Five years ago today I wrote a story about a single hour that had passed the day before at our airport. Most hours go by in your life with little or no memory, others stay with you vividly. I would remember this hour well, even if I had not written it down in the story.
It was widely read at the time. I initially wrote it on Mark Langford’s discussion list, just as a set of notes in the middle of a long night of insomnia, but it was eventually circulated in email and printed in a magazine. It has an element in it that moves some aviators. At places like Oshkosh people will mention it to me, even years later. People ask sometimes if the characters in the story were ‘real’. I tell them they were not characters, they are people. I share stories, but I don’t write fiction. When you are immersed in aviation, you don’t need to, just recording observations on reality is enough.
Today, 5 years later, a handful of photos of the people from the story. I consider myself lucky to know them. I am 51 now, and have spent 26 years in aviation, literally half my life. It is enough experience to say that the humans you meet at airports can be a lot more alive than the people you meet on the street.
All my life I have been plagued by the feeling that time passes too quickly. Although we have done a lot in the last four years, it isn’t enough, and the thought that the hours and days got away bothers me. Yet, one hour, five years ago, will never slip from my grasp. I get to keep it, and herein lies the secret of my happiness: fill the hours with quality and they will not get away. I can not remember what I ate for breakfast yesterday, but I can remember that the tug boat captains shirt was blue and he waved a white hat as we passed 100 feet above the Tennessee river in our Pietenpol on the way to Oshkosh 2000.
The full story “Friday night” is reprinted below. It’s subject is somber on the surface , but the story in it really isn’t. It is just about being alive and how you can really feel it some hours more than others. -ww
Above, Dan Weseman and Dave Dollarhide at Sun n Fun 2013. They are both in the story “Friday Night.” Dave is fairly well known in Naval Aviation circles because of a short film clip of a young pilot escaping from an A-4 in the USS Forrestal inferno. In one of those stories that only happens in aviation, Dave is now flying one of the very few remaining airworthy A-4′s… 45 years later.
Above is Dave’s RV-4. I shot this photo from the RV-7 of Pat Lee, another person in “Friday Night” when we departed St. Augustine airport. Off our other wing was the RV-4 of Bob Woolley (who is now building Panther #2). In the story he is “Bob from the north end.”
The buildings in the photo are Northrup-Grumman; the road is U.S. 1. St. Augustine is on the coast, about 20 miles east of our grass airstrip.
Above, Dan Weseman flying “The Wicked Cleanex” in the foreground. This is the aircraft that Dan is flying in the story. Off his wing is Chris Smith in “The Son of Cleanex.” The location is a bend in the St John’s river a few miles from our airstrip. The site of the Glassair accident was on the far bank of the river, visible in the upper right as a peninsula. This photo was taken in 2007, a year before the accident.
Friday Night, November 20, 2009
Just as I am getting used to Daylight Savings stealing an hour of the evening, the days are getting noticeably shorter here. During the week, our clock revolves around 4 p.m. This is last call to drive the ten miles into town to the Post Office with the days mailings. In the summer there are hours after this to eat dinner, mess around in the shop, and casually pre-flight the Taylorcraft before going aloft for the last hour of light. But now the casual hours are gone. I drove back to the airport with an eye on the low angle of the sun, maybe only 50 minutes until it sank.
I pushed the plane out to the edge of the runway. I stood there for a minute, not a single person was in sight. Just the sound of a circular saw from somewhere up on the North end of the field. The visibility was poor, there would be little to see, but I had been out the past 6 days in a row and today would make a week. Kind of a pointless exercise, going up for 20 minutes to round out a week, frivolous really. These are the things you think of on the ground, by the time I am running through the mag check the pros and cons of going aloft are forgotten. I orbit the airport in big slow circles at 70 mph, engine at 1700 rpm, just licking over. It all looks gray and colorless. Was it noticeably greener a week ago or is it just the haze setting the mood?
When I touch down, the landing gives me the same feeling as finishing a chapter in a captivating book: Looking up from the last page with the powerful feeling that you have just been somewhere else. Taxing up to the house and shutting off the engine I have the same sensation.
Three or four minutes later, our EAA chapter president returns from being away all afternoon. A 180 mph pass at 10 feet signals the arrival of his RV-7. As he flies the landing pattern, I walk the 400 feet up to his hangar. We arrive at the same time. He has an unexpected passenger, Dave, our airpark president. Dave has his own RV-4, and I have never seen him as a passenger in any plane. In his youth he flew an A-4 from the USS Forestal into the most fiercely defended airspace on the planet. The black and white photos of him in his hangar are of a much younger man in a flightsuit with a helmet under his arm. He has the same grin today, but you get the impression that big chunk of Dave’s youth, and a good number of his friends, only exist in his memory after 1967. Either way, he looks really out of place in the right seat, or in any side by side aircraft for that matter.
The moment fits the gray haze: Pat and Dave have just returned after delivering the RV-9 of a fellow EAA member. This man has also taken up residence in Dave’s memory. He was killed this summer, along with another friend, in an unexplained Glasair crash. One moment they were flying a low pass over our airport, a little dog leg to say hello on their way home. The next day Pat found the wreckage in the woods a few miles away. They delivered the RV-9 to the man’s widow, who was very thankful. The plane was just finished, and it is magnificent. She is keeping it in storage until next Oshkosh. The man was an EAA member for 30 years, known in some circles. She would like it judged posthumously. She had said some moving things to Pat and Dave, but at the moment we were standing out on their ramp with the sun fading, neither of them felt up to relating her exact words.
Dave started a sentence twice, but after a pause he didn’t finish. Pat spoke about a guy he knew in flight school, lived 3 doors down, a Marine. Pat heard about his crash on the news, and walked out his front door in disbelief. Seeing the black cars gathered down the block took away the doubt and hope at the same time.
An engine starts at the far south end of the runway. It is Dan Weseman and the Cleanex. After a minute of run up, he roars past us, 50 feet at midfield. Dave looks at Pat and says “Let’s get him.” The RV-7 turned around and back on the grass in seconds. Dave pushes out his RV-4. Their take off alerts the airport, and several people drift out of their hangars to sit on the grass and watch.
If flying at most airports is an elegant ballet, flying at our airport is Mixed Martial Arts. The furball is formed, broken and formed again over our heads at 1500′. Between the sounds of wide open engines, the radio chatter barks out from the base station in Alan’s hangar. In minutes they are joined by Bob in an RV-4 from the North end, and then another RV-7. In the sky they turn impossibly tight. You can’t always make out who is on top, or even who is who, until a glint of the sunset differentiates a painted wing from a polished one. It is hard to believe that the same airport was dead silent 20 minutes ago.
One by one, they drop out and land. Pat is first, and has most of a beer finished as Dave rolls up. Bob is the last to break off, leaving it where it started, with Dan alone in the sky doing a few last slow rolls. The mood is transformed. It was 10 minutes of really being alive. Dan landed, rolled out in front of us, turned a smooth 180 and taxied back towards his hangar, his home, his family. He was close enough for us to see his expression, but he didn’t look over. In the air, he had been far closer to the other pilots. The light is gone now, and the day is over.
A few more words, and the hangar doors are shut, and people drift away. Walking back to my place, I pause in the dark to watch Dave walk out to his pickup. He had been the one to say “Let’s get him.” This had been Dave’s doing, perhaps his ritual. A little farewell to a man whose memory had just been carefully and lovingly wrapped up for safe keeping. It was now stored beside the others. A resident, final age 58, joining a group of younger men, some of whom arrived 42 years ago. Although I’m sure he cherishes them all, he probably doesn’t visit with them often. Dave is too full of life for much of that. Besides, one day he will have all the time in the world to spend with them.