"The Hangar," © by Paul Berge, was written in 1987 and updated in 2007. It comes from a collection of Berge's aviation stories titled: "Aeromancy"©. All rights reserved by the author and Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC. For reprint permission please contact Ahquabi House Publishing, LLC
Crossing over the field I saw it. A small airport like so many others in the Midwest, it had one runway and one large hangar. It wasn’t on the chart, but I didn’t see any X’s on the runway to indicate it was closed, and the worst that could happen would be I’d be told to get lost. Throughout my first summer as a gypsy pilot I’d been told to get lost before, so.…
I circled the north-south strip and noted that the wind was out of the northwest at about 15 knots. The air was warm coming through the Aeronca Champ’s side window. Below, the corn was deep green with gold tassels. The fields moved in the wind like ocean waves eliminating the need for a windsock. With a good cornfield you can see the wind, all of it, and judge how it will massage the aircraft right to the ground.
Turning downwind I closed the throttle, and the 65-horse engine popped once. I continued in a left bank to base leg and then onto final, watching the corn while picking my spot on the sod runway. A quick glance at the tattered windsock confirmed what the corn had already told me. I felt smug, the worst feeling a pilot can get, because it means you don’t know nuthin’ and might be too stupid to learn. At 19 I hadn’t learned how to learn yet, too stupid to know how dumb I was. With left wing down I flew low across the fence and rolled the left wheel onto the grass. Slight forward pressure on the stick kept the Champ planted on the ground as the tail eased itself down and airspeed bled off. The smell of warm earth flowed through the open window.
A pair of yellow-painted tires marked where to taxi off the runway without dropping into the drainage ditch along the edge. It was an unpretentious airport with only the one building and no fuel pumps. I taxied behind the hangar out of the wind and turning hard swung the tail over a tie-down rope. Two more ropes were under the wings in the weeds. I reached behind to snap off the magnetos. The propeller took one easy swing and stopped.
The ropes beneath the wings proved little more then weathered stumps of hemp, so I grabbed my own from the baggage compartment where I kept my sleeping bag, dirty laundry, tools and a half-dozen Snickers Bars. While threading the ropes through the rusty eyehooks in the dirt I stared at the hangar. Its wood had weathered gray long ago. About two stories high, and I’d say it covered two, maybe three thousand square feet, at any rate, too large for such a small airfield. The hangar’s two immense door halves shook and complained with each gust of wind much as a ship would at dock in choppy waters. Or something was inside trying to huff its way out.
Sparrows darted through the many cracks. A strip of corrugated steel trim flapped above the door track. I pictured it ripping off to fly through the air and slice through my fabric wing or me. But I realized it had survived untold years without falling so I ignored it. I’d learned long ago to ignore what threatened or I couldn’t understand.
I walked through dry weeds to the far side of the hangar where parked outside were two abandoned Navions and a Luscombe fuselage discarded on its side in the dirt. Navions were sleek low-wing four-seaters, built, it was dreamed, for returning P-51 pilots. And before the war that had created the Mustang heroes the Luscombe had been a quick two-seat tail dragger, a delight to fly. Now, in 1986, they were abandoned hulks. A small greasy dog lay beneath a Navion’s wing. He lifted his head, gave a disinterested bark as I neared and was back asleep before I could answer. He didn’t seem to believe or care that I was there.
The two Navions were identical. Both sat on flat tires, and their once orange paint schemes had faded to a dull yellow like week-old banana custard that no one wanted. One airplane’s nose strut was extended to its limit leaving the tail low. It had no propeller, and a glance under the cowling showed all the cylinders gone leaving only empty holes in the case. Rusty connecting rods poked out. I started to reach inside when a pair of wasps flew past squelching that idea.
Breaching all forms of airport etiquette I climbed onto a wing and the Navion moaned under my weight.
“Sorry,” I said. “I’ll only be a minute; just want to look inside, into your past.” Little was visible through the cracked and frosted Plexiglas. I tried the canopy and it complained but gave. Time and unknown grave robbers had ravaged the interior and cannibalized the instrument panel. The upholstery was faded, torn, and the carpeting pulled up revealing corroded aluminum. Everything was coated with bits of hay, cornstalk and age.
I found the registration pouch on the pilot’s side, but the documents inside were little more than yellowed scraps. One form, though, was preserved well enough to read the owner’s name—Emilio Nervino. “Well, Mr. Nervino,” I said to the form, “I hope you don’t mind me poking around your airplane.” A sharp screech flashed by my ear. Wasps, I thought and jumped back dropping the document pouch. A sparrow perched on the canopy lip and scolded me. She beat her wings like an enraged nun to emphasize her point, whatever it was, and with a final annoyed chirp flew off.
I picked the registration pouch from the seat, slid it back in place and closed the canopy. When I climbed down the Navion moaned relief and woke the greasy dog, and it followed me to the hangar.
Despite the airport’s state of advanced decay a freshly painted metal sign reading, LEARN TO FLY, hung above a single door. A wind gust shook the building, which appeared ready to blow away with the next blast. The new sign, however, was anchored firmly to the wall, amazingly out of place, its message more of a taunt than an invitation to me.
“Wanna go inside, boy?” I called to the dog now leaning against the door. I expected him to bounce off the ground, tail wagging in appreciation but he hardly raised his head long enough to cast a disapproving gaze. I felt silly. Dogs have that effect on me.
“Well, suit yourself,” I said and opened the door. The dog slipped quietly inside, and the door closed behind us.
It was cool like the inside of a cave or a tomb, I thought , and was mildly content with that metaphor until I realized I’d never been inside a tomb or even a cave for that matter. My eyes took several minutes adjusting to the dim light and knowing I would stumble over the dog if I moved, I stood and listened. The wind sang through the high ceiling where sparrows flew between the rafters.
Gradually my eyes adjusted to the dark. The hangar was crowded with a lifetime’s worth of aviation stuff. Nearest me was a Globe Swift—a low-wing, two-seat monoplane, silver with blue trim and a tinted canopy. Its nose bowl grill smiled at me the way I imagined a crocodile might smile at a poodle. It had one gear leg extended under a wing and the other wing was supported by a jack stand. It sat as if waiting for something. A wheel sat nearby on an upturned crate. The dust on each piece gave the impression that someone had been repairing the landing gear, decided to step out for a beer and disappeared into the far stretches of the Universe. I’ve known beer to have that effect.
Behind the Swift was a Champ like mine, except orange and yellow in the original paint scheme with the orange sweeping low along its belly. The fabric was cracked and brittle, looking as if it would punch through with the slightest pressure. A sweater was draped across the front seat and hanging on the joystick was an olive green baseball cap—the old kind without the plastic adjusting band on the back. Like the Swift, this airplane seemed hastily abandoned some years before.
Scattered about the hangar were engines and parts of engines. Magnetos on benches, a carburetor shared a moldy wooden box with a mouse nest. Spare doors, one I recognized from a Fairchild 24, hung along one wall. A six-cylinder Franklin engine was on the floor against a parts-washing tank, the engine dusty and the tank dry. A large radial sat on a pallet beside the Champ, a crated propeller beside it. Suspended from the walls were wings—some with fabric, and others stripped bare, ribs exposed.
Workbenches and tool chests on wheels stood curiously undisturbed throughout the hangar. Two red barrels, one labeled 40W and the other 50W, rested on stands near a small door labeled, MEN’S, and what appeared as an afterthought, AND WOMEN’S, TOO—KNOCK FIRST.
Suddenly, birds chirped wildly above me in the rafters, fighting over some contested piece of territory or a particular female’s attention. The racket subsided with the loser winging across the room and landing on the propeller tip of a Cessna 195.
Then, I saw someone move.
The figure moved quickly around the propeller and disappeared again into the shadows. He made no noise. With the dog following, I picked my way carefully around the Cessna’s tail toward the far corner of the hangar and found him standing on the opposite side of a Ryan PT-22 monoplane. Only his legs showed beneath the Kinner radial engine. I remained fixed in shadow just the other side of the Ryan. I made no sound, nor did the dog.
A row of small windows along the ceiling at this end of the hangar let in enough light for me to see that the Ryan was a seemingly functional airplane, the first I’d seen since landing. Gradually, I maneuvered myself around its tail until I could see him from the side and slightly behind. He seemed not to notice me, being absorbed with something in the engine.
I guessed him to be in his late 50s, maybe six feet tall, dark and stocky with a thick neck and closely trimmed gray hair. He wore stiff white overalls with LEARN TO FLY stenciled across the back. With one arm he reached far behind the engine while the other arm arched over a cylinder head. The two hands tried to meet somewhere in a tight corner near the firewall.
“Come on, you piece of...there. Gotchya!” The dark figure swiveled his head like a mud turtle and looked at a toolbox just out of reach to his left. I stood quietly behind to his right.
End Part I
© Paul Berge, 1987, 2007