Friday, January 9, 2015

Mongoose, Part II



Note: It’s been too long since I wrote the first of this “Mongoose” series. My dad is very sick and the desire to write is throttled back these days. But here’s the second installment.


You’ll recall from the first post on Mongoose that we had a harrowing time getting our 2-ship of Chinese warbirds into Oshkosh because of the thunderstorm. I was flying a CJ-6 owned by Mike, a non-pilot who split and went his own way after we landed.

Mongoose and I took the shuttle to the college and got our bare-bones dorm room. We changed and hurried to Kelly’s Bar on the edge of the campus. During airshow week Kelly’s is a pilot magnet, expanding into the parking lot with tables and an outdoor bar. The only separation between the outdoor eating area and the street was a fence made of that orange plastic lattice-work that you can get at Home Depot. And there, at the outdoor bar, Mongoose and I planted ourselves, sipping beers and waiting for our dinner.

It was our first opportunity to get caught up. Mongoose was a 777 captain at a big airline (not mine). I had just retired, not two weeks before. This trip to AirVenture was my retirement “break-out” trip. I had relished it for a year. The plan was to fly my RV-6 in and camp, but when Mike asked me to pilot his beautiful “Alabama Girl,” to Oshkosh, I jumped at it. In fact, Alabama Girl was formerly owned by Mongoose himself. What a wild story: Mongoose owned a brand new CJ-6 (not Alabama Girl) that suffered a catastrophic engine failure just before takeoff. He had the wings taken off and hired a truck to take to the repair shop at another airport. On the way the truck ran off the road causing severe damage to the plane.

The plane was to be repaired by non-other than Mongoose’s very own aircraft repair facility. This was an enterprise he owned on the side of his regular job as an airline pilot. But his shop was busy with big jobs repairing and refurbishing L-39 jets. The restoration of the CJ-6 would have to be done as time allowed. Mongoose couldn’t wait it out. He bought another CJ to fly while waiting for his first one to be repaired. 

When finally it was ready he sold the interim plane to Mike, and thus that is how Mike ended up with it. Mike renamed it Alabama Girl and asked Mongoose for a recommendation on someone to fly it to Oshkosh for him. That’s how I came into the story, and I was exceedingly proud to be in it.

Mongoose and I sipped our beers and got out our phones. We brandished pictures of our grandkids; each had just had our first one. “Your’s is cute, but mine’s cutter!” We were two guys getting older and laughing about it.

Then, inevitably, we reminisced about the old days flying the Star Lizard in the Magnolia Militia. For the 50th time I heard the story about how he “saved my life.” I was flying a C-141 somewhere up on the east coast. He was in the co-pilot’s seat. Without any warning at all from ATC, a Cessna suddenly appeared in our windshield. The monster jet was on auto-pilot and I was heads-down. He grabbed the controls, clicked off the auto-pilot and hauled the nose up. The Cessna flashed underneath us. Indeed his sharp eye saved us. I let him tell his story and I reminded him how I in turn saved him. It was a far different story.    

I lost track of Mongoose when I retired from the Guard, but a few years later I went to the cockpit of an MD-80 to ask the captain for the jump seat and low and behold, there he was. We slapped backs and got re-acquainted. We swapped phone numbers promising to stay in touch.

A loquacious Manhatten Yankee who had taken up residence in the Deep South, Mongoose had spent years trying with limited success to fit in with us good ole boys, and at times he flew off the handle when he was simply unable to absorb our subtle ways with humor and our often not-so-subtle unrefined revelry. But his attempts to adapt were for the most part acceptable to us and his unabashed honesty captured me into his friendship.

A year later he called me. He had just retired from the Guard. Now he had a bunch of time on his hands. He didn’t like golf and fishing was too slow for him. He didn’t know what to do with himself. “What about those “little airplanes” you fly, he asked. “Maybe that’s something I can get interested in.”

The following Saturday he came to my airport to see my Yak-52. I put him in the front cockpit. He proceeded to tear the sky up.

In addition to C-141s, he had flown F-15s and A-10s. The fighter-like performance of the Yak thrilled him and he flew the plane as if he was born in it. Later that day we joined up with two other Yaks and a CJ-6 and for the first time in decades he flew close formation. All day long this went on until I was green-in-the-gills sick. If he had been on the insurance papers I would gladly have gotten out and let him go with it. At the end of the day Mongoose partied with the gang and became as ensnared as a bass on a treble hook. Mongoose knew now what he would do with his life.

Within two weeks he had a Yak of his own. He later sold it to buy the new CJ-6. Then he got involved with jets, checking out in L-39s. Soon he bought a failing L-39 refurbishing facility nearby and turned its business around. It began to thrive. He flew L-39s to South America and Europe, delivering them to customers. He checked out in other jets as well. In his reflective moods—which was usually his second or  third scotch—he would tell me he owed it all to me for introducing him to his new world, and I would tell him it made us even for the Cessna that almost flew through our windshield that day.

And so after all we had been through together, near-misses, bad weather, missiles shot at us, engines quitting—you name it—Mongoose and I were lucky to be there at Kelly’s Bar, enjoying the old stories, anticipating an exciting week at AirVenture, when our mortality was suddenly and frighteningly revealed to us.

We heard an eerie, increasingly loud rush that sounded like locked tires sliding on the wet pavement. We looked up at the bartender. She had whirled around toward the sound. It got louder. WOOOOSH! BAM CRUNCH!  Air bags exploding.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. Things were tumbling. Big things. Pieces were flying. Mongoose and I flinched and jumped backward from our stools. People at the tables nearby dove out of their chairs. I saw a vehicle roll over and over coming right at Kelly’ Bar.  

The car came to rest inches from the thin nylon netting. In a flash Mongoose was gone. I looked back at the car and saw him sprint to it and begin helping the occupants. Shortly a dozen others came alongside him and three teenage girls were soon free from the wreckage, standing crying. The second car was still upright in the middle of the intersection. Incredibly, no one was hurt.

Mongoose came back around the corner, spied his beer and grabbed it. We sat back down. I looked at him and said, “Now, what were you saying about that time we nearly got killed?” Shaking like quaking aspens, we burst out into laughter as police cars and EMTs pulled up only feet in front of us, strobes flashing.  

After dinner we headed back to the dorm room chuckling about yet another near miss, anticipating with relish the events of tomorrow. We would fly in Oshkosh—the world’s greatest airshow. I was to sleep little, due to his abominable snoring and thinking about the events of the day and those of the coming day, which would bring on yet another story that we would tell again and again.

AirVenture 2014—my retirement break-out trip—was to live up to its expectations as a fantastic milestone to start a new chapter in my life.  
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