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The good old days

What’s changed, and what’s stayed the same

My former boss and dear friend, Grant Bales, was 50 years older than me. Like people of that generation often do, Grant told stories of the good old days whenever I would sit in his office long enough to listen to them. The flying stories were my favorite.

In the late 1950s, Grant flew his little Luscombe tailwheel over the bluegrass farms of Lexington, Kentucky. If he saw smoke from a friend’s chimney, he’d land in their field and pop in for a cup of coffee. Grant drank his black when I met him and usually had a cup in his hand while flying. It was a good landing if he didn’t spill a drop.

Flying today is a far cry from those days. I operate out of a busy Class D airport that’s underlying the Memphis, Tennessee, Class B shelf. I don’t know any of the farmers below, and I’d have to get a signed waiver from the flight school to even think about landing one of their aircraft on an unimproved strip. And it’s not just aviation that has gotten more complex over the past several decades. We live in a make-sure-you-document-every-move-and-leave-a-paper-trail world.

Enter my recent airplane buying experience. We found a little orange and white Cessna 172 to use on the flight line at the school where I work. Apparently, you can’t just call a person and agree on a price then swap said money for an airplane. No, no, no. You first need a prebuy contract. In our case, this caused the most nitpicking of the entire transaction. The seller, Dave, wanted to know why the buyer was listed as an LLC instead of my personal name. Is this some sort of scam, he asked? He also wanted some wording changed, including a clause about a certified mechanic coming to do the prebuy. In Dave’s words, “I don’t want your unemployed brother-in-law to bring his Fisher Price toolbox here to inspect the plane.” Funny man, that Dave, and understandably cynical of the strangers trying to purchase his old faithful airplane. My business partner and I didn’t blame him. That’s the world we live in. You really can’t be too careful. Then of course we had to agree on a deposit amount and put the money in escrow, pay for a title search, and more. It was all very official and soul-sucking.

Apparently, you can’t just call a person and agree on a price and then swap said money for an airplane.Finally, the stars aligned to get our mechanic friend, Karl, up to Harvard, Illinois, to inspect the airplane. He pronounced her in good enough shape, so we wired the money, renamed her Jolene, and brought her home. Yes, airplanes need a name; my other two were Elvira (God rest her soul) and Lola, another Cessna 172, who currently helps us train students at the school. Dave later sent me a video of his new buddy, Karl, departing off the airstrip and rocking the wings in a final farewell. “Have fun with her,” Dave texted. “It’s the first time someone else has been in the driver’s seat in 36 years.”

Jolene had just been a simple girl, a remnant from an earlier time—no fancy avionics, just two wings, a healthy engine, and orangey-red velvet seats. When she got home, I realized that not only would we need an IFR-certified GPS, but also an intercom system (we somehow overlooked this) and a Hobbs meter so we’d be able to bill students. We delivered the airplane to the avionics shop where she’s undergoing an upgrade that costs more than my first two years of college. I hope we’re not doing Jolene a disservice. She was fine just the way she was, maybe even better in her pared-down state.

I’ve since gotten another message from Dave inviting us to drop in to visit him at his farm if we’re ever in the area and also to say, “Totally outside the scope of all the legal, official, bona fide, certifiable, contractual stuff we go through, it’s nice to know a person’s word and handshake is what really matters.” After the ordeal of buying and selling an airplane, I think maybe Dave was feeling the same sort of relief as me. We’re frequently put off by the whole watch-your-back world we live in. But then you meet people like Dave, who really wanted to believe in my decency just as much as I wanted to believe in his, and some of that lost faith in humanity is restored. Then, when I get to fly Jolene, or any airplane for that matter, once you climb above the turbulence and dispense with the ATC rigamarole of clearances, cruise her out, and just sit back and watch the world go by, you find out that maybe the important things haven’t changed so much since the good old days.

People still want to trust each other, make friends, and find simple pleasures in their day. And in aviation, we’re lucky enough to get to do all those things.

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