Vinton County for 20-some years. One year a guy blundered into the field in a Pitts and landed in the middle of the show. Well, be honest, before 9/11, who called Flight Service for notams when it was clear and a million? Norm handled the intruder with no obvious break in the action but, unfortunately, my boss was there. He'd made the three-plus-hour trip in a G-car with another inspector, probably to check up on me. So I officiously met the errant pilot, frowned as I inspected his paperwork and read him his Miranda Rights ... well, no, actually, told him to submit a NASA form ASAP.

That night the other inspector called me at home after his painful drive back to Cincinnati with our boss in the G-car.

"Hey, Martha, he didn't see it. I tiptoed around it on the drive back but he doesn't know anything, didn't even notice. What do you want to do?"

I called and extracted the pilot's promise that he'd never skip the surly bonds again without getting a briefing. Then I told him to go in peace but, just in case, don't forget the NASA "get-out-of-jail-free" report.

Besides the airshow there's pig roasts, hootenanny's and a horrid bean soup and cornbread thing. Or any weekend throw a shotgun in the airplane and shoot clay pigeons off the Runway 26 threshold where a trap is mounted in cement and hurls clay pigeons out over a deep, wild chasm off the east end. Check for final traffic, of course. In the spring, if Harold's truck is at the Mobile Mansion, I drop in to see if he'll tell me where the morels are ... but he lies and says he's shooting turkeys. Doesn't know nuthin' about mushrooms.

After 9/11

It was September 16, 2001, a cloudless, beautiful Sunday morning and Vinton County Airshow day. Why go? There'd be no show this year. The Boosters and Pilots wanted to present me with their annual Vaughn Barbey Award this year but that could wait. No, more than ever, I needed to be there.

I filed IFR from Lunken to 22I with strict instructions to cancel by telephone only after I was on the ground at 22I. On the return, if I was lucky enough to get one, it would be a void time clearance by phone from Indianapolis Center and I'd risk getting shot down if I failed to call on the assigned frequency once airborne. I launched and, except for the handoffs from Cincinnati Departure to Dayton, Columbus and Indy Center, the radio was eerily silent. I didn't hear or see another airplane except jets circling at high altitudes.

As I landed the 180, the airport was engulfed in clouds of fragrant smoke from the barbecue pits. The road was lined with all kinds of cars and trucks, the flags were waving, the high school band playing and nearly everybody in the county was there. We hugged and talked, they presented the award, the band played, we ate chicken and watched the RC modelers, and then I made my phone call and took off.

A few days later, I ended a letter of thanks to the County and the Boosters with these lines:

I'll always remember how bittersweet it was to fly to Vinton County this year on September 16, while we were all reeling from the horror in New York five days before. There could be no airshow, of course, but there were lots of people and you did your best to make it a special day. It was special and it was patriotic and I cried all the way home because you are just, well, so very American!