Since this story was written, Daryl has become a private pilot, built his own RV-9A, and taken several lengthy trips in it. But there was a time when he was new and green…
When our company sends its fleet of kitbuilt airplanes to the big fly-ins, we often take people from the office and shop. It gives them a chance to meet customers, get out of the daily grind and generally expand their horizons. Most are not pilots and for many, it’s their first long trip in a small airplane.
Daryl has done almost every job there is in our production shop, and currently works in the office, scheduling production and dealing with vendors. He’s been the company for more than twenty-five years, and this year, it’s his chance to do the Oshkosh thing. We pair him up with GM Tom Green and send them off a day early, so they can handle the miserable high-heat, high-humidity, hard-work set-up details in Wisconsin. Daryl knows exactly why he’s been “granted” this early release from his desk, but he’s game…it’ll be an adventure.
So, early Thursday morning, the two tall guys settle into the RV-9A, start the engine, and sail off toward the just-visible sunrise and their first stop, some three hours away in Burley, Idaho. Tom makes Daryl do most of the flying and Daryl’s having a good time, steering the airplane and watching the scenery change from forest to high desert as it slides along underneath him. He’s hunted everything from chukkars to elk in this country, and it’s really interesting to see how it folds and flows and winds and twists. Can’t beat that birds-eye view. They follow the Snake River into Burley, Daryl finds the airport, Tom makes the landing and Daryl finds out why airplanes stop in Burley… the competing FBOs send out pretty girls on golf carts to guide you to their set of pumps. Well, he thinks, this cross-country flying stuff is pretty cool. You fly a nice airplane over beautiful country and when you land, cute girls in crisp T-shirts and shorts come out to meet you.
But, business before pleasant conversation. The tanks must be filled, and three plus hours after morning lift-off, bladders must be emptied. Tom claims the right of greater age and heads for the only bathroom while Daryl waits for the fuel truck. Eventually he emerges and Daryl takes his spot. In fact, they’d gotten off so early that they’d never even shaved and barely managed coffee before takeoff, so a late breakfast would definitely hit the spot. A decent tailwind had made the leg shorter than usual, so there’s plenty of time to eat and still get to Wisconsin. While Daryl’s ensconced, Tom asks at the desk about a courtesy car so they can get into town for a plate of eggs and Idaho spuds. Many small airports have an old clunker, often a retired police or city vehicle, that they keep at the airport. Traveling pilots are welcome to use it to get to a restaurant or motel as long as they put some gas in it before they bring it back. What’s available in Burley?
“Our courtesy car’s broke down again,” the fuel guy says. But he’s a friendly sort, so he tells Tom “the keys are in my Chevy Blazer…it’s that tan one down at the end of the parking lot, by the gate. Just take it and go.”
Which gives Tom an idea.
When Daryl comes out, Tom tells him that the courtesy car is dead. Daryl is noticeably disappointed at the idea of missing breakfast.
“But,” Tom says, “see those Cessnas in the pattern? Those guys are taking flying lessons. Lessons last at least an hour, and their cars are in the lot out front. All we have to do is find one with the keys in it, take it to town, and be back before they land. They’ll never know. C’mon, let’s go find a car…” Whereupon he heads out to the parking lot and trots down the line, peering into driver’s side windows.
Daryl’s torn. Using somebody’s car without permission doesn’t seem like a good idea…in fact, in rural Idaho, it might be a good way to get shot. There’s a reason most of the pickups in the lot have rifle racks in the back window. But, he’s never been on one of these trips before. Maybe this is just the way things works with these crazy pilot guys. Maybe people really do return from flying lessons and aren’t upset when their cars gone. He follows Tom through the lot, trying to be inconspicuous.
“C’mon, Daryl. Get to work and look for some keys,” Tom tells him. “Those guys won’t stay in the air forever.” Daryl shades his eyes with his hand and tries to look at ignition switches without looking like he’s looking. They work their way down the line of parked cars toward the chain link fence and entrance gate. Daryl gets to the Blazer first, and sure enough, the keys are hanging from the steering column. Maybe if he just ignores it, Tom will miss it. Somehow, breakfast just doesn’t seem so important any more. He tries to stand so that he covers the driver’s side window, but no luck. Somehow, Tom spots the keys.
“Oh, yeah!” he crows. “This baby’s almost new, and look – it has a stereo and A/C! Jump in.” He gets in, turns the key and it starts right up. Daryl doesn’t know what to do. He’s not a pilot, so he can’t just get back in the airplane, say “my leg” and make Tom give up this madness. And, maybe, this really is the way it’s done. He gets in the Blazer and looks straight ahead. Tom backs out and heads for the gate. Of course, the first car that goes by on the airport road is a black-and-white patrol car. The cop waves. Daryl grew up in small town and he knows that small town cops know all the locals and what they drive. This one probably knows the owner of the Blazer…what’s going to happen when he realizes that the two guys in it aren’t the owner – in fact, they’re a couple of rough-faced guys he’s never seen before? Visions of a breakfast of Wonder Bread and beans in a small cinder-block cell on the edge of town start creeping into his head.
Tom doesn’t seem worried, though. He’s got the stereo going, the air conditioning turned up high. He makes a one-handed power-steering turn onto the main drag and heads into the business section of Burley. “Hey,” he tells Daryl. “This is a really nice rig. Usually the ones they leave the keys in are old beaters.” He stabs at the stereo, passing up about twenty country stations until he finds Lawrence Welk.
They find a restaurant and settle into a booth. Tom peruses the menu, but Daryl seems to have lost his appetite and stares out the window. The patrol car makes a u-turn a few blocks away and comes back up the street, slowly. A shadow flits across the parking lot…one of the Cessna trainers in the pattern.
Tom takes his time ordering and seems to enjoy his food without a worry in the world. He asks the waitress for some tobasco. When she brings it he wants to know how the weather’s been so far this summer…has it been really hot in Idaho, too? He has another cup of coffee. Daryl stirs his food around on his plate, but the knot in his stomach won’t let him eat much. That Cessna hasn’t been around in the last few minutes. What if they do have that guy’s car and he taxies in and finds it gone?
Finally Tom dabs his lips with his napkin and gets up to go. Daryl’s been ready since they sat down. He’s into the passenger seat of the Blazer in a heartbeat, looking straight ahead on the theory that if he doesn’t seem interested in anything and doesn’t move any neck muscles, maybe nobody will notice them and they may actually get out of town before they’re arrested.
“It’s a nice rig,” Tom says again. “You want to drive?” It’s bad enough being a rider in a stolen car…there’s no way on this earth that Daryl’s getting in the driver’s seat. “You sure?” Tom wants to know, taking absolutely forever to get his butt in the seat, close the door and go.
They mosey back toward the airport. Tom sees the patrol car parked by the car wash and gives the cop a friendly wave. Daryl shrinks as deep as he can into the passenger seat. “They never bother you if you look like you know what you’re doing.” Tom tells him. Daryl’s not buying that…he can see the radio antenna on that patrol car, and everyone, even in small town Idaho, seems to have a cell phone. This car could have been reported missing half an hour ago. He finds a baseball cap on the back seat, puts it on and pulls it down over his eyes. If they even have a fender-bender on the way back…didn’t Tom have one when he was in the Philippines and have to make a sidewalk settlement in cash? Daryl doesn’t even want to think about it. He watches the cross traffic at every stop sign like a hawk. The polka music on the radio doesn’t sooth him one bit.
Finally, they drive through the gate at the airport, unscathed. They are just in time to see a red and white 152 turning into a tie-down spot on the ramp, in between a couple of Skyhawks. “Uh, oh,” says Tom. “That may be the guy who owns this thing. When we get it parked, jump out real quick and kind of stay out of sight. It’s getting hot – maybe they won’t notice the engine’s warm until after we take off. I’ll meet you back at the airplane.” But there’s trouble in the lot…while they’ve been gone, somebody’s parked in the Blazer’s spot. In fact, the whole row of parking spaces is full. Surely the owner, who just has to be that guy putting the chains back on the Cessna, will notice that his car isn’t where he parked it!
Tom pulls into a spot, miles away from the original. Daryl dumps the hat back onto the seat and practically flings himself out into the sun, anxious to put as much distance between him and the stolen Blazer as he can. He races back the to the airplane and he’s already in the cockpit, with his own hat on and buckled up, when Tom, who’s been having a pleasant word with the golf cart girl, ambles up and checks the tanks, checks the tires, sticks his head under the horizontal stablizer. Daryl’s about to scream…who cares about the tiedown hook when they’re about to get arrested!?
Finally, Tom climbs in. The guy with the Cessna is staring at the RV-9A. Staring hard. Tom starts the engine and gives the guy a two-finger-to-the-forehead salute as they taxi by. “Ever notice how everybody looks at you when you taxi out in an RV?” Tom asks. Daryl pulls his hat and headset down harder and looks at the rudder pedals. He’s noticed something else…they are taxing by the parking lot, and the guy is a lot more likely to be looking at his car and wondering how it got there than he is admiring the RV. That runway threshold is so far away…Couldn’t they just take off from this taxiway?
Finally, they are airborne. Daryl’s wishing for a rearview mirror. But no fighters or Sheriff’s department helicopters pull up on the wing. It looks like they got away with it this time.
By God, there isn’t going to be any next time. If Tom wants to steal a car at the next stop, he can do it by himself.
Daryl doesn’t want any part of it….
Ken Scott is the director of marketing at Van’s Aircraft and a 3,000-hour VFR pilot working on his second or third homebuilt airplane, depending on how you do the math. He’s the proud owner/builder of a Van’s RV-6._
_Read another Ken Scott piece, “A Very Special Demo Ride.”