A narrative by JR Hafer, Aviation Writer
Captain A. L. “Ike” Eisenhauer is a best-selling author, and a very good friend of mine. He is also a regular columnist for Airliners & Airports magazine, which is a publication dedicated to the worldwide aviation community.
I have known Captain A. L. “Ike” Eisenhauer for many years. His wife Patricia and I worked together in the same real estate firm until she retired. The Reverend Dr. Patricia Eisenhauer is also an author, she wrote about me in her book (but then she wrote about most everyone else in the office too). I like to say it was a “tell-all book” but it was more about real estate. Thank God, Ike and I would be in a heep of “dung” if the book was really a “tell all book”! Actually I met “Ike” way before Pat became my real estate mentor.
A couple years before I joined Ikes wife’s real estate firm not far from the local airport at the “quickie lube”, I met this weird character. He was standing there waiting for his car to be lubed “puffin” on a short “stoggie” (cigar) and I knew right away, this was no ordinary, “run of the mill” weird bragadocious character. I have met too many of those who have no truth to them at all. This man was the “Real Deal”. I could tell he and I had a lot in common. I saw he had an aviation patch on his ball cap.
We started talking about aviation and then you couldn’t stop us. Two grand “pontificators” standing toe to toe… the truth be told, I was out of my league. This bearded, gravel-voiced old man was the man who wrote the book I had just read: The Flying Carpetbagger. The explosive real life novel about flying that notorious financial bandit who raped the investment world back in the 1960s and 70s. This guy, “Ike”, standing right here chatting with me, he was the famous guy who flew the Silver Phyllis , Robert Vesco’s $3.5 Million Boeing 707 jet. This was the guy the United States Government hired to find the fugitive Robert Vesoc’s Boeing 707 and return it from wherever in the world it had been hidden. Captain “Ike” found it, stole the plane right out of Panama officials grasp. It’s all in the book, documented by newspapers and U.S. Customs, and government writs and all.
After Ike and I had been friends for a while, one day I asked him, “When did you realize you had developed a passion for aviation?” Then he shared a story with me that he had written. It was entitled “The Rag” (this same story was published in Airliners & Airports Magazine in October 2011).
By permission we are sharing the same story with our readers because the same question has been asked by many readers. Now, here is the story that Captain A. L. “Ike” Eisenhauer wrote about the fostering of his passion for aviation, it is called “The Rag”
By Captain A. L. ‘Ike’ Eisenhauer
Anyone can look back in their life and find something or someone who had an influence in launching them on their way. The old Chinese proverb that says a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step wasn’t meant to apply to aviators, because we don’t walk, we run. I didn’t take a single step to begin a journey of only a thousand miles, I started running out of the gate and travelled millions of miles.
One man started me on this exciting journey that has lasted more than sixty-five years covering many millions of miles keeping me aloft (flying) tens of thousands of hours. During this long journey I have flown over a hundred different kinds of flying machines. Who was this man? I remember him as being my first “mentor” in a long list of “mentors” who helped me survive my adventures in aviation, so that I may have the opportunity of sharing some of the exciting experiences I have had, with those readers seeking true stories of what being an “aviator” is all about.
The little airport in Pennsylvania was just a couple of runways cut inside corn fields. One runway was about twenty two hundred feet long and the cross runway was about eighteen hundred feet long. But it was an airport, and that’s what counted. There was a single hangar, about the size of a big garage, with sliding doors on one end. Yet, this incredible building housed treasures inside that were mine to discover, a couple of Piper Cubs, Aeronca Champs and to me, the ultimate, it was a Stearman bi-plane with a big, round engine and shiny metal propeller.
I parked my bike and waited. Surely somebody would meet me. Then he appeared casually strolling from inside the hangar. He was wiping his hands with a red shop rag as he approached to greet me. He looked like a big bear with a big round belly, likely from years of chicken ‘n dumplins’ and mama’s shoe fly pie.
Pulling a watch from the chest pocket of his uniform, which looked like a Farmer Brown pair of coveralls, he said, “Well, at least you’re on time, by Chesus.” The minute I heard him speak I knew he was a “heeba-habba.” That’s what we affectionately called the local PennsylvaniaDutch (Deutsch, which is actually German). They had a dialect all their own in this small, rural part of Pennsylvania I grew up in and had settled it generations ago. His red cheeks advertised that he was a local. He just looked that way because his working uniform said farmer, but not completely. It was the twinkle in his eye that said it all. The more I studied him he looked like a railroad conductor ready to yell, “all aboard.” My first impression wasn’t that far off the mark. I later learned that he had actually been a railroad man earlier in his life and the railroad cap he constantly wore to cover his bald head was probably a memento of the good ‘ol daysand old habits die hard. I guess he was attached to the railroad cap as much as the ancient timepiece he was fondling as he invited me into the hangar.
He explained what my duties would be as a “line boy” earning a whopping fifty cents an hour. Big money, since the war was on and things were tight when I grew up. Since he was the guy I talked to on the phone about the job I figured he was the boss and owned everything. Wrong! He had a partner somewhere who owned a couple of the airplanes and he owned a couple of them also. It was his farm and airport because he wanted it that way. But, he actually lived at another farm he owned nearby. Maybe the partner I never met was a railroad tycoon, the guy with the big bucks. I never found out.
The job he described to me was more or less that of a “handy man.” Kids starting in aviation don’t like that word and feel more important if they are called, “line boy.” In addition to moving aircraft in and out of the hangar and tying them down when they were outside, I had to keep them clean. And this is where I was given my first, and most impressive education about what aviation is all about. It took a few years to fill in the missing pieces my mentor would call my attention to as I learned to fly. Things he probably never did himself but knew a lot about. But what he said the first day, and the way he said it, found a nesting place in my young head that I have altered and modified to meet my needs in just about every situation I experienced to become, “an aviator.” His message was always in my thoughts as I learned the complexities and characteristics of all the aircraft I would fly in the future. It went like this.
“Now, kid,” he said as we walked into the hangar, “I know how to fix them. You’re going to keep them clean. No oil on the cowls or on the floor,” he said as he fished the rag out of his back pocket. “See those spots under the Stearman? That’s normal. By Chesus she’s chust(sic) like a woman. She gets her period after every flight and always leaks oil when she sits inone spot too long. So you make sure I don’t have to get any of that on me when I’m working on her. O.K?” He held the rag over his head as he made his point. “This is going to become your best friend.” For a moment he looked like the Statue of Liberty except it wasn’t a torch he was waving, it was a RAG! “Any fluid on the floor or on an airplane can catch fire. I won’t put up with it. Not in my hangar. So when you’re not doin’ anything else, you’re wipin’ oil. This here rag is goin’ to be your best friend.” He handed me the rag as he indicated that my first task as a “line boy”was to wipe the oil off the floor under the Stearman.
I eagerly took off toward the bi-plane intent on showing him I got his message and wanted to impress him with the intelligence of a fourteen year-old in the use of a rag in aviation. “Hold it!” he barked. I stopped in my tracks. “One other thing, kid, make damn sure that you’re smarter than this rag when you use it. And here’s something else to remember, since I guess you want to learn how to fly someday or you wouldn’t be hangin’ around here. Keep everything you learn about flying, and the airplane, in your pocket. Make sure you have deep pockets and keep the rag at the bottom with the rest of the stuff you learn on top of it. It may chust (sic) save your life one day.” And so it has, many times. Not just the rag, but what it came to represent to me (knowledge), as you will learn from reading this story. I know there are thousands of pilots, but just a few “aviators,” who could tell stories of their beginning because we all went through it. But, I’ll wager there are very few who have traveled in my foot steps and survived.
There is a bit of irony to this part of the story about this man I affectionately nick-named “Coveralls.” He claimed he never flew in his whole life! I never knew when he got into aviation or why. For all I knew he could have been an aviation junky who just loved airplanes. Or just maybe he did fly at one time and something happened and he took a vow to never fly again. Maybe it scared the livin’ daylights out of him at the time. Nobody ever knew the story behind his denial of flight and claimed fear of it. It could have all been a front to cover something more traumatic in the past. Anyway, he certainly impressed me with his smarts and had the licenses to back up his work on the planes. He told me many times,“ I wouldn’t go up in one of these things. You think I’m crazy? I’ll fix ‘em but I won’t fly ‘em.”
I guess every airport has its own story about someone who was once there, or is even still there, the local hero. The guy about whom any story gets better each time, whether or not it’s true. The story told about “Coveralls” and his fear of flying must have been true. Nobody ever tried to change it except for a couple of pilots who tried, and failed. They both learned the hard way just how expensive a joke can be.
Using a phony story about something wrong with the Stearman, they told “Coveralls” he would have to get in the front seat while it was taxied around the airport so he could figure out what was wrong. This was their first mistake. One pilot got in the back and fired it up while the other was on the wing feeding some imaginary problem to him before the aircraft taxied out. When the aircraft reached the end of the runway the pilot said they were going to fly around the field but “Coveralls” objected. He wasn’t buying it. This was the second mistake.
He sensed what was up and quickly decided that whatever the pilot was going to try would only happen over his dead body. The pilot suddenly tried to take off and pushed the throttle full open, but his passenger in the front seat wasn’t in a joking mood. He put both his feet on the rudder pedals as the aircraft started to move and pushed on the brakes so hard the tail suddenly came off the grass. The plane nearly flipped over on its back and the prop hit the ground. The Stearman never flew that day, not with a bent prop.
Guess who paid for the new prop? A couple of wise guy pilots who never challenged “Coveralls” again.
As time went by I learned a lot by stuffing each bit of anything and everything about airplanes I heard into my pockets, like I had been told. I listened to every instructor brief students by hanging around them when they returned from a training flight. I wanted to hear what was being said and I just hung close. When I thought I could get away with it I’d sneak in a question or two to better understand what was being discussed. The pilots seemed to get a kick out of the kid who always eavesdropped and was interested in the conversation. Sometimes an instructor would even let me ride along on a test flight and handle the controls. I was really living my dream and up to now it hadn’t cost me a penny.
Then I made my first mistake. And it was a huge one. I got too big for my britches at the end of the day after I put all the airplanes away, except one. Then this crazy idea suddenly overwhelmed me with all the confidence of youth like a young buck in heat sniffing out his first piece of tail never even considering the down side. Nothing else mattered. “I gotta do it. Do it!”
When I was only ten years old I actually built a model of an airplane on theliving room floor, that I could sit in. It had wings, a tail and I connected all the moving parts with cord string to a control stick and my idea of how each control surface would have to move. My cockpit was one of those long wash tubs with holes that I punched in it for all the control lines to connect to the right places. Mom could never use it again after my modification. Then, I would imagine that I was flying and would talk myself through the control movements and picture what the airplane was doing in the sky as I maneuvered way above the living room floor. My mother probably thought her young son was crazy, talking to himself in his fantasy. You can just imagine that when I actually got to sit in real airplanes, and move the controls, I was at home. I knew how it all worked. I’d known it for years. I’d waited long enough!
Everyone had gone home for the day. It was almost dusk as I spun the prop from behind instead of from in front. I knew that this was the safest way to prop an airplane if there is nobody in the cockpit. It was a little bonus I had picked up from watching pilots who were going to fly solo when nobody was around to prop them. Having given the engine a few shots of prime and making sure that the throttle was only cracked I switched the mags to both and spun the prop. I almost wet myself when those four little cylinders started firing. She was idling like a purring pussy cat. I climbed in and buckled up. At that exact moment I could still chicken out but asI taxied to the end of the runway and nobody was around to stop me, I checkedthe mags and lined up for takeoff. I wasseriously considering abandoning what I had planned but for some reason I didn’t. Something urged me on. Something whispered, “GO FOR IT.”
My first solo flight lasted less than five minutes. Just long enough to take it once around the field. My landing was just what I had expected. With a tail wheel first touchdown, so I wouldn’t bounce back into the air, and a lot of rudder action, I stayed on the grass runway as the little plane came to a stop. I flew! I knew what my future was going to be. I would be the best pilotin the world and I would do whatever it took to reach my goal. I would stuff my pockets full with knowledge and learning and always leave room for the rag ‘cause that’s what “Coveralls” told me to do.
The next day turned into a disaster for me. “Anybody fly late yesterday about sundown?” Coveralls asked when I got to the airport. OH, OH. “I – I don’t think so,” I managed to squeak out feebly. But my gut told me I didn’t get away with anything. As I turned away from him, so I didn’t have to look him in the eyes, I felt his foot slam into my behind and I went sprawling on the grass. I started to cry. Not because it hurt, I was ashamed for not being honest with the man who had taught me so much. Maybe too much. I wasn’t just a “line boy.” I got to learn things like changing the oil, spark plugs, helping him do maintenance and repairs on the planes. I was actually learning how to be an apprentice mechanic and future pilot. Now I screwed up.
“Kid,” he said helping me to my feet, “wipe your eyes.” The rag came out of his pocket. The one with oil on it. “You really didn’t lie to me or I’d fire your ass this minute. Maybe you fibbed a little, huh? But it was you, wasn’t it? You took her around the patch because you thought nobody would find out, right?”
I nodded. He just stared at me. “You realize what could have happened if you busted her up or killed yourself? I nodded again. “Damn son, this beats all. I got to think on this.” I thought my world had come to an end before it got started and all because I used poor judgement even though I had the confidence to prove something to myself. What now? “Tell you what,’ he said, “You’ve got something and I like you. I don’t know what it is exactly but I think maybe you’re a natural and you were meant to fly. So this is what we’re goin’ to do. You’re goin’ to learn the right way.” I was all ears as he continued. “You are goin’ to get an instructor and learn everything he can show you. Then when HE says so, you are goin’ to solo when it’s legal. It’s that way or the highway. Are you game?”
My world just returned. I knew it would cost me money but I had saved enough to pay for an instructor and I knew who he would be. P.B. was an icon to me. He flew in England during the battle for Britain and was my hero. We had a great relationship and I knew he was going to be my “second mentor.” And he was. By the time I soloed on my sixteenth birthday and could legally get my license I was already a seasoned aviator. That was the beginning. My pocket was getting deeper and stuffed with more knowledge. Still the rag was always at the bottom and I have never forgotten “Coveralls.” Can you guess who gave me the biggest hug two years after he kicked me in the ass? The big Dutchman with the pot belly and the railroad cap–and the RAG.