Every year our aviation expert, historian, and writer Tom Lymburn chronicles daily happenings during the races at Reno. This year was different. First of all, Sawbones didn't race. Secondly, the team was scattered in the desert trying to find canopy parts. That left Tom a bit distracted, trying to keep visitors and fans informed at the front lines of the pits. So he wrote this chronicle after the fact, and from a more personal perspective in this five part series. Lymburn fans will not be disappointed.
Between Oshkosh and Reno, which I cover for the Minnesota Flyer magazine, I announce “The Tribute to Beck, A Gathering of Airplanes.” This year was the 13th annual tribute to Gerry Beck who died in a Mustang crash at Oshkosh in 2007. I was there.
Snuggled next to West Battle Lake, just outside the town of 875, about 20 miles east of Fergus Falls, Minnesota, it is the only grass field I’ve called airshows at in 28 years of announcing. A bit under 3000 feet by 200 feet with hangars and a corn field on one side and a bike path, pine trees, and the lake on the other, the neatly mowed turf slopes gently upward to the northeast. A slightly faded orange windsock whispers quietly in the fair early morning breeze.
Opened in 1963, Battle Lake Municipal is a private city run field south of Otter Tail Lake, open from May to November, field elevation 1365 feet. It uses the CTAF 122.9. In 2013, I was asked up to announce the fly in. My first response was, “Where is Battle Lake?” Good old Rand McNally to the rescue. Since then, it’s become my favorite venue. Grass field, great community participation, and genuine rural welcome. The event supports the Battle Lake Community Fund, which provides grants for city, school, and youth activities.
The drive up I-94, with a stop at the Perkins in Alexandria for supper, was uneventful, especially for a Labor Day weekend. No rain, very little construction, and the anticipation of, with the great weather, good fly in traffic. Take the ramp off 94 toward Ashby, admire the stately swans on Pelican, Christina, and Eagle Lakes, and follow Minnesota 78 to the four way stop with Minnesota 210 outside the city. It’s a resort town, with seasonal residences along the lake, tourist businesses along the hill that leads up to a scenic view, then down to the lakeside and boat launching area. Follow the road to the Battle Lake Inn and Suites, known for its comfort, cleanliness, and signs about not cleaning fish in the rooms. It’s home for a night.
Sue and I drive to the airport early. I like, even though I’ve been here before, to walk the field ahead of time. When I start announcing, I never get to see anything. Early morning is my best time – drink in the atmosphere and savor, however briefly, the newly mown grass, listen to the birds that swoop low over the runway, and get my old Rockports damp with dew.
Officially listed as a 1000 to 1400 event, cars and aircraft begin to arrive early. Brad and Jane’s Avenger sits, wings folded in the golden morning light. They have a cabin there and drove in just after Sue and I, parking by the berm, Brad complaining about the self-locking door mechanism on his Jeep. Pat arrived with a carload of food for the luncheon, and cheerful volunteers, climb out of pickups to begin the final prep for the day. Greg and Lyndy’s RV is half hidden next to a hangar. They arrived last night and are not up yet.
The announcer’s “stand” is a low flatbed trailer normally used by a lawn service. Chunks of sod are imbedded in the mesh surface. Brad moved it with his yellow tug to a position where I’ll have a better view. After it’s leveled, John and I wrestle unsuccessfully with the ramp, until he grabbed a hammer from the hangar where we draw power for the sound system and whacked away at the curved pins until they finally relent and the springs consent to work. John’s girlfriend will bring her son’s sound system at 0900. We’ll have to figure out where the tangle of cables go without his help, as he’s at NDSU.
Trash and recycling cans out, pop-up picnic tables in place, long tables with teetering gray folding chairs in the shade of a hangar that holds an old Cherokee, and in drives the caramel corn truck. They have a red and white striped pop up tent. Their stand is a very popular venue. Cars begin to turn in to the airport’s gravel road, curving off the two tracks, down a small hill, though the cut weeds, and without need for direction, neatly line up with small red flagged wooden stakes. The Battle Lake Fire Department’s largest rig grumbles in and parks near the two gray porta-potties by the entrance. Children are immediately drawn to the fire truck and its shiny chrome. Volunteers, in the shade of a white tent, will sell raffle tickets for the generously donated prizes to support the Community Fund.
There’s no tower, only the 122.9 CTAF. Greg runs the ramp, actually grass taxi and parking areas, with locals marshalling the visiting aircraft to spots in front of the hangars for warbirds, classics, ultralights, and helicopters, while the old-fashioned general aviation birds pass through a gap between the hangars to west to tie down.
To drum up interest, Brad cranks the TBM, unfolds the wings, and with a growl from the R-2600, sends grass clippings flying, and crawls up the slope to launch on runway 24. Vehicles continue to arrive – pick-ups, SUVs, more supply drop offs for lunch, and another vender, this time with sunflower seeds. The power comes up, and the Avenger deftly lifts its skirts and heads into the early morning low sun. The TBM makes the first flight of what will be an amazing day of flying.
As the morning and early afternoon proceed, cars continue to arrive and are forced to park along the entrance road, then both sides of the county road. Bicycles, joggers, and strollers meander along the paved path on the far side of the field. The vehicle parking area at the airport is full from fence to fence.
The old record for aircraft attendance was 62. The parking problem becomes true for aircraft, too. From the south end to the cornfield, west behind the hangars to another cornfield, and along the taxi way edge, they keep arriving. Old garden variety straight-back, straight-tail 172s, some in need of new paint, and four-seat Cherokees with wheel spats. Five or six sleek, fast Mooneys, a covey of STOL Super Cubs and Huskies with big tires, and numerous Van’s RV homebuilts squat on the grass, warm engines cooling after their flights.
Still, the beauty of Battle Lake is the variety of vintage and classic machines that call in 10 or 12 miles out, make a downwind over the edge of the lake, and swing in for landing on the forgiving grass. Maybe a skip and a hop, but settling comfortably down and proudly taxying to the display area.
Cindy Beck, Gerry’s widow is a gracious host, joining me at the mic, moving from group to group, greeting people by name, and exuding charm. Daughter Whitney becomes the local Vanna White for the raffle drawing, deftly pulling tickets from the barrel and helping me decipher the hand written names on the stubs.
At one point, with things calmed down for a few moments, I eat my sandwich, answer a question about gallons per hour, and survey the grassy ramp area near the stand. A Mustang, three Texans, the TBM, two classic Beech Staggerwings, a brown and gold Fairchild F.24W, the Warner radial model, six classic Boeing-Stearmans, three with 450 hp Pratts, one a former Red Baron Pizza ship, a Beaver amphibian, a rare Bellanca Cruisemaster, the “cardboard Constellation,” and three of its grandchildren, the Bellanca Viking. T-craft, Luscombes, Beck’s blue RV-4 come home, and from FCM, John Sinclair flew the F4U-4 Corsair Beck restored and flew, staging out of Fergus Falls. John made great display passes, displaying the unique inverted gull wing for the photographers.
The unofficial aircraft count today was an amazing 81, a new record.
Formation flights by the Mustang with two Texans, the Avenger and the Corsair saluting the Navy, and a pair of Stearmans from the Twin Cities, smoke systems on, take us back to WWII training days. And it’s all ad lib.
Departing aircraft hold it down over the grass as they leave, smoke systems on, or a cheery wing waggle, and a curving right turn past the spectator area, to head home. The pilot flying the farthest was from Missouri, a gentleman with a Cessna 182, who was invited by relatives, and thought, “What the hell, why not?” and came for the weekend.
There’s nothing like this event. At Oshkosh, it’s everything from the dawn of flight to the latest technology, all carefully choreographed and compartmentalized. At Reno, it’s six classes of speed – low over the desert floor, “The World’s Fastest Motor Sport.” Between these huge commercial events, Battle Lake is a retreat to simpler times. For one day, it’s back to aviation’s “grass roots.” The corn fields and pine trees, wing waggles and mown grass blowing in the prop wash - a Saturday small town outing shared with visiting planes and pilots – low passes with smoke – vintage, classic, warbirds, general aviation, some flying from farm strips, dropping in on the grass at Battle Lake, back to the days of the Barnstormers.
And when the last car and airplane have gone, the visitors headed home, and the toys put away, we can stand quietly and still smell the freshly cut grass.
Although I flew light planes for over 30 years, airliners make me claustrophobic. A silly little TV screen is inches from my nose on the back of the seat, literally in my face. It shows the all too cheerful image of a flight attendant or actor…
“…your personal floatation device…”
“…seats in the upright position for takeoff…”
“…all trays secured…”
Mercifully, when the lecture ends, the sound ends with it, but the bloody commercials remain.
It’s oh-dark hundred. In theory, we’re heading for Denver. After navigating around many orange cones, I squeeze into the Park and Fly ramp, the Jetta gets parked between two hulking pickup trucks. Then I write 1-53, the identity of the parking slot on my left hand, shades of the days when I’d write frequencies, courses, or AWOS details on my palm. For reasons unknown, except to the stars, I always pick ink that doesn’t wipe or wash off except with LAVA or sandpaper. Old days, old tricks, old dogs…
MSP seemed to be in the throes of a massive bout of earth moving, paving, and random devastation. Fortunately, our Park and Fly driver, a cool cat who played jazz from KBEM during the drive, knew every cone by name and genetic code. He swooped us around the mess, changing lanes with aplomb, and finally, deposited eight barely awake passengers at the United Airlines drop point. It was nice to hear bassist Ray Brown early in the morning. It was the only sanity for the day.
Down the escalators, then around an infinite number of corners, up some more escalators, and finally – oh, shit, the TSA Pre-Check is the south end. Go the other way.
The lines zig-zagged around, over and back, back and forth, and then some more. Early travelers, sleepy children, a crying child, gender unknown, construction areas walled off by concrete spattered wooden barriers. At one point, unable to see where Checkpoint Charlie was, I turned to Sue and commented, “I feel like a rat in a maze.”
A fortyish guy with a black knapsack just ahead of us, turned, laughed, and replied, “I just texted a buddy the same thing. And I’ll bet there’s no food when we get to the end.”
However, my passport and boarding pass were quickly scanned and handed back. The security folks moved the baggage check and body scan along briskly. Nice. Shoes and belt, on. Watch, on. Stuff in pockets, stayed in pockets. My camera bag and new portfolio carrying everything a not so renowned journalist/aviation writer might need – two notebooks, various writing tools, reading glasses, toothbrush, toothpaste, a change of underwear, Carl Sandburg’s Honey and Salt, a Hersey dark chocolate bar (no almonds) – all went through without comment. Hot damn! After all the newspaper and TV stories of MSP SNAFU’s and snarl-ups, life was good. Or so I thought…
Morning quiet. I clean my glasses. Rolling bags and bulging backpacks, hurrying aircrew, epaulets and neck ties, gold and silver wings, ID tags around their necks. Handicapped carts and electric golf carts hum by, or if heavily loaded, rumble by. Most sit, wait, play with their phones or eat. I eat. A baking powder biscuit with egg, bacon, and cheese – a real salt bomb. But hot and although small, filling. Multiple trips to the can, a sign of getting older. Heavy-eyed passengers yawning. All waiting for the flight announcement. Waiting that’s better than the dentist’s office and without obnoxious music.
“Leaving on a jet plane, don’t know when I’ll be back again…” Shades of the sixties.
As usual, I’m crammed into the middle seat. Now, I’m not tall, in fact, at my last annual inspection (OK, physical) in July, I learned I was “officially” an inch shorter in shoes than my driver’s license claims. Ah, another joy of getting older besides senior discounts at Perkins.
The 737 pulled back from the gate with a brief whine and shudder. My camera bag, under the seat ahead of me, blocks my left foot, and my new portfolio for writing and emergencies, leans against my right ankle. I haven’t got the spatial thing down like Sue does. A few empty seats are close by and more, plenty more, are available in the “Economy Plus” section. For a price. That means on board upgrade, if you want it. Seems to me a waste of a good seat or elbow room, but the airline’s gotta have its $$$$, I suppose. No one buys it. Still, maybe it will make deplaning more civil with fewer bags to fall on your head.
As we taxied from the gate things crawled to a halt.
“Are there any licensed medical personnel aboard?”
Fortunately, there were and the man was attended to. I couldn’t see from where I was, but muffled voices from the rear showed real concern. We had to wait for a gate, not a United one, to open so we could taxi back. When we stopped at the gate, first came an MSP Airport Police officer, followed by members of the Fire and Rescue Squad. The patient was gently strapped to a narrow stretcher and wheeled from the aircraft for further treatment.
Next came yellow vested United maintenance personnel to service the oxygen system that had been tapped to revive the victim, and, since it and the onboard medical kit are considered “required” equipment, these had to be attended to, along with the appropriate FAA and airline paperwork. This took over an hour.
Again, we began to taxi…
“I’m sorry folks, it looks like we’ll have to pull over and park for a bit while airport grounds people clear the debris of a bird strike from Runway One Seven.”
Lined up ahead of us and to our port side I could see a Delta DC-9, a colorful Southwest 737, an Airbus of some kind, and on an adjacent taxi way, a giant Fed Ex Airbus 350.
Patience little bald guy. Patience.
The delay was handled by the cockpit and cabin crew, the MSP police and EMTs, with calm efficiency. Throughout our wait, the Captain kept us informed of the events and progress.
Finally, over an hour late, we broke above the clouds. Sun! We’d driven to the hotel the afternoon before in rain like going through a freaking car wash. When we got close to MSP, we watched departing airliners vanish into low, swirling gray clouds. Sleep was interrupted by rain smacking on the motel trash cans and air conditioning units. Now, sun! Yes, we were on the way to Denver, then to Reno.
Reading glasses on my nose, I settled back with a crossword puzzle book.
The cabin attendants made their last laps up and down the aisle collecting trash, reminding people about stowing electronic devices, and trying to calm fears about connecting flights once we arrived in Denver. What would be the impact of our late departure from MSP? Passengers were going to Seattle, San Diego, Honolulu, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City, but no one mentioned Reno!
“Check the United App…” One flight attendant thought connecting flights might be delayed. Or maybe not. Sixteen passengers were bound for Honolulu.
“As we approach our destination, please follow all the instructions of the cabin crew.” It was the co-pilot, who’d said next to nothing all flight. “The seat belt light is on and will remain on until we stop at the gate. We are now beginning our descent into Houston.”
Houston? What the… There was dead silence in the cabin.
“Oops, correction, I mean…Denver.”
The stunned silence was replaced by a collective and very audible sigh, then a bit of nervous laughter. Was that Rod Serling?
Behind the grandstands, the ebb and flow of spectators and golf carts, plus occasional security vehicles, pulse to the music of straining piston engines and shrieking jets. As the afternoon winds increase, the banners and flags ripple and snap a somewhat discordant tune. It’s Reno-Stead, transformed into the home of air racing each September.
I get one morning and early afternoon to escape the pit, stretch my legs, always a good thing, and surf the grounds for images that will become an article. In addition to my monthly Mystery Airplane column, I’ve written feature articles for the Minnesota Flyer about Oshkosh since 2002 and Reno beginning in 2011. Not all the action is in the pits.
Ugly hat for sun protection, my Nikon and pocket notebook, a water bottle accounted for, I leave past the golf cart under the back corner of the rope. I like walking.
First, I head for a camouflaged C-47 named “Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber” I’d not seen since 2010 during the great 75th anniversary gathering at Oshkosh. The DC-3 just might be the most important aircraft ever produced. Gotta get a shot of the nose art. Tucked in behind the Three, I spot an OV-10D Bronco in low-viz gray. Chuck “Igor” Burin, my American Wings colleague at Anoka County Airport, flew them in Viet Nam. The CAF Hellcat is back, parked nearby. It’s a powerful, purposeful beast, with the greatest kill ratio of all U.S. Navy fighters. Hellcats claimed over 5000 kills.
I merge into the river of people and head toward the pit gate, intent on spending time in the Heritage Display area. Earlier in the week, I’d reconnected with Caroline Sheen, the Photography and Art Editor of Air & Space Magazine. She encouraged me to go, knowing my interest in vintage aircraft and my connection to Greg Herrick’s Golden Wings Flying Museum.
“Have you guys found the missing canopy parts?” a viciously sunburned man holding a dripping brat in his right hand asks.
I’m wearing a Sawbones shirt and the story of the lost canopy that forced Curt and Race #71 to “stand down” is known throughout the grounds. Race fans stop at the pit, some to gawk at Snoopy in the cockpit, others to offer help or buy something to support us.
“Yes,” I assure him. “Eddie found the missing piece last night near pylon 2.”
“Wow! Will you fly now?”
“Sadly, no. The canopy will have to be replaced.”
“Damn! Sawbones is my favorite.”
All over the field spectators expressed concern, asked about repairs, and urged us to return in 2020. That’s an amazing commentary on the following of Minnesota’s Race #71. We’ve fans all over the world, in person and on line.
An orange gyrocopter, its blades folded and tied behind it, sits placidly by a small tent. Egg shaped, seating two, it’s parked in the small aircraft trade show section, trying to entice buyers. I follow the crowd and pass a large statute of a horse wearing a “Cold Beer Here” blanket draped over its broad back. Not knowing much about horses, I guess Clydesdale. Of course, it may be a Shetland Pony.
Through the gate, into the venders’ avenue, clustered against the back of the grandstand or huddled under a series of tents. I pass the wooden model plane and snow cone stands, ignore the bizarre airplane modern art, and skip the aircraft insurance tent. I’m forced to dodge some school kids wearing red neckerchiefs and step out of the way of a racing kamikaze cart intent on self-destruction. I’m looking for the Tsunami booth. Pictures I’ve seen show that John Bjornstad and company have made progress on the fuselage and tail feathers, well beyond the small start when I’d helped with it.
John spots me and we shake hands. I’m impressed by the work. Years ago, I’d help drilled out rivets buried under bondo so the tail section could be disassembled. I take a photo as John explains about the longerons. It’s cool, air racing history being rebuilt. Then, I’m off toward the Heritage Park.
Long lines of blue and pink biffies are besieged by school kids out on a field trip. Some sport uniforms, others their school colors – T-shirts, bandanas, and caps. I’m not sure they understand what they see, but at least someone is trying to engage them in aviation.
In the back of a very large white pickup is a rare Allison V-3420 liquid-cooled engine. Twenty-four cylinders, it was an attempt to capture 3000 hp for military aircraft. Tested on only a handful of machines, such as the one-off Douglas XB-19 (replacing early R-3350s), the equally one-off Boeing XB-39, a B-29 modification that reached 405 mph at 35,000 feet, and the Frankenstein-like XP-75 Eagle, a long range fighter program that was cancelled after three Eagles had crashed. Eight XP-75s and six XP-75As were manufactured. Around $50,000,000 was spent on a very flawed concept. One P-75A survives in Dayton. In the end, the V-3420 became a museum piece rather than a real trend setter.
With the sun angle finally right, I stop to photograph the Reno-Stead control tower. Curt will be up there as an Unlimited Race observer. Elevation 5050 feet. Got it!
Entry to the Heritage Park is through a jumble of metal fencing that requires one to zig, then zag, then zig again. I side step some chattering middle school girls with noses buried in their phones and almost immediately spot the Stinson SR-8B with the “Dept. of Commerce” markings I ogled at Oshkosh. She’s a beauty. Today, I get a photo of it, although the practice of using blue plastic barrels filled with water as tie downs makes getting a really good shot of anything in the Heritage Park nearly impossible.
The hulking dark blue Lockheed PV-2 Harpoon is back and there’s a slick Grumman G. 21A Goose amphibian I’d not seen before. The sun glints sharply off the highly polished skin of a Globe Swift, its Art Deco cowling and rakish tail making it look like it’s doing 200 while tied down.
“Hey, I heard you found the canopy rail.”
I stop. She’s over 50, neatly dressed, with a large camera bag balanced on her shoulder.
“Eddie found it,” I reply.
“How’d it happen?”
“We don’t know yet. Our crew chief will try to piece things together when we get back to Minneapolis.”
“Good luck. This should’a been your year.”
It’s been like that all morning.
I make a brief tour through the military static display, pleased to finally see a red and white Coast Guard HC-27J. An Italian design, the USCG planes were transferred from the Air Force. One had been scheduled for Oshkosh a few years ago, but didn’t make it. I’m happy to chalk up another new sighting.
On my way back to Sawbones’ pit, I stop to talk to Mustang ace Bud Anderson. I bought his book, To Fly and to Fight, signed and all, at Oshkosh in 2000. Anderson was credited with 16.25 victories flying Mustangs named “Old Crow” with the 363rd Fighter Squadron of the 357th Fighter Group. At Oshkosh this year, I sat in on the Monday Warbird in Review presentation where he was featured with a P-51B and P-51D in his wartime colors. The Colonel was very gracious and commented that he’d retired from flying at age 90 and was now 98. A true American aviation icon.
“Did you get what you were looking for?” Wayne asked when I returned.
“Ideas, images, and icons. I’ll have to sift through my notes tonight. The trick will be to narrow the focus for my Flyer article. And I did get in a good walk!”
In the shade of the racing trailer’s interior, I take a moment to glance through the shots. They’re a mixed bag of people, airplanes, and curiosities. The last frame is of a large toy gorilla sitting in a white and red engine cowling holding a beer. Why not? You can’t always be serious.
The folding mechanism whines and Sawbones’ wings slowly reach for the sky – but this isn’t flying. The canopy separation forced us to “stand down” for the whole week. No flying, yet still meet fans, sell merchandise, and answer the inevitable questions.
The dual cab tow pickup disgorges a long scissors bar which is hooked to the upper portion of Race #71’s landing gear, then, with a bit of human force and twisting, to the truck’s hitch. With the other Gold racers already out of the pits, it’ll be easier to move Sawbones to its temporary hangar. Out to the ramp she turns to avoid people and golf carts, at a slow walk, the first time she’s moved since last Sunday, to wait until we can acquire a loaner canopy so she can come home to Minnesota.
In days, long ago, when I played trumpet in pit orchestras for musicals and Sue directed chorus and orchestra, it was called “striking the set.” It’s not much different in air racing, only the songs are different. Long days, weeks, months of preparation, rehearsing, test flying, painting, putting on makeup, and arranging the set, store, balcony patio, and trailer workshop and office – then in about three hours, it all disappears into the ship’s hold (read racing trailer) for the voyage back to Minneapolis and Janes Field.
Sue has two days of Nevada sales tax to deliver to RARA. Since the golf cart is the quickest way, she whizzes out of the pit by a secret route to avoid the crowds. With the help of Beth, Bonnie, Jan, Merlin, and many other crew members and obliging guests, the plastic merchandise bins are rapidly transported into the trailer to be stashed in the two large vertical wooden cupboards and solo cupboard #9. With generous help, it’s done in no time.
I pack the electronic cash register – cord wrapped around the machine and power strip tucked inside the packing material. Drop the manual on top of the black case and close the flaps. It will ride on the couch in the front room, privileged to be extra cushioned. It won’t be alone, though. Crew luggage, full of dirty laundry, jackets necessary for the forty degree desert mornings, and purchased precious memories to take home for that “Why the hell did I buy that?” moment, will keep the register company.
Down come the display racks, then disassembly of the plastic shelves, legs into bins, shelves strapped together by Merlin’s Magic. Poles and parts stowed up top in the trailer’s pallet area with spare parts or down under in the metal storage bins below the trailer. The store is now packed into its box.
Next comes the top. Tony, aka Taz, directs traffic and the blue net shade is removed and lowered over the side to be folded and stowed away. Metal tubing follows. One section at a time is unbolted and delivered to the asphalt below, ready to take its place in the under the trailer storage bins. Rachets, wrenches, and screw guns make short work of the top. What was once an elevated observation platform for race control, still photography, videography, and relaxation is soon only a memory.
By this time, three rental vehicles rest on the spot Sawbones sat all week. They contain crew luggage waiting to go on board. All around us other pits are being dismantled. Tools, sales tables, large stuffed animals, including a gorilla holding a beer can, are stowed in trailers, trucks, and vans, awaiting the trip home. Take offs and landings continue. The CAF California Wing is selling rides in its PBJ and a P-51D called Man O’ War. I explain to a young guest about an OV-10D Bronco preparing to depart. She’s intrigued by its twin booms and high mounted stabilizer. A Gooney Bird is towed from the display area for preflight. Its D-Day strips and faded olive drab and gray look wartime authentic.
Once topside is done, the stairs with its red scaffolding comes down. Tony balances precariously on horizontal bars while removing bolts and pins. The sections are handed to crew below. Dale’s Indian motorcycle and the golf cart await loading. Meanwhile, the R-1830s on the C-47B puff and growl, starboard first, then port. The engines’ music smooths out. We all turn to watch as she trundles away to the runup pad far to our right and out of sight. Work continues.
When all the “pipe and drape” is stowed, Tony directs the finishing touches to prepare the inside, securing items along the wall with rachet straps, padding Rick’s tool box, and strapping the lower cupboard drawers and doors. The mission is close to over. Only a few things to load, including the stairs and the broken canopy parts.
From our right comes the roar of Pratt & Whitney Twin Wasps and the grand old lady nicknamed “Betsy’s Biscuit Bomber” gracefully raises her tail and climbs away into the dying sun. Against the brown mountains, with the yellow light fading, it’s a timeless sight and sound. The red chairs have been packed, but some of the tan ones and two white coolers remain. The Sanders’ clan of Sea Furies have been towed in from the ramp and rest in their pits awaiting night. The music is almost over for another year.
Jim Dale, under whose expert eye I worked my first aircraft restoration nearly 30 years ago, stops to say good-by. He’s leaving soon in his RV. Fellow photographer and a writer for Flight Safety, Luis Drummond bids a quick adieu. I’ve been trying to convince him to come to Oshkosh. He’s never been there. Late leaving race fans snap photos and gaze out toward the race course, still hearing the music of the engines. It’s getting darker.
Sawbones’ crew rests on the tan chairs, others congregate around the rental cars, a few with bottles in hand, chat, or just decompress after the long week in the dry desert. I talk with Dusty Dowd, crop duster and race pilot, who owns N25YK, the Yak-11 that once lived at Flying Cloud Field back home. I’d helped put it back together after the engine had been overhauled. He’d made some serious improvements and won Silver a few years ago.
Some of the crew leave tonight, others in the morning, Sue and I late afternoon to stage again through Denver. Our Road Warrior, Tony, will depart Stead early Monday for the trek back to Anoka County Airport. We’ll be waiting for him on Wednesday.
It’s getting cooler. The mountains turn from dark brown to deep gray. Soon they’ll be black. Robin, Jackie, Sue, and I begin, as John Bormes puts it, to “saunter slowly” to Lot 3 and Robin’s rental car for the trip to the Peppermill.
The shadows lengthen. Night approaches. The curtain falls.
Outside the Gate C-3 window, a United 737 is loaded and waiting to be pushed back. We have to wait, it’s not our airplane, as our flight hasn’t arrived yet.
Across from me are video slots with the images of Robert Downey, Jr. and Jude Law as Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson. The lure of colored lights and rapidly changing movie images are too much for some travelers, who sit, play, play some more, drop more coins or a credit card, and after checking their watches or cell phones innumerable times, pick up or drag their bags and head to gates for departure or rest rooms. Both offer some relief. Behind them, the abandoned images continue to flicker, fade, flicker again, and attempt to entice further betters.
I’ve eaten half a chicken, bacon, and cheese panini without burning my tongue or spilling on myself – well, mostly not spilling. I follow it with a chocolate chip muffin which deposits crumbs on my shirt, notebook, and left leg. A water bottle, sticking into my right kidney, is tucked behind me. Going home. After all the anticipation of being at Reno, this year a victim of a mechanical malfunction, it feels good to be going home.
Reno-Tahoe Airport isn’t like MSP. It is much smaller, less traffic, less crowded, less noisy – a major relief after most of a week at Stead with constant engine noises and inaudible announcements. For a moment, I raise my eyes from the page and savor the relative calm before the flight.
Getting through TSA earlier that morning didn’t take as long as at MSP. It didn’t weave back and forth like a hairpin mountain road or smell of cement dust. Bob and Peggy Matthews, once with the Riff Raff team, heading back to Mokena, IL, via O’Hare, were just in front of us. There was time to exchange quick, “See ya’s” as we headed toward one gate and them to another. Unlike MSP, although we had TSA Pre-check, I did have to empty my pockets at Reno. Whatever. Consistency is not to be expected.
I’ve a college-ruled black and white composition notebook on my lap and a “SeeandAvoid.org” blue ball point pen that leaks in my hand. The cap won’t stick on the end and I keep dropping it. The only good thing about it is the ink doesn’t seep through the cheap paper. Reading glasses on the end of my nose, I’m trying to finish a “Reno Chronicle” article about closing up Sawbones’ pit, striking the set if you will, at the end of Sunday. Polishing the prose would have to wait until I got home. The waiting area chairs aren’t made for comfort. As I try to write, I keep my camera bag next to my right foot and my writing carryon at my side. Lucky me. I’ve never been good at multitasking.
Kitty corner from me a woman with a cell phone, clad in a plaid shirt and ripped jeans, shares her life story with four of us innocent victims. It could be forty as loud as she speaks. I don’t care much about little Charlie’s crying fit or the cost of a gallon of gas in Tulsa. Suddenly, a high-pitched buzzing, more annoying than fingernails on a chalk board, actually sets a small child to crying.
Outside, it starts to rain, big drops spatter on the window. This is probably good, as a Red Flag Warning, which was issued yesterday, is still in effect until 1800 today. An airport handicapped assistant explains to a man in a wheelchair about bomb warning tests. Great timing. Just as the alarm stops, a vacuum cleaner roars to life behind me. When it switches to high gear, I put my notebook away – too much distraction, too much noise. When I looked outside thirty minutes later, the rain had stopped and the pavement was already dry.
Our flight leaves Reno on time, climbs out of the valley, and heads into the darkening sky toward Denver. For a time, I continue to scribble, the gray plastic tray in the now legal down position. Nothing seems to work. Three false starts, like three strikes, and I figure “screw it” and stuff the notebook back into the bag. Ah, good old crossword book again.
I finished off the Hersey bar as we approached Denver. It’s dark out. Can’t read, write, or much of anything with the low cabin lights. At least we’re on time, not like the flight from MSP to Denver.
As we leave the overheated jetway and enter the gate, I glance at the arrival departure board. Our flight from Denver to MSP actually leaves from this gate. No rushing to find the escalator, down to the three “G” subway train, and quickstep to the departure gate. I point this out to Sue. One of the cabin crew from our Reno flight overhears me and laughs, “Just stick around. No running for your lives.” Irony, dude. He couldn’t have known what we went through on the flight out.
While Sue searches for a late dinner, I try writing again. Passengers for Minneapolis gather. A 15 minute delay is announced. No matter. It will be the same aircraft, but with a different crew. The cleaners had already come on board as we deplaned from Reno. In fact, we’ll have the same seats. Although it’s late, all manner of humanity pass by. A neck tie here and there, a hoodie, high heels, cowboy boots, sandals, Nikes, flip flops, even wingtips.
Small children hurry, all by themselves, some with back packs bigger than they are. Suits with cell phones glued to their ears, a family reunion group happy to be heading back to Topeka…
“Now boarding Group 3…”
I sling the carryon over my left shoulder and pick up the camera bag by the grab handle. The boarding pass is in my left hand. Sue is ahead of me. Altogether now, we do the airport shuffle to the check in, down the ramp, through the fuselage door, squeeze along the aisle being careful not to bump a few who are already asleep, and into the same cramped seats from the earlier leg. Now for takeoff.
Our taxi from the active to the gate at MSP took about fifteen minutes. I waited, but others were fussing in their seats, cell phones on, seat belts clicking open, and anxious looks down the aisles.
Since I can’t sleep on a plane, I’d spent the flight mentally reviewing possibilities for my Minnesota Flyer story. With a 1000 word limit, I had to keep it tight. An earlier conversation with Luis Drummond, who writes for Flight Safety magazine, kept coming to mind. Use the photo captions to tell part of the story. We both did it. Since I would have eight or nine photos what could I add? Careful picture choice could mean quite a bit. The article’s focus would be different due to Sawbones’ canopy malfunction.
The walk from the gate, complete with obligatory rest room stop, wound through empty halls, past closed stores and food kiosks, down stairs and escalators, and by cleaners pushing overloaded carts. After mid-night. It’s Tuesday.
The shuttle stop was littered with sleepy passengers waiting for buses and vans. Some sat on concrete benches, some like me, leaned against pillars. Get in after mid-night? Call for a ride. A fellow wearing a Minnesota Vikings jersey and stocking cap had already called Park and Fly. “Said the bus was on the way,” he announced to a growing group near the Park and Fly sign. Good, I thought. Although I had the parking slip with the phone number in my hand, digging my phone out of the carryon bag had no appeal for me. I just wanted to get the Jetta and go home.
As I accelerated up the ramp onto westbound I-494, the light rain continued. I ripped the wrapper off a protein bar and bit the end off. I signaled into the middle lane away from a semi that was throwing off a torrent of road spray. Gentle sweep of the wipers. Finished the protein bar and stuffed the wrapper into to door tray. Hiss of the Continentals. Most of the road to ourselves, I drive past the turn off for I-35W, farther on by the US 169 exit. Near Eden Prairie, the rain fizzled out and quit. Like the tarmac at Reno, the pavement was bone dry.
I’d write at home when I was rested. Maybe I could make sense of my leaky blue ball point scribbles.
Another Reno adventure, far different from past years, was over.
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