Sunday, November 30, 2014

Mongoose



Mike and I rode Alabama Girl north in the general direction of Oshkosh, suffering a slight quartering headwind and churning through skies as clear as a glass of sunshine. We were bound for Bloomington, Indiana to meet up with another CJ-6 owned and flown by a friend of ours whose call-sign was Mongoose. 

Mongoose is a “lead or get the hell out of the way” type of guy who mostly doesn’t wait for you to get out of the way. His ego cuts a swath so wide the moon holds to let him by. His persistence sometimes casts him into caustic skirmishes with similar swaggering characters, of which there were many where we were going. Having known him for 25 years, served with him in wartime, sparred with him in dogfights, and listened for hours on end to his ideas, his aspirations and his dreams, I know enough to stay aside and watch with amusement as he dictates his resolve on old friends and unsuspecting strangers alike. There are those who call him a prima donna, but Mongoose consistently cashes the checks his ego writes. Prima donnas can’t do that. And that is why I have remained his friend for so long.

I was headed for my first solo landing in the ‘Chang (you’ll recall from the last post that, while Mike—the guy in my back pit owned the plane—he was not yet a pilot). The
This guy does not appear
 to be missing the B-767
Bloomington tower cleared us for a straight-in to runway 35, a nice long one. About two miles out, just as I was about to reach for the gear handle, I heard an airport truck tell the tower he was on the runway to pick up a piece of debris. The tower controller immediately cancelled my landing clearance and in the same breath asked if I could accept runway 24, which was almost perpendicular to 35 and lay on my side of the airport—very close to my position. Additionally, it was short, about 3500 feet.

A careful pilot, or one whose bladder was not full, would have told the tower “unable” and executed a missed approach. I was neither that day. I accepted the clearance to 24 and immediately turned onto a left downwind. By then we were very close (laterally) to the runway and I began canvassing my memory on the accidents I had read about. CJ-6s were notoriously unforgiving of pilots over-shooting final approach and correcting with excessive bank and top rudder. I sensed a learning opportunity for Mike and began telling him about the trap being set for us and how we must be diligent to avoid it. This lecture lasted to the base turn where I suddenly realized the gear was still up. Damn! One “teachable moment” (don’t you hate that phrase?) created another. I put the gear down, looked over the landing checklist and monitored the close-in final turn carefully. A head wind helped avoid an overshoot.

We got down safely and the tower man thanked us profusely. I taxied to the pumps and shut down. We had plenty of gas, but a top-off wouldn’t hurt, especially knowing where we were headed—the world’s busiest airport for one week of the year, and this was that week. After lunch I completed flight planning for the run up to Oshkosh, preparing to lead the flight of two, if necessary, or go single-ship if the Mongoose didn’t show up.   

An hour later he landed, annoyed that we had beaten him there, yet smugly satisfied that he had executed the role of respected, debonair late-comer. Even before jumping down from his wing he informed me of his plan to lead the flight into OSH. It was okay with me. He would now do the most work; I would be the humble happy wingman. Mongoose’s plan was to stay low both to minimize headwinds and stay out of the way of O’Hare arrival and departure traffic. We took off and headed northeast. He checked us in with ATC for flight following with the usual call: “Red Star Flight, Check.”

I responded as required: “Red Star Two.”

The controller, apparently unaccustomed to formation protocol, blocked my response, thinking Mongoose’s call was for him: “Aircraft calling Indianapolis Approach, say again.”

Because Mongoose is an astute—damn near perfect formation leader—he made the check-in call again to insure I was on the frequency. Again the controller blocked me, asking who was calling him and for what.

Mongoose said, “Indianapolis, standby-by I’m trying to check my flight in.”

The controller was obviously agitated: “Aircraft on Indianapolis frequency go to another. You are interfering.”

I could see the ire turning Mongoose’s helmet red. His voice volume went up:  “Indianapolis, I am trying to check my flight in on your frequency and then I will ask you for radar service!”

The controller, still not getting it, retorted, “Okay, but if you need to tell your wingman to keep quiet.”

I knew a lecture was coming from Mongoose: “Having the flight check-in is perfectly normal and necessary, now are you going to give us flight following to Oshkosh or not?”

The controller, not about to relinquish the high ground, denied the request. Mongoose switched us to air-to-air frequency and we didn’t talk to another radar facility from that point.

The countryside across Illinois and southern Wisconsin was
Flying loose on Mongoose's wing with Mike and I in the mirror
uncommonly beautiful in the lowering sun. Barns, silos and wind turbines cast long shadows across brilliantly colorful fields of corn and wheat. It was wonderful flying. You could get about as low as you dared; the only threats were birds and towers. Mongoose had state-of-the-art electronics in his cockpit to alert him for obstacles, and he was an awesome master at spotting both birds and nearby aircraft. He could do it even when he was on the wing.

As we neared OSH, tired but happily anticipating parking our birds in the warbird area, meeting old buddies and have a grand dinner, we saw an ominous cloud formation in front. Mongoose, being the perfectionist he is, already knew there was a rain shower in the area of the airport—in fact the only thundercloud in the whole lower 48 states that afternoon sat over the busiest airport. Our perfect weather run-up from the Deep South was to terminate with—with what?

Fon du Lac had just passed under our bellies. It was stuffed with airplanes that had either not wanted to challenge that thunderstorm, or simply planned to land there and take a bus to the big show, as many pilots preferred. That opportunity was behind us now, but still choosable, and maybe preferable to the cloud ahead. The closer we got the darker that thing got. It was right over OSH. Mongoose had IFR capability in his plane but Alabama Girl did not. He waggled his wings—the signal for me to close it up tightly. I moved in. Mongoose contacted the OSH tower and got permission to land on 36L. We couldn’t see it for the rain shaft. The turbulence increased, but I held tight. Mongoose bore straight for the monster. “Two take spacing!” he called. I dropped back, but not far. I needed to keep him in sight. I saw his gear go out. I threw ours out. At about a mile out we saw the numbers: 36L. The center-line stripes raced at us. BAM! I drove Mike’s Chang onto the runway, checked-up with brakes and closed up behind Mongoose.

It was then, with the stress off, that I suddenly realized there were no other aircraft on the OSH tower frequency. We were the only ones! I laughed. Mike said, "No other idiots would attempt this!"

We fell in trail behind the “Follow-Me” truck and were met by marshallers parking us on the grass in the warbird corral. We hurriedly exited and closed our canopies because of rain. Mongoose walked up, drenched, grinning like a fool and slapped our shoulders.

“Cheated death again,” Mike shouted.

Mike grabbed his camping gear and separated in search of friends. Mongoose and I headed into town on the airshow shuttle bus for rooms at the college and then on to Kelly’s Bar, the airshow pilot hangout, not knowing that we were about to “cheat death” for real--at Kelly’s.  


video
 Wingng our way to Oshkosh.
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