Michael McCafferty - USA Biplane Tour

Day Forty Seven
Art Goes Under the Bridge

The first few raindrops fell as I loaded my bags into the car. I knew it couldn't possibly last. The sky was overcast, but the clouds were high overhead. Not the sort of sky that would become a steady rain, and certainly not this early in the morning. Instead, it seemed to me to be a wonderful day for flying. The visibility was excellent. The wind was calm.

At the airport, we were met by a reporter for the local Cairo newspaper. He interviewed us about our trip and our planes, and what it is like to fly these extraordinary birds. As we preflighted our planes, he took several pictures and told us that his story would appear in the next weekly issue.

Good-byes all around, up on the wing, climb into the cockpit. Strap the kneeboard on my left leg and begin the checklist sequence: Tailwheel steering engaged. Trim set. Seatbelts fastened. Left circuit breakers check. Right circuit breakers check. Altimeter set to field elevation. Controls free and proper operation. Prime ten times. Battery master switch on. Ignition switch to distributor. Push starter button. At ignition, switch key to both (magneto and distributor). Oil pressure check. Avionics switch on. Alternator switch on. Low voltage light check. Hat off and stored. Helmet on. Radio check. Check instruments (list). When oil is warm, increase RPM to 1500. Check RPM drop less than 90 on magneto only. Same for distributor. Return key to "Both" position. Check drop on RPM with carburetor heat on. Alternator output check.........BINGO!

The wisdom of checklists has been proven countless times in the endeavors of man, and especially in aviation. Today the checklist proves itself again, in my favor. The alternator is not doing its thing. For some reason it has decided to quit. And from a further investigation of the level of voltage meter, the alternator decided to quit sometime during yesterday's flight, but is just now being discovered because of the thorough checklist.

Shut off the engine. Call the Waco factory. Get new parts shipped overnight, Saturday delivery. Airport Manager Jim Zimmer negotiates for a mechanic to fly in from Paducah Kentucky, about 30 miles away. Now there is nothing left to do but to wait. Sit and be bored, and bummed.

Art is not so unfortunate. His plane is working just fine, and it is unbearable to stay on the ground with such beautiful weather calling him to the skies. Art says, to nobody in particular, that he's gotta go up. Jim says he would love to go for a ride. Art grins and asks: "Want to go under a bridge?" There is no holding Jim back. The deal is done. A discussion ensues about just which particular bridge should be selected. There are many in the area. Shouldn't be too close to a city (the fewer witnesses the better). Must be high enough for safety. One stands out as being of particular interest: it straddles the Mississippi between Illinois and Missouri and we assume that there will be a minimum of law enforcement agency personnel in the neighborhood of the bridge.

Since I am plane-less, I plan to photograph this event and drive directly to the bridge, park and wait. I took my handheld radio to communicate with the plane, but the batteries were too weak to transmit, but I could hear OK. I could see Art circling overhead and waved that I was ready. He descended to a few feet over the river, and flew easily under the bridge as I snapped the picture at the perfect moment.

Now this is where the fun began. Art pulls up on the other side of the bridge and circles around, and I wave to him to do it AGAIN! Now this is completely out of the question. The number one rule of breaking such rules is to do it once and move on. NEVER DO IT TWICE. NEVER GO BACK. Art is circling overhead and seeing my gestures to go back and do it again. He radios to me that there is no way he's going to do it again, but since he can't question me about why, since my radio won't transmit, he can only assume that I didn't get the picture (exactly my plan!!!), and is now left in the sticky situation of having committed the crime, but having no proof (which I know that he sorely wanted). I am pushing him to the limits, I know, but I can't help myself. The devil made me do it. I keep gesturing for him to do it again, and finally, over the radio comes the surrender: "I can't believe I'm doing this!" and he dives again to water level and does it again. And again I capture the moment on film.

Thus I have set the stage for step two in my evil plan. I race back to the airport while Art continues to play in the air, flying low over the water and fields and having a grand old time. At the airport I immediately call the local telephone information operator and get the number for the State Police, write it down on a card, along with a fake name for an Officer.

When Art finally taxis back to the ramp, I greet him with a dour face and tell him that the State Police saw him, and came up to me and questioned me, and I confessed the whole story, and that the police want him to call immediately. Jim looks at the card, and assures Art that it is indeed the number for the State Police. Art's face goes ashen.

Oh, I can tell you that I was really enjoying that one. Especially when, moment's later, as he was dismounting from the cockpit, I told him to "Look, coming up the road, the police!". I knew this was pushing too far, probably, but I couldn't resist.

Eventually I told him the truth, of course. And I know that I must surely pay for this cruel joke. Partial payment came immediately because he took off again alone and flew like a man possessed, doing wingovers and rolls and low passes over the airport. He was having all the fun while I had to stay on the ground with a broken plane. It was painfully sweet to watch. I wanted to be up there. He was getting his revenge.

Maybe tomorrow I will fly again.

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