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The 104th Aircraft Recovery Squadron

January 26, 2012

I was driving the other day and I spotted a small airplane, mounted on a trailer and being towed down the interstate. I was wondering what sad occasion had brought it to such a low state and I fell to thinking about my old friend Willie Mason and the 104th Aircraft Recovery Squadron.

Willie came into my life in the late 60's as a flying student, when I was teaching flying and running a small country airport. Something between us clicked and in the process of my teaching him about flying we became great friends. Then over the next few years he taught me about the art of the small adventure.

He was upbeat and funny and I loved the way he could wring joy out of the simplest things. Soon it was a given, that on the rare occasions that I could get away from the airport, Bill would appear and we would be off on yet another silly quest. One mission we repeated many time and which my wife came to refer to as our 'old cars and old bars routine' consisted of visiting abandoned farms and looking for old cars left in the ruins. What the plan was if we found one, I can't recall, but I do remember the thrill of the chase, and yes, there always seemed to be an old bar involved during the trip home.

Our bottle dig was another grand adventure. Willie had learned the location of the old town dump in his town, from a time when the garbage was picked up by horse and wagon, and we decided there was a fortune in old bottles awaiting us there. With shovels and sacks we made our way through the wooded terrain until we reached the gully that was said to be the site. An hour of digging proved the treasure map to be true and we started hitting pay dirt. Each time we heard the shovel hit glass we would carefully brush the dirt of decades away, extract our treasure and put it with the others. I can't remember what happened to the burlap bag of old bottles we came out of the woods with, but I do remember how triumphant I felt coming home with our booty.

On another occasion, I was anxious to try out the little trail motorcycle I'd purchased, so I called Willie and asked if he could meet me for a motorcycle ride. He said he didn't own a motorcycle, but his nephew did and he would borrow it and meet me. Early the next morning he drove up to our rendezvous in his truck, but with no motorcycle in sight. He dismounted, walked to the rear of the truck and took the smallest motorcycle I'd ever seen down from the truck bed. It was no taller than my knees and the wheels looked as if they'd been borrowed from a lawn mower. The nephew, as it turned out, had yet to see his ninth birthday.

Undaunted, Willie mounted up, or actually mounted down as the case was, and we whizzed away, down the dirt road that was our route for the day. I was laughing so hard at the bizarre sight of him that I could hardly control my bike. I followed dutifully as he roared along at his top speed of 25 miles per hour, his knees positioned just about even with his ears. As we passed a large farm house about a mile into our trip a very fast and very mean farm dog burst from the yard and went for Bill. I dropped back so as not to run over the dog while he had Bill in his mouth and they disappeared around a turn in a shower of dust and gravel, the dog actually looking taller than Bill on the bike. Around the next turn I met the dog trotting back with a satisfied look on his face and had the thought that this did not bode well. I soon came upon Bill, a jumble of wrecked bike, ripped coveralls and skinned flesh, in a heap by the side of the road. He reported that he'd actually outrun the dog, but lost control of the bike doing it, and thought next time he'd just let the dog bite him.

It wasn't surprising then, when it was time to retrieve a downed airplane that Bill was the one I called on.

I owned a trailer that had been modified to haul a disassembled aircraft and for whatever reason, it seemed to get plenty of use. Today an airplane roosting in some spot other than an airport would be far reaching news, but looking back to those heady days, it seemed to be rather a matter of course. I would get a call to pick up a downed airplane in Farmer such and so's corn field and I'd call Bill, hook up the trailer and we'd set out on another adventure. It happened so often that Bill started referring to us as 'The 104th Aircraft Recovery Squadron'.

Sometimes we didn't have far to go. I recall one week in 1969 when we had downed airplanes off both ends of our own 1600 foot sod strip. One, a Cherokee 160 was setting on a race track a half mile off the east end of the strip and the other, a PA-12 was squatting in a corn field 300 feet off the west end, both victims of too much load for the available runway. The fence at each end of the strip made sure there was no fudging on the length of the runway, and both airplanes had hit it, one on Friday and the other the next day.

I didn't witness the PA-12 accident, but the pilot had flown in to meet friends and wanted to give them a ride before he left. He loaded the back seat with two big people and found too late that the day was too hot and his engine too weary to lift them all over the fence. The airplane caught the top strand of barbed wire and made a sort of crumpled landing in the adjoining corn field, There were no injuries, only minimal damage to the airplane, but of course major damage to the pilot's pride.

The second accident ended very differently and could have been a major tragedy. Again, the pilot had flown in to visit family and again, airplane rides were to be given to the whole family before departure. I happened to be outside working on an airplane when the pilot and his considerable entourage arrived and I watched with disbelief as he loaded three passengers into the airplane. A Cherokee 160 is far from a STOL aircraft and that was exactly what was needed to lift that load out of this short strip on such a hot summer day The little wind there was across the strip and shifty, first favoring one runway, then the other. The engine started and as I watched, the pilot's window opened and the pilot motioned for me to come over and speak to him. 'Which runway would you use today?' he asked. I replied that the runway I would use was located at another airport and much longer that this one. He thanked me, closed the window and taxied out.

He chose to use the west strip and his take off run was slow, way slow and as he approached the fence he was still on the ground. At the last minute he gave a mighty heave on the controls and the airplane staggered into the air, missing the fence by less than a foot. I decided to be gracious when the shaken pilot came back and confessed that that had been the dumbest thing he'd done for a while, and went on working on the Cub. Soon the Cherokee landed and taxied up to the hangar. The three passengers were discharged but the pilot remained at the controls and three more people marched up to the airplane and got in. I was dumfounded. The airplane started and taxied out, this time using the east facing strip. I called to Glen our mechanic working in the hangar, and asked if he'd like to witness an airplane crash. The outcome was so predictable that I thought if I had time, I could sell tickets to this disaster. I wondered how anyone could do this, given the narrow escape that he'd just had.

The takeoff run seemed even slower than the first, and approaching the fence it seemed impossible that the airplane could rise over it. Again, at the last moment came the desperate pull on the controls and the airplane, amazingly, left the ground and cleared the fence by inches. But this time the stabilator met a fence post with a whack that we could hear from where we stood and the airplane staggered. It remained flying though, and the nose continued to rise. Later we learned that the collision with the post had locked the stabilator in a fixed position and the only controls left to the pilot were the ailerons and rudder and of course, throttle. The pilot, for all his bad decisions, kept his head and reduced the power and kept the airplane from stalling. As it continued to the east Glen and I ran to a car and started to follow its path. A half mile later we came upon the airplane in the middle of an old horse racing track, damaged but in one piece with the pilot and passengers standing about congratulating each other on being alive.

One of our trips to rescue a downed airplane involved one of my aircraft, a Champ that I had sent to Tennessee for a prospective buyer to look at. My young instructor Skip, filled with the enthusiasm of youth and the desire to log hours, volunteered for the trip. My assessment of Skip was that he was long on pilot skills but that his judgment hadn't reached its full growth yet. Against my better instincts I let him take the trip.

All went smoothly on the trip down, but returning found him flying long after the non night equipped airplane should have been on the ground. Faced with continuing on until it got really dark or doing an off airport landing in the remaining dusk, Skip chose to set down in a field on a mountain top in Southern West Virginia. The landing was perfect, but the corn stalks were thicker than they looked from the air and finally physics caught up with the Champ when it came to a halt before it was done landing. The call I got from Skip said the airplane was on its back in the middle of a corn field and it looked as if the only damage was one bent strut.

The next morning found Bill and I south bound with a spare strut lashed to the top of the car. We reached the airplane about noon and set about righting it and installing the strut. By this time the local grapevine had spread the word that an airplane had landed on Phifer Mountain and the fools were going to try to fly it out. A crowd had assembled before we arrived and as we worked on the airplane people kept coming until the field was a swarm with mountaineers.

Since the corn had been harvested from the stalks the farmer was kind enough to lend me his tractor and a drag, and I proceeded to drag the corn stocks flat in the direction that I intended to take off. When I was done and dismounted the tractor I found Bill laughing until tears were streaming down his face. When he could speak again he pointed to a small wizened lady who looked to be almost ninety years old. She had come up to Bill, looked into his face, looked at the airplane, then at the trees bordering the field, then at young Skip. Looking back at Bill, who was ready for the pronouncement of a miracle in the sparing of young Skip's life, she said "the little son of a bitch lucked out, didn't he?"

Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 For a restorative vacation for both your body and your soul, consider a week on the banks of the unforgettable Tygart River, in the heart of West Virginia. Click for more.

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