One Sharp Old Bird

Along the way to a career in aviation you come upon scores of assholes. After a while they are about the same as stepping in dog poop- annoying, inconvenient, foul, yet blending in with all of the other times you've happened upon them. You rarely remember them. The other side of the coin is that unique individual that you meet who encompasses all that an aviator should be about. A person who inspires you simply by their casual demeanor- although they have done great things in aviation. They make you want to be like them- if only in some small way. For me, the most memorable of those select few aviators was one old bird by the name of Russ Purchase.

Being from the Tri-cities area of mid-Michigan I first heard of Russ when I was in the Civil Air Patrol in the early 1970s. People spoke of him in legendary terms. It seemed that he'd flown everything, done it all and was doing more. In the summer of 1978, after my freshman year at Embry-Riddle, I met Russ for the first time when I got a summer job at his FBO called Airflite and Serve-a-Plane. Airflite was not only an FBO, but was also a Falcon Jet service center and I was hired by Russ' hangar ram-rod, Tim Alexander, to work as a stockboy in the parts department- it was my first job in aviation. I was introduced to Russ by Tim who stated, as only Tim can, "This is Russ, he owns the place." then he added to Russ, "This is Wes the new parts guy, he thinks he's gonna be a pee-let" (Tim's favored slang for "pilot"). Russ, a thin, balding guy with a sweet little old man air about him, smiled and welcomed me to Hangar 6. That summer I really did not interact much with Russ before heading back to college and driving myself so far into debt to the University that they would not let me back in.

Thus in September of 1979, after getting the news that ERAU would not let me back in until I actually paid them instead of just signing promissory notes, I needed a job- any job- and fast. The first thing I did was call Airflight and talk to Tim. He told me they needed a "hangar rat" and I could start the next day. I had no idea what a hangar rat did, but it was a job and it was aviation related, so I jumped at it. The fact was that the hangar rat does just about everything and anything, but mostly you're a janitor. If it's full- empty it. If it's empty- fill it. Everything else- ya' paint yellow.

On my first day as the hangar rat I ran into Russ, who was a bit surprised to see me- he said he thought I'd be back at school. I explained that I'd run out of money and he fully understood. Knowing that Russ was the local FAA Designated Examiner, I also brought up the fact that I was aiming to take my private pilot checkride sometime in the near future. I'd passed my private pilot prog. check at ERAU, but did not qualify for their new Part 141 Self-examining authority, so I'd need an FAA ride. He told me that I could use one of his Cessna 172s just for the cost of fuel when the time came. Then he added, "When yer' ready, I'll fly with ya'..." and he smiled. Although the check pilots at ERAU scared the crap out of me, Russ had a very different air about him. He did not treat me like a student, or a wet nose, or a wannabe- all of which I actually was. Frankly, I could not wait for the chance to get Russ' signature in my logbook.

At work everyone seemed to have an aviation story to tell- except me, of course. I was way too new to aviation to have many good stories of my own... at least, none that could compare to the other guys. The corporate pilots sat around and told stories of Falcon Jets. The mechanics told stories about about the guts and innards of aircraft. The avionics guys told stories about circuitry and stray electrons. And the lineboys told stories about everyone who was telling stories. When Russ Purchase told a story, however, it was about something like flying the Ford Trimotor. When he got into one of those tales, I just sat there and listened... wide-eyed with my mouth hanging open and a little drool running down my chin.

I recall one Ford Trimotor story the best. Russ was a captain on the Trimotor flying out of assorted mid-Michigan cities to Chicago. They flew in all sorts of weather with few aids to navigation and fewer weather reports. In those days Russ and his fellow Trimotor pilots had a "rule" about engine outs on takeoff. The rule was that no matter what, with an engine out at takeoff, NEVER try and turn until you have plenty of altitude- "Just keep her flyin' straight as an arrow and get yer' altitude as ya' can, a foot at a time." The notion was that a turn in the low and slow part of the takeoff climb would cause the Trimotor to stall and spin into the ground. Now, I have no idea if that is an actual aerodynamic characteristic about the Trimotor or just a myth of the era, because I've never flown a Trimotor. I have no information as to what the Vmc is for the Trimotor, so I just took Russ' word for it. Anyhow, he was departing Saginaw's Harry Brown Airport back in the Trimotor days with a "boatload" of passengers and cargo. In those days the "field" part of the term "Airfield best described the airport, which was also surrounded by farmland. The Trimotor had hardly broken ground when the right engine "just quit." Russ was doing his best to keep her flying and kept telling himself not to turn, just keep goin' straight and get altitude a foot at a time. He was getting his way with the aircraft as he had a very slight climb. Then he looked out the window, and "Here comes a barn!" Get a little altitude, get closer to the barn, get a little more altitude, get a lot closer to the barn, get a little more altitude, barn's fillin' the windscreen. Hold yer' breath and nudge her up a bit... cleared the barn by a few inches. Whew! Russ breathed a sigh of relief, then looked over at his first officer... who had fainted dead away. With thoughts of modern airports, emergency landings, airways, fire and rescue equipment and the NTSB, I asked Russ, "So, what'd you do then?" He replied casually, "We flew to Chicago... that's where we were goin'."

Russ was not just a guy stuck in the old days and old equipment. Once he was away from the hangar for a whole week and I was told that he went to Atlanta... to golf. That figured- because the autumn weather in mid-Michigan had been beyond crummy for nearly two months. The next week Russ was back and I stopped into his office- probably to empty a waste basket or some such thing. I asked how his golf trip to Atlanta had been. He told me that it had rained all darned week. Then, with typical Russ matter-of-fact he added " I just went and got a Falcon 50 type. Been meanin' to do that." I was totally blown away- here I was sweating every prog. check that I'd done at ERAU in the 172, and this little old guy just goes out and gets a Falcon 50 type rating as an afterthought! As I went about my hangar rat chores that day it struck me that I would never, ever, EVER, rise to that level of aviation ability. Someone whose scope of demonstrated ability can so easily go from the Ford Trimotor to a Falcon 50 type in an afterthought.

While the autumn of 1979 went on the weather remained just plain rotten- every single day. Either the winds were gale force, or the rain was coming down out of a 200 foot ceiling, or the snow was blowing instead of the freezing rain. The days ticked off, and so did the days remaining in my private pilot endorsement. It was already November and I had not even touched an aircraft since late summer. It was not looking good for my private pilot checkride. I sheepishly went to Russ' office in an attempt to outline my problem. I'd no sooner told him the date of my endorsement when he stopped me. "Son,..." he said softly, "when you get to be my age, you don't worry about dates. Just keep yer' stuff here, and when the weather breaks- we'll go." and that was that.

One of my chores as a hangar rat, for which I often earned over-time pay, was washing aircraft. That involved pulling a bird into the hangar, closing the hangar door, using masking tape to close every opening on the aircraft, washing, rinsing it and then removing the tape. If the owner asked I'd also be happy to polish the spinners with Met-All... because that took about 2 extra hours... of time-and-a-half pay. One day I'd washed a Cheyenne for a local construction company, and I'd accidentally left the tape on one pitot tube. The following day the pilot (whose name is changed here to protect the innocent, and the stupid) climbed aboard and went ripping down the runway, only to abort his takeoff run as soon as (he stated that) he saw he had no airspeed indication. He taxied clear and came back toward the hangar. On the radio he was furious and it echoed through the lobby of Hangar 6 "That kid left tape on my damned pitot tube!" Oh yeah, I was doomed, a real pilot was about to drill me a new one- I felt about two inches tall as the aircraft screamed up to the hangar. Russ came down and said nothing- rather he just went close to the lobby door and waited. Bill the Cheyenne driver came bursting in through the door and proceeded to scream at me wagging his finger and holding up the tape. He went up one side of me and down the other... then Russ spoke with a quiet authority that it was like hitting Bill with a CO2 fire extinguisher. "That's what preflights are for Bill." The enraged pilot stopped, turned, and stormed back to his airplane. The entire lobby by then had been filled with mechanics attracted by the commotion and as the door slammed behind Bill, they all burst into laughter. Tim looked toward me and said "If he says anything else to ya' just ask him if he knows where his keys are." Russ began to giggle a bit as he headed back up to his office. Tim then explained that the previous spring Bill, the Cheyenne God, had locked the aircraft's cargo door and left the keys hanging in the lock, then flew it all the way from Milwaukee like that. By the time he got back to MBS the flopping keys had worn a hole in the skin of the aircraft. Apparently Bill was not real good about preflights.

On another occasion, we were "dumping" the hangar, or taking all of the aircraft out to get to one at the back and then putting them all back again as fast as possible so as to not let the weather take too much of an advantage of the open hangar door. We were in the process of putting the last aircraft, a Lear 35/36, back into the crowded hangar and my station in the operation was to be at the button that commanded the door to roll up and down. The lineboys were experts with a tug and could fit aircraft in with less than an inch of space between one extremity and another- they did it all the time. Their motto was "As long as you don't get into those negative inches, yer' fine." My station was also right next to the lobby door and Russ was standing there with the pilots of the Lear that was being parked. As the lineboy tugged the jet ever so slowly through the hangar door, the tip tank got close to the door frame... real close... as in about 1/4 inch. I could hear the pilot start to hiss as he expected a crunch that never came. The jet cleared, the tug was cut loose and I had the door closing before the motion stopped. The pilot barked "THAT JUST BARELY GOT IN THERE!" Russ turned to him and said, "Say that again... only without the exclamation point."

The morning of November 22nd, 1979 started out gloomy, but by mid-morning Indian Summer broke across mid-Michigan- it was perfect for my checkride! All I recall of that morning is bounding up the stairs to Russ' office. As I trotted in, Russ was at his big desk with a huge smile on his face as soon as he saw me. "Go ask Tim." he said. I went back down to Tim's office and he was waiting for me too. "Get otta here and go fly." he said faking a sneer. As I bolted he shouted "Punch out first!" I hit the time clock, grabbed my flightbag and headed back to Russ' desk for my oral. On the way up the stairs it suddenly dawned on me- I hadn't studied for the oral! At Embry-Riddle the orals were a really tough and required days of study for me, now I had to walk in and do it cold and in front of an aviation legend to boot. I sat down and Russ asked me a basic question about weight and balance, then he started teaching me all about Falcon 50 takeoff performance, V1 cuts, V2 climbs and balanced field. Then he told me to go pull the 172 out and preflight her... my "oral" was done. As I was pulling on the tow-bar, again a bit of cold reality hit me- I had not flown an aircraft since the end of summer.

Russ strolled out, climbed aboard the aircraft and simply said, "Let's go." He asked for a soft-field takeoff and I made it happen- it felt good to fly again. We headed out from MBS and over to the east. As we flew along Russ was looking out the window toward the wingtip. Then he simply said, "I think the little ball is out from the center a bit." I looked at the turn-n-bank and sure enough, the ball was about 1/8 out. "Damn," I thought to myself, "this old bird is sharp, I'd better sharpen up myself- RIGHT NOW!" Russ had me do some stalls, some slow flight, asked me how would I get from where we were to some of the other local airports and finally asked if I lost the engine right now where would I go. One of the few things that I knew for sure at that time was that when an instructor pulls an engine on you, the first place you look to go is straight down. The oldest trick in the book is to get you to look out rather than down- the best field, it is said, may be right under you. I looked down and sure enough, there was the perfect field for a forced landing, right under me. "I'd go there!" I answered pointing straight down. "Okay," Russ said. Then he leaned over and said, "Let's head back." I figured it was time for some more takeoffs and landings. But Russ leaned over and asked "Mind if I take it?" Now... at Embry-Riddle, when the check airman (AKA "prog. pilot") asks to fly the airplane back to the airport, it means you have failed in a very, VERY big way. I must have looked at Russ with horror on my face as I choked and stuttered out something like "Sure...okay..." He must have known instantly what was going through my mind as he grinned and said "You passed, yer' okay... I just don't get to fly the 172 very much." I worked the radios on the way back and took a few moments to savor the fact that I was flying with Russ Purchase.

After parking the 172 down at Hangar 4, Russ stepped out and said to meet him up at his office for my temporary certificate. The lineboy told me to just leave the aircraft on the ramp because they were gonna dump the hangar anyhow. So, I just gathered my stuff and walked up the ramp. Along the way I wondered what the guys in the hangar would say when I got there. They all knew I'd been waiting for weeks for this, especially Tim who teased me constantly about wanting to be a "damned pee-let." My bet was that one of the first things he'd say was "You owe me a beer" because he often said that. With that in mind, I went into the hangar and headed straight to my hangar rat's room. The previous week we'd finished a "C" check on a Falcon 10 and the guys from the jet had given every guy in the hangar who worked on the jet a six-pack of beer... including me. Being a non-drinker and not wanting to make the customer feel uncomfortable, I politely accepted my six-pack and just stashed it in the hangar rat's room for who-knows-what. Now, I figured a joke on Tim was a good use for that beer. I grabbed the six and stuck in my flightbag then went into the lobby. As I walked by Tim's office, he called me in. "Congratulations, ya' damned pee-let," he said reaching out to shake my hand, "Ya' owe me a beer." I reached into my flightbag, pulled out the six-pack and said "Here ya' go." as I set it on his desk. He chuckled and said "Just tell me you didn't get that otta Dow Corning's Falcon." I told him where it came from and he was more than happy to take the gift. Upstairs Russ made out my paperwork and I was officially a private pilot. When I went past Tim's office again he asked if I wanted to take the rest of the day off and celebrate. I told him no, I just wanted to punch in and get back on the clock- I still needed to earn enough to get back into Embry-Riddle.

A month later, I was ready to head back to school. Russ had my last paycheck printed and ready so I would not have to wait for money before heading down to college. As he handed me the pay-stub he quietly said, "You'll notice I didn't charge you for your checkride, you're gonna need every dime down at school."

Russ later sold his FBO and all of the trimmings to the Aero Services network of FBOs. He stayed on for a year or so as a manager, and then retired. I happened to be there visiting on his last day. He drove up in a huge motorhome, said his farewells and drove off into retirement- in style. In my aviation career I do not think that I achieved 1/100th of Russ' mastery of, not only the flying, but also the business of aviation. I'm sure that most of us who knew him would be forced to admit the same. He was one sharp old bird. Russ is no longer with us, but I've got his signature in one of my logbooks, and of that I take pride. I got my private certificate from a legend in aviation- yep.