Before I leave this topic and go back to speaking of Corvair hardware and airframe components, I would like to put down one more story on the subject. As the title indicates, part of this story looks at how Judgement is more important that experience. At the center of this story is Ken Terry, a friend of mine. I wrote the last part of this story 18 months ago. The risk management part of this is tangential. On the surface I bring up Ken’s story because I want to show people that when I am writing a simple sentence like “two personal friends of mine with more than 25,000 hours each” I am not kidding, and the point I am making isn’t some abstract Flying magazine platitude, it is something directly taught to me by a man I knew well. You read about people with 40,000 hours, but do you know one? Was he your instructor? Did he lead a life that Hayden or Hemingway would have understood? Ken Terry was this and more. He was tremendously influential in Grace’s flying, an incredible instructor on many fronts. Although I was angry with him at times, I want to publicly say I was very lucky to have known him.
Most people go through their life with the detachment of a grazing cow. They are insulated in the little cocoon, mesmerized by their smart phone, unaware of humanity around them. If asked to engage, they most often camouflage their insecurity in some feigned cool cynicism, always safely indifferent on every topic. Ken was the anthesis of this, he was 100% alive, and he felt that Everything Mattered, and he was willing to fight for these things at the drop of a hat. If you wanted to live in a cocoon, he was threatening. If you needed to act to save someones life, you would treasure him.
Below the surface, There is a different story that matters to me. Ken is the last member of a trilogy of friends I once had. They did not all know each other, but they are directly connected in my life. It’s about brotherhood, how far you would go for another human in trouble, and what it might cost you, but it isn’t a happy story. They are all dead now.
Ken was the only person with my compulsive need to save Mike; I thought Mike was fate serving me a second chance, possible redemption for failing to save Ben. Deep inside I want to tell you why they were great people, how much richer my life would have been had they lived. But I can’t find the words to make anyone understand that, so all I am left with is a tangential story about risk management and some note typed last year at 3 am, thinking of people who still seem alive.
Looking at the risk management part of the story, you can read the link below to Ken’s accident. Get a good look at the destroyed T-34. Grace flew that plane many times, she did most of her aerobatic training in it. It would be very hard to express to you how skilled a pilot Ken was. He was not a former airline guy with a T-34 for putting around in retirement. He was a master of competitive aerobatics, and I saw him fly a number of planes, T-34, Eagle, Skybolt, J-3, C-152, and many others with a degree of control on the limit of the envelope you didn’t believe existed. He didn’t run out of skill the day he died. What he ran out of was options, and getting to that point is about making decisions headed into an ever narrower position. I find it very hard to say this, but it was probably an error on his part to get to an optionless position. That isn’t condemning the man, it’s me really asking you to learn something from him.
I just spent the last hour and a half out in the shop doing small stuff like deburing fly wheels and bending mounting tabs for oil pickups. I have done these tasks so many times that it is the kind of task that I can do without thinking about it. I just spent a lot of this time thinking about a guy named Ken Terry.
Ken has lived at Spruce Creek, our old airport as long as I have known him. A cantankerous guy, I met him back in 1991 or so, the way that most people met him, by having an argument with him. Ken was a difficult guy to like right off the bat. He had an anger management issue that makes me look like I’m ready to guest host “Mr Rodgers Neighborhood.” He was always an in your face, tell it like it is, kind of guy. He didn’t need you to like him.
Twelve years ago Ken, who was a regional aerobatic champion and a life long pilot taught Grace how to fly fundamental aerobatic maneuvers in his T-34 and Christan Eagle. She used the second plane to get her IAC patch. It was a milestone in her flying, and Ken treated her like a daughter he never had. To Grace, he was a very nice guy, but to others he was gruff.
I was thinking about Ken tonight because he was killed in the crash of his T-34 on Saturday. Arnold called me up to say that he was dead. We live 100 miles north, and news travels the gap slowly. Here is the most important thing Ken taught me; People who are hard to like at first are often easy to respect later, and vice versa. It makes a lot of sense it you think about the qualities that make many people popular, and then think about how these are not an asset it a moral dilemma.
When I was president of EAA-288 I had a big argument with Ken that almost came to blows because he pulled a snap roll on take off in a 290HP Skybolt at an EAA picnic we were having, where I was trying to show people in the community how civilized aviators are. I was fed up with him, and I couldn’t think of anything good about him that was worth the other costs. About a month later he pulled up in front of my old hangar at midnight. He got out and said that a very good mutual friend named Mike Holey had fallen off the wagon for the thousandth time, and was out driving around drunk, and we should go find him. Ken explained that he was still not speaking to me, he just wanted a one night truce. I explained that I had done this for Mike many times before, and it never did any good. Ken asked if I was OK hearing tomorrow that Mike was dead, and I told him I didn’t think I could stop that it if was going to happen. Getting angry, Ken said what if he runs over someone’s little kid, was I OK with doing nothing and finding that out in the morning?
I got in Kens truck, and it only took an hour to find Mike, drive him back to his place at the Ra-Mar trailer park, put him to bed and remove two tires from his truck. Ken drove me back to my hangar. When we got there I tried to say something about how he was right about doing it for some strangers kid. Ken got mad and asked me how dumb I was. He got in my face and said we didn’t do it for Mike, or some stranger or his stupid kid, we did it for ourselves, so we could wake up in the morning without having to add anything new to our lists of reasons for hating ourselves. He said that every honest intelligent man who has done something with his life already has a full list of things he has done that he now finds contemptible. No further explanation, he drove off. I watched his Suburban drive down Cessna Blvd. I realized that Ken was very hard to like, but he was easy to respect.
I was sitting at the work bench two hours ago thinking about that night and trying to remember what year it was. I was tired and couldn’t come up with the answer right away, but it was at least 10 or 11 years ago. For about 10 solid seconds I thought about calling up Mike Holey in the morning and asking him. I have known Mike since 1989 and I didn’t think he would be offended if I brought up a bad night in his life from long ago. Then I remembered that Mike shot himself and has been dead since 2003. Ten seconds is a long time to forget that, even when your real tired.
I like working alone in the shop late at night. Our airport is out in the woods and it is very quiet here late at night. Long after anyone would call, long after Grace went in, it is a good time to think about stuff you never do during the day. In another month I will be 49. Ken was right, if you live long enough, and your honest with yourself, you will have plenty to regret in the quiet hours. Mostly things you should have said or done, and a handful of things you wish you had not.
Tonight, I add Ken Terry to my group of friends that never get older. During the day I almost never think of them, but late at night, when I am alone in the hangar, they don’t seem nearly as dead. When I think about them I subconsciously let them get older, it’s a way of pretending they have been with me all along. It not all regrets, there are plenty of good memories.
At Oshkosh this year I had a guy told me that he liked home builts, but he really didn’t get into having to spend all the hours in the workshop, largely alone. I listened, and shrugged, didn’t say anything, couldn’t really. It was broad daylight, and far from my shop, and besides, if you tell people you don’t mind working in your shop alone because it gives you time to think about people you have lost, they will just think your mentally ill. -ww, 11/2011.