By John House
I grew up on a small ranch outside of Sacramento and when I would get my chores done, I used to ride my bike to the airport to hang out. The ride was a little over 6 miles and I could do it in about three quarters of an hour on my Schwinn Orange Krate. It was quite a workout on that bike as there were lots of hills along the way and it must have weighed nearly what I did.
It had a 16” wheel in the front with a drum brake that was really good at tossing me over the handlebars if I grabbed a handful. It had a 20” wheel with a slick tire on the back, a banana seat, a five-speed shifter that looked like it came right out of Ford Mustang, and a front suspension like a Harley Springer. It was a pig to ride but, boy, was it cool.
I would do odd jobs for the bunch of regulars that hung out at the field in exchange for rides. My dad called them airport bums. I was referred to as the airport rat. Always scurrying about looking for scraps. Heck there was an airport dog named Rags and an airport cat named Tripod. Three guesses why and the first two don’t count. I fit right in.
I had gotten over my airsickness years before and now I couldn’t get enough. I’d work all day cleaning and waxing an airplane, cleaning out a hangar and even washing cars, then I’d get a 4-minute trip ‘round the patch as payment. Most of the time it was Cessnas and Pipers but on occasion, I’d get a ride in a Stearman, AT-6, Starduster and even a Pitts. As I got older, I got smarter. If I washed your airplane, I wanted a flying lesson. Not content with a ride around the pattern any longer, my first logbook entry was January 31, 1970.
I would do just about anything to get flying time. I made a pittance on a paper route delivering the Sacramento Union each morning before school. Then I started working at the airport on weekends and full-time during summers. I started out doing odd jobs and pumping gas. Then I moved to the shop assisting the mechanics. I started at $1.45 an hour and in 1971 when minimum wage went to $1.60, I was in tall cotton. As I remember, the rental for a Cessna 150 was $6.50 wet and the instructor was $4.50. I could work a full day and pay for a one hour flying lesson. Not much has changed relatively speaking.
I scrimped and saved and kept flying. My experience grew and I earned my private pilot license then followed up with an instrument and commercial single-engine. I flew anything and everything I could: ferry flights, Discovery Flights, pick and delivery, you name it. One particular flight is as vivid today as it was over 40 years ago.
We had a customer who was a sugar beet farmer south of Dixon. He owned a 1964 Cessna 180 that he kept on his farm in a barn along with the requisite farms implements and fodder.
His runway was a potholed dirt road between fields. While it was plenty long, it was only about 15 feet wide with irrigation ditches on either side. Insurance wouldn’t allow any of our airplanes in there.
It was due for an annual and the owner didn’t have a current medical to deliver it to our shop. Like the dolt I was, and likely still am, I immediately volunteered to pick it up without knowing what I was getting into. I’d have someone fly me to the Nut Tree airport and Stan would pick me up there and drive me to his farm. I’d hop in the 180 and fly it back to O11. What could go wrong?
When we pulled up in front of the barn and Stan pointed out both the airplane and the runway, I suddenly realized I was in over my head. The runway, or lack thereof, scared me. But there was no way I was going to let on that I’d made a huge mistake. I was a pilot by god, and a commercial one at that. I can handle anything.
Stan had moved the airplane out of the barn before picking me up and it looked like it had spent years laying fallow in one of his fields. It was a mess. I’m not sure which was dirtier: the interior or the exterior. I should have worn coveralls because I’m going to need a shower when I get it home. I did a thorough preflight and was surprised that other than the dirt, everything seemed to be ship-shape. Stan gave me a briefing regarding the “runway” then closed the door and waved goodbye.
The Continental O-470 fired on the second blade and ran smoothly. I smiled, thinking this is going better than I feared. I taxied the airplane to what Stan called a wash rack that was concrete using minimal power so I didn’t damage the prop or tail feathers. I did the runup there and all was good. Satisfied everything was a go, I slowly taxied to the runway and kept it rolling as I gently added power. I raised the tail a bit but not as much as I would on a hard surface runway. With quarter tanks and all of my 170 pounds, it broke ground in probably 400 feet.
The climb out was good at about 800 feet a minute and I leveled off at 1,500 and made a slight turn to the south. I figured I would stay out of both Sacramento Executive and Mather AFB airspace and make a turn north once I was east of Mather’s approach path. It was a pretty short flight and as I made the northern turn, I felt something climb up my right calf. Startled, my leg jerked off the rudder peddle, and I looked down. I didn’t see anything but something was crawling up my leg inside my pants. My right hand shot to my leg and I grabbed something about 3 inches long through my Levi 501’s and pinned it against my leg. I didn’t know for sure but I thought it was a mouse.
Those of you that are pilots may remember practicing unusual attitude recoveries in your flight training. Your instructor would have you close your eyes and lower your chin to your chest. He would then take the controls and make like he was churning butter. When you were good and disoriented, he would say, your airplane and you had to recover. That was pretty much what I did to myself.
I was headed for the ground in a spiral dive to the right. I looked up and saw the ground getting bigger in the window, so I released the critter in my pants and pulled the throttle off and started my recovery. Of course, the instant I let go of it, the mouse started crawling further up my leg. My hand shot back to my pant leg to hold it in place.
Okay. Fly the airplane. I needed to take inventory of what I needed to do to fly the airplane with one hand with a critter in my pants. Let’s see: Power – right hand. Trim – right hand. Flaps – right hand. Radio microphone– right hand (no headset or push-to-talk). This is going to be fun.
It was the 70’s and nobody wore Levi’s with a belt. That included me. I looked around the cockpit for a rope, a wire or anything I could wrap around my leg to keep Mickey from climbing further up my leg. I wasn’t married but I figured someday I would be and I’m sure my future wife would want kids.
The only thing I could find was the seat belt on the passenger seat but it wasn’t long enough. Wait a minute. I could use my shirt! I took off my shirt with the little alligator on it and tied it around my leg then recovered from my second unusual attitude. Someday I gotta learn to fly a little higher.
I recovered my thoughts, calmed my nerves and pulled out the checklist to prepare for landing. I made some turns and kicked the rudder around a bit to get the feel of the airplane back. My heartrate had finally dropped below the engine RPM. At least on this day, I wanted nothing more than to be on the ground. I was about 3 miles to the south of the airport and as usual the winds favored runway 18.
Favored is the wrong word, the winds were right down the runway but at a brisk 10 knots. I was not going to land the big Cessna taildragger with that much tailwind so a straight-in was out. The airport saw a lot of flight training traffic even on a Wednesday as there were a couple aircraft in the pattern. I got in line behind the last one and announced I had an issue and needed to land without delay. The other aircraft heard this and reported they would break off to give me plenty of room.
I didn’t want to describe the problem over the radio because, a) I needed to focus on what I was doing, and b) I didn’t want an audience. Well, that didn’t work. The FBO office had large windows that looked out at the runway that was only about 100 feet away. It had a clear view of everything. Second, the unicom broadcast such that anyone in the office and lobby could hear every transmission. Add to that, one of the girls at the front desk announced over the PA into the shop and all the flight school offices that, “John is landing with a problem.
In the meantime, I was on downwind and had gotten the aircraft slowed enough to pull on 20° of flaps with the Johnson bar. I adjusted the trim wheel which is located between the seats right next to flap selector and cowl flaps. I pulled the power back a bit more and pushed forward on the prop controller to make sure I was in fine pitch in the event I needed to make a go-around. When abeam the numbers I pulled the power back again and nosed the aircraft over.
Everything was going well as I turned base and pulled on another notch of flaps. I was right on airspeed and happy with the picture, so I turned final and pulled on yet another notch of flaps to 40°. Just then the shirt I had hastily tied around the lump in my pants fell off. Mickey took that as his cue to start moving again.
So, I’m on short final, all lined up and a critter is wandering around on my inner thigh. The smart thing to do is probably to add power and go around but that would do nothing to remedy the situation. I wanted on the ground NOW! I fought the primal urges to do anything but fly the airplane. I kept my hands and feet on the controls and maintained the approach.
I touched down about a third of the way down the runway and immediately dumped the flaps, yanked back on the yoke and stood on the brakes. I came to a stop about even with the fuel island and in full view of the maintenance shop and the front office. I pulled the mixture and leaped out of the airplane right on the runway.
Now picture the scene. I’d just landed, jumped out of the airplane without a shirt on, dropped my pants and fell to the ground to get both my shoes and pants off. Any thought of not making a spectacle was certainly gone. A half dozen people from the shop ran out to help not knowing what was happening.
When I breathlessly explained what had happened, everyone started laughing their fool heads off. Of course, the story quickly spread to all the onlookers and beyond. As it spread it got bigger and was embellished. Some months later, I heard a version from someone that didn’t know I was the pilot that said I was smuggling ferrets into California and one got loose in the airplane.
Well at least I wasn’t the airport rat anymore. I was the airport mouse.