Always have a good jumpseat story to tell.
Railroad engineer's kids, my sister and I Easter Sunday 1962... at the roundhouse in Saginaw, of course. Showing off our Sunday best for Dad... who was working that day.

I come from a railroad family- that’s why I talk loud. When you grow up in a railroad family, if you wanna be heard you gotta be loud. From the time I was born my dad was an engineer on the C&O railroad. For an engineers' kid, climbing up on an engine is simply no big deal... like going to dad's office. Been doin' it since I could walk. When I was little, often on the fourth of July, after the fireworks, I’d “got to work” with dad. He worked a half shift that night and I’d ride in the “fireman’s seat” aboard the engine as dad switched railroad cars in and around the Saginaw yard or the auto plants in Flint. On “payday” I’d get a C&O check for a half day’s work. It wasn’t cashable, but I never knew the difference. Dad would take it into the drug store and come out with some cash for me… seven whole dollars! I was a rich nine-year-old! It was a lesson in how you get money. You go to work and you get paid.
Photo from the Buck Wyndham collection (airline pilot and foamer)

For someone in aviation, going to the airport is also nothing special- it’s just a part of going to work. Same thing as going to the railroad yard for a kid who grew up in a railroad family- it’s no big deal. Goin’ to pick up dad or to fetch his paycheck while he catches some sleep. Yet, there are other similarities you may not consider. One day as I was jumpseating home to BWI and as we  taxied out for takeoff at MSP I noticed a crowd of people gathered outside the boundary fence at the end of the runway.

“Lots of foamers out there today,” I quipped.

“Foamers?” the captain squinted, “what’s that?”

“Those folks there at the end of the runway with the cameras,” I replied

After we blasted off and got into cruise the captain asked me to explain “foamers.” I told him that my dad was a railroad engineer and that was the term they used to describe the train-buffs who stand by the tracks and photograph and film the trains as they go by. The crews said that those guys foamed at the mouth when they saw a train coming.

“Hey!” he smiled, “I’m a foamer!”

Suddenly the cockpit conversation turned to trains as both pilots confessed to being friggin’ foamers. I told them that I had a story that they’d like.  Now…for people reading this who are not those of us who have spent endless hours in a cockpit at cruise, you should know that interesting cockpit conversation is of GREAT value- because the hardest thing to do in the cockpit is stay awake. Thus, I let go with my story and had a fully captive audience.

This story brought to by Wes' best-selling spaceflight book APOLLO PART ONE

When I graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 1988 having finished all of my commercial and multi engine instrument pilot's ratings, I headed back to Michigan to stay at mom and dad’s house while I worked as a survey pilot for the DNR. Before I ever got that job and nearly as soon as I got into the house my dad casually says "Yer' goin' to work with me tomorrow."

Okay... been doin' that since I was a kid too- so, what the heck. I figured he wanted to show me, his newly minted commercial pilot son, off to the crew in the shanty. The next day mom made us both a couple of lunches and we headed off to the yard at Midland’s Dow Chemical plant. Dad had been working the Dow job for the past few years. He was WAY high on the seniority list of CSX (which was the company formed when the C&O was swallowed up) and could pretty much pick whatever job he wanted and hold it. He picked the Dow day job because it was just a few minutes’ drive from our house and he could pass the Dow security clearance for handling HAZMAT in the plant. Once he had that Dow badge he really could not be bumped.  We got to the yard and dad introduced me to the guys on his crew then he tells me I'm gonna run the engine from Dow to Farwell, Michigan!

"If you can fly an airplane commercially, you can run an engine," he reasoned.

So... I did!

Dad only had to show me the basics. I already knew where the throttle and the brake handle was located, how to see if the flashers were working by looking at the hole in the side and how to run the “notches.” I knew about the deadman’s peddle and so on. He did need to instruct me on the alert system that would go off if the engineer had not taken some sort of action after so many minutes. First an amber light would flash, and compared to aircraft “caution lights” in the cockpit, this was a big light. If you didn’t respond by making some action- tooting the whistle, adding some brake, cycling the deadman’s peddle or a half dozen other things that could be moved, the light would glow steady and then after so many seconds it would apply the brakes, stop the engine and begin blowing the whistle. He also coached me on how far from a crossing I needed to begin my whistle blow; timing is everything. Lastly both he and his conductor told me very clearly that if anything happened, we hit a car, a person or the train went “on the ground” I was to leave the engine and walk far away… like I was never there. Oh yeah, this was an unauthorized trip for me.

I got the "N" scale engine for Dad one Christmas... it turned out he had 8210 in his logbook! That's his UTU button that I keep pinned on it today.

Dad worked the engine inside the Dow plant as we only had a few cars to shove. Then we pulled  a few and switched to the line headed for Farwell. Now it was my turn to drive. I guess any of you foamers out there reading this would have been fully puckered and near orgasm, but frankly, I was right at home. It was like the first time I flew a Falcon 10, I’d been around it so much that it was a comfortable place. Besides… it’s a train… it can only go where the tracks go. On we went to Farwell and as we approached one section of track my dad told me to smile. Pointing down he showed me four foamers standing there taking our picture. I smiled and waved. Approaching our destination, which was actually a siding just northwest of the town of Clare, I got us stopped, with some coaching, where we needed to be and dad along with his crew of one switchman and a conductor parked the cars we had and picked up one to go back. Then I ran the train into Midland and, again with some coaching, got her stopped where we needed to stop. Once more the real railroad men took over and soon our day was done. I asked dad why they called it the Farwell job when it only went to Clare? He said it originally went all the way to Farwell, so they just call it that.

Today that line that I ran back in 1988, all the way from Midland to Clare, is a paved bike path! Yet nearly every time I told this story from the jumpseat I found at least one of the pilots to be fascinated by it. Dad told me that I could tell everyone that before I ever exercised my commercial pilot's certificate, I ran a locomotive. You'd never guess how many airline pilots are totally envious of that.
"Irish" 1981

My dad passed away in December of 2004 and although most people in the Saginaw, Michigan area remember him as the Zamboni driver for the local professional hockey team, the ice was his art, but running a locomotive was his career. When he worked the “road job” from Midland to Port Huron the line ran just 800 feet behind our house and you could always tell it was him by the whistle blow. His was two long, one short and one extra long. If you were listening on the radio you could tell it was him because all of the other engineers were called by their job number “2346” or “5418” or such… but they called my dad “Irish.”

For more of Wes' story telling check out his aviation spy thriller INVISIBLE EVIL



Part 5

One of the final parts of the Falcon 20 “D” inspection involved the wing bolts. All these years later I don’t recall how many wing bolts there actually were on each side. My Falcon 20 maintenance manuals do not give much information either. So, we’ll just say it was more than 12 and less than 18… somewhere in that neighborhood.

For weeks we’d been warned that the worst part of this job was gonna be the wing bolts… and they were right. In order to get the job done they needed two mechanics who could dedicate themselves just to this task for about 3 or 4 days- plus overtime. A fellow named Jim volunteered and I was volunteered by the shop A.I. Their reasoning in using me was the fact that I was hired on at near minimum wage and working under the shop certificate. Thus, they could charge $28 an hour for my labor while just paying me about $2.50 an hour. Additionally, I was well known as the model boat maker and was very handy with tiny parts and tools. This job was similar to dental work.

Our first task took the greatest time. The bolt recesses were filled with the hard crusty brown junk that was similar to that used inside the fuel tanks, but certainly a different formula. It was designed to keep all forms of fluids and moisture away from the bolts and effectively make them corrosion proof over the life of the aircraft. Since no other Falcon 20 had ever gone as far as a “D” inspection, the folks at Dassault wanted to know how well that crap was actually holding up plus they had a new method for re-sealing the bolts. Now we had to chip out that hard brown stuff and completely clean both the bolts and the recesses.

We were told VERY clearly, “No matter what you do, don’t scratch the bolts.” Each bolt was different diameter, numbered for its position and cadmium plated. The smallest scratch on any part of a bolt made either while uncovering it, removing it, or handling it would condemn the bolt and it would have to be removed and replaced. Thus we picked and chipped away with the greatest of care. Finally we ended up working with dental tools to get the last of the hardened crust removed so the bolts cold be inspected. As best I can recall we damaged just three. Yet about four others showed corrosion- and I’m talking near microscopic spots, not huge areas of rust. Bill, our A.I. would look at one and say, “Nope- that one’s gotta go.” And when it was removed I’d look at it and couldn’t see a thing wrong. Then he’d take the tip of his pen and carefully point out the spot of rust that I would never have noticed. Such is the sharp eye of an inspector. Replacement for the scored bolts was another matter. New bolts had to be installed with the A.I. watching and torqued carefully to a very specific value WITHOUT compromising the cadmium plating. Then each replacement had to be properly stated in the aircraft logbook. Of course I was not certified to take part in any such replacement.

Once the inspection was over Jim and I were told to come into work the next day wearing clothes that would have to be thrown away and to bring fresh clothing to wear home at the end of our task. Personally I picked out a pair of bell-bottom jeans from the 70s that I’d never wear again and a shirt that a cheating former girlfriend had given me and I was good to go. Jim had some nasty coveralls that were so filthy they’d make you reflex vomit. We were also told that we’d get no breaks and no lunch because once we started we had to keep going until it was all finished. We did, however, get time and a half for the whole day… so who could argue?

Arriving at Hangar 6 that morning we were presented with a series of purple Styrofoam forms that were shaped like half of an egg. Each had a dimple molded into it that was the size of a wing bolt head and each was exactly the size of the recess where the bolts were located. With that came some bright yellow gunk that was called Mastinox Compound. I was told that it was a rubberized sealant that never hardens. It was non-corrosive and was supposed to keep all moisture away from the bolts. We had to, by hand, smear that stuff around each bolt head and work it in to make sure that there were no air bubbles. When the bolt was well covered, we had to take one of the Styrofoam half-eggs, fill its recess with the compound, smear some on the surface and shove it into the recess where the bolt was waiting. The compound oozed out and we had to carefully cover the exposed flat side with more compound. Above all, we were not supposed to rush the job.

Looking back, we should have been wearing rubber gloves. But it was 1985 and instead we went at it, Jim on the right side wing and me on the left, with our bare hands. As it turned out the hardest part was not touching anything else with your hands! When that yellow guck got on something it was there to stay- and it showed up real good too. Heaven forbid you should put your hand on the aircraft fuselage, or worse yet- scratch your head. Of course they brown papered the wing for a huge area and taped brown paper to the fuselage up to the tops of the windows- we needed that. By mid day we had that stuff all over us, but I was focused so hard on doing the task properly that I really didn’t notice. The brown paper that was taped to the aircraft fuselage and wings was covered with hand prints and slopped guck. We finished about mid-afternoon, both at nearly the same time. Sliding off the wing, I looked over at Jim and we both said, “Now how do we get this shit off of us?”

They hadn’t thought of that.

Aside from working the radios on the engine runs, those wing bolts were the last major thing I had to do in the “D” inspection. Weeks later I was back in Daytona at Embry-Riddle finishing my degree in Aeronautical Science along with my multi-engine commercial instrument ratings. Sitting in a Turbine Engines class I was still picking little bits of Mastinox Compound out from under my fingernails (no foolin’ folks). The instructor flashed a slide up on the screen of a CF-700 engine.

“I’ll bet none of you have any experience with the aircraft that uses this engine…” he said.

I raised my hand.

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With the UC being torn down and hauled away like so much trash, I figure it’s a good time to publish some of my memories of the place that was my home away from home for so many years… the Avion office. Considering that I was the one who haunted the office for a full decade… well, okay, it was just three terms… one for Carter and two for Reagan… I guess I’m best qualified to tell the story.

Often people attend Embry-Riddle and stay in the dorm for a term or two and then move off campus to a series of apartments, rental houses or even fraternity houses. Your classes and labs rotate and even your daily mean cycle can take you to many differing locations. The Avion office, however, had the unique ability to become an anchor point for us from our freshman year until graduation and perhaps a little bit thereafter. You could join the staff as a freshman and remain attached to the Avion through your entire tour at ERAU. There was no need to pledge or take an oath or change yourself to fit in, as we are all misfits. Dean Rockett has often said that no fraternity, organization, club or even ROTC has the sort of bonding that takes place in the Avion. Both as a student and as an alumnus, the Avion mafia remains strong.

I always wondered what non-Avion people did to survive on campus. For me, the Avion office was in effect- my office. I had people from back home come to campus and walk around asking where I may be found and the answer that always worked was, “Check up in the Avion office.” I had a phone number where I could be reached, a place to sleep when I got back to school and hadn’t found a roommate yet, free postal service and especially important; a family when I was away from family. We all had that same benefit. The Avion office was the place where we vented, goofed off, created, sang, scammed, mourned, laughed, argued, made fun of one another, ate, drank, celebrated and just simply relaxed. We were all equals with a common interest, differing goals and assorted points of view and we all respected one another. Those are rare circumstances in the real world.

When Teresa and I were first engaged, she told me one day that she was going to join the Avion staff, “…because you’re up there all the damned time, so I may as well be up there too.” For me the Avion office was just a part of my normal existence at ERAU. I’d first ventured into the office on Friday, February 10, 1978. In those days the Avion office was the narrow room that would later become the common purpose room. It was packed with upper classmen and instead of simply going in and taking some time to be the fly-on-the-wall, I was introduced by Dan-the-man to the whole staff as “This is the guy with the cartoons I’ve been telling you about!” as he slammed my portfolio of cartoons onto the layout table.

“Uncomfortable” is a rectal exam, this was more a kin to being dragged grudgingly to a back yard party at a complete stranger’s house and being immediately thrown into the pool.

As the entire staff began reading my cartoons and snickering, smiling and laughing, I started to relax a bit. What struck me was that they all “got it” they understood most of my twisted humor and understood jokes that my own family back in Michigan didn’t understand. Then it came time for editor Ray Katz to read… he never cracked a smile. He just stroked his beard pensively and then said, “Here’s what we’ll do, (Yes “we’ll”) you draw your ant life size and we’ll call it the adventures of Empty Ripple. I politely scooped up my portfolio, quietly said “thank you” to everyone and made tracks for the door. Jeanie Snyder and Keith Kollarik (the guy who was then assistant editor and would soon be editor) apparently both saw this coming and were standing at the door as I went out. Jeanie grabbed me by the sleeve and whispered to “forget Katz” and do it my way. Keith pulled me over and said that he was the one who took the paper to the printer and I should do my cartoon any way I want. He’d put a junk story on the editorial page where my cartoon would go and after Katz did his Monday read and went home, Keith would remove the story and insert my cartoon. “Once it runs,” he whispered, “Katz can’t do a thing about it.” I’d fallen in with authority-scoffing scamsters… I’d found a home!

By the end of that first trimester I found myself spending more and more time in the Avion office. The staff members there were nearly all upper classmen and being around them allowed me to become more and more a part of the university. By the following autumn term I’d gotten my roommate Jeff Barrow onto the staff and we were spending all of our free time up in the Avion office. I’d been tipped off to some nasty and underhanded events in the university and worked them into my cartoons, so I was soon a target. But I had two advantages- first, no one really knew who I was. The classroom instructors could never pronounce my last name always asked if they could just call me by my first name, which was registered as “Walter.” So when they called the roll and got to the “Os” I simply answered to “Walter.” Second was the sanctuary of the Avion office. With the prog. pilots, food services, housing administration, Delta Chi and WERU all gunning for my scalp, the Avion staff got quite protective of me. I don’t know how many times over the years that pissed off people came stomping into the office with an Avion opened to my strip and demanding to see me. The staff would just shrug and say that I only came in on weekends to drop off the cartoon. Of course I’d be sitting right there.
To say that we were friends on the Avion staff would be a short sale of what the relationship really was in that office. In the Avion office we were a family. It didn’t matter if you were rich or poor or what color your skin happened to be or what part of the planet you came from.

It wasn’t unusual at all to walk into the office in the morning and find someone still sleeping on the couch, or find a few people actually having spent the night mapping out a new computer game that they’d loaded. Rafts for the raft race were built by staff who guzzled October Fest beer and the construction quality showed it. ( in October 1978 the Avion raft was so poorly constructed that raft race officials had to send a power boat out to tow it across the finish line so the awards could be given out the same day as the race) Photographers worked until all hours, sometimes printing off rolls of photos taken at the previous nights staff party, the approach plate for which had been laid out on the light table.

And, then there were things like “The Boards.” Someone would scroll something on the white erase board like “Tim meet me at the library at 10- Pat” and seeing that someone else would scroll, “Pete, you and me- the cone of silence at 1:45” And another staffer would write, “Holly, I really need you to meet me at the adult detention center at 4, bring a file in your underwear- Brian” which would  bait a response of, “Brian, I don’t wear underwear- Holly” and so on until the whole frigging board was just filled with hysterical nonsense. When nothing more could be fit in, a photographer would take a picture of it and after enough time for everyone to tickled by it the board would be erased. No one in any other office on campus ever did that sort of shit.

The annual “Avioff” spurred another office thingy- nicknames, many of which stick to this day. As staffers wrote their National Lampoon worthy prank stories, they began signing them with some prank names that evolved into their staff moniker. Around the office we had “Uncle Pat” “Jabba” “T.A. Binzo” “Tim Van Militant” “Larry Newguy” “Cheff Spagetti” “The Ferret” just to name a very few.

One of the best kept secrets of the Avion office in my era was the back hallway. Campus security almost never patrolled that hallway. In fact I’m quite sure that some of the campus security officers didn’t even know it was there. At night, the single guard who was on duty at the UC switchboard very rarely left his little nook. Thus, aside from being a good place to study for a test or a prog. or have a private conversation, it was also a freeway to monkey business. In the spring of 1979 the staff of the food service had set up a fine luncheon for the visiting board of trustees in the room next door to the Avion office… and neglected to lock the back door. Discovering that, Dan-the-man got a tube of super glue and went in and started gluing shit. He glued cups to saucers, napkins to silverware, water glasses to tables, menus to the walls he even glued the carrot sticks and celery sticks to one another so when you lifted one the whole lot came out retaining the shape of the dish! Oddly, for the rest of that afternoon, no one seemed to be in the Avion office… hummmm. Of course the best one that I can recall took place about seven years or so later- just before Christmas break. The trimester was over and the bookstore was doing their end of the tri. book- buyback… where they buy your text books back at about half price or less and then mark it back up to a buck under new and act like buying it is a bargain. They conducted this term’s buyback in the room next door to the Avion- and of course locked both doors at the end of each day. Rob Watt, however, found that if you stood on the back of the light table in the Avion office and slid some ceiling tiles aside you could drop down into the buyback room, open the door to the back hallway and fleece the book store right back. We went in and nabbed assorted high price books for three nights in a row and sold them back to the book store for three days in a row. Rob had to make it even more fun by selling them back the same text books for three days. You see, the people doing the buyback had no idea what your major was and if you watched and caught different clerks each day, you could sell the store back the same book you’d sold them the previous day. Some of those engineering books were expensive to. I made enough cash to buy my plane ticket home for Christmas and had some left over to buy gifts.

Yet no established society can exist without taxation. It was Brian Nicklas who introduced the “fry tax” to the Avion office. Thus anyone who brought French fries into the office was subject to the tax. It allowed everyone to reach in and deduct one fry from their plate while uttering “fry tax.” It’s a lesson that many of us passed on to our kids and grand kids.

For some unknown cosmic reason the university never fully understood the Avion office and the people who called it home when we were on campus. Solid proof of that came when a hurricane was heading toward Daytona. As a part of the standard preparedness plan the Avion office was issued huge black trash bags to cover our equipment- in the event of a roof leak, or loss. Additionally, a large roll of duck tape (yes folks, the original name for that magic gray tape was “duck” and not “duct” because it was waterproof. You never stop learning from me do you?). The tape was for taping up our office windows so that when the hurricane force winds shattered them deadly shards of glass would not blow everywhere. Big gray “X”s were to be placed over everything glass. Of course we had no windows- so we taped everything else that had glass… Uncle Pat’s glasses, my watch crystal, the computer CRTs and so on. It mattered little, because Pete Merlin dressed up like witch doctor and with hands full of palm leafs and stuff went out on the balcony, danced around and chanted “Booga, booga, booga, hurricane go away…” and the damned storm actually turned and went out to sea.

The most important thing for all of us, however, was to protect the sanctity of the paper itself. Forever the SGA and the university administration have wanted to gain control of the Avion. It is a struggle that continues to this day. More than once I have seen SGA henchmen physically “removed”… okay… bodily thrown from the Avion office. Our greatest protection from their low level tyranny has always been the fact that advertizing made the Avion self-sustaining, so when SGA threatened to pull the purse strings we simply told them to shove it… the Avion would be better on its own. Recently, even that protection has come under threat.

It was always a given that the Avion would take first prize in college journalism conventions. I’d always thought that the reason was that our staff were not journalism majors- thus we were not trying to advance any points, we were just reporting the news. Additionally, we learned hard lessons about layout and context and were garnished with some of the most amazing photos.

On the first day of March, 2019 I was again on campus… the university had actually put up a temporary sign in front of the administration building reserving a parking spot for “Klyde Morris” because my name wouldn’t fit. I was guided on a fantastic tour of the campus which is far, far larger than anything I’d ever expected.  The campus is fantastic, but the students are the same- they’re all there for the same reasons that we were there. The institute for the incurably professional remains itself; a bit over crowded, a few hassles, a few delays. While other campuses are wasting time protesting, our students are working hard with a goal in sight among the towering buildings and newly paved walkways. Yet, in the middle of the new campus I saw large equipment that was chewing away at what was once the UC. The final walls were coming down as I was there. The Avion office that I once knew was nothing more than a void. Of course the new Avion office is open on the second floor of the death star… directly across from the SGA office. Tyranny seems to never be far away.

Safely stored in the new Avion office is “the door” from the old office of my era. Avion alumni who visit are asked to autograph the door and it is covered with tons of signatures. Interestingly… the SGA has no such door. That’s because Dean Rockett was right- no group on campus has ever been as closely knit as those who resided in the Avion office.

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Holy crap... did I write all of these?

Anyone see a pattern here? Hummmm