A Local Village Airport


piperj-3cub02They say it takes a village to raise a child, and there is some truth to that cliché. But the village may not be the local neighborhood, and the village absolutely has to have the right characters who, in turn, have character enough to make a difference in a young person’s life. When I was growing up, my village was the local airport. You see, I learned to fly before I could drive. I came of age at Covington Airport, bumming rides and listening to pilots tell their tales of daring and bravado.

“So, you got a little disoriented on your first solo cross country?” Mr. Wendel asked as he signed my logbook.

Everyone in the airport knew that I had gotten off course (okay, lost). My instructor, who was flying the same trip with student in another airplane behind me had noticed my deviation from course and radioed me to ask where I was. The radio conversation was heard by another instructor at Covington, who offered his assistance from the traffic pattern. He then related the details of the “situation” to the airport locals.

Actually a dying vacuum-operated compass and a very hazy three-mile visibility late in the evening in the North Georgia mountains had contributed to the error in my course, but I did find myself and make it home. I was embarrassed, but getting lost was part of learning to fly. At the time I wasn’t thrilled with the thought that the Georgia skies were abuzz (at least on the Unicom frequency) with the news that Michele was lost. However, looking back I realize that I was privileged to be surrounded with a sky full of people who (a) knew where I should be, (b) knew that I wasn’t there, and (c) cared enough to make sure that I got back on course.

After he signed my logbook, Mr. Wendel arched his back and sighed. He was a semi-retired law enforcement officer, now the truant officer for the school system. Every once in a while he would bring a truant student to the airport for an airplane ride, in the hopes that the experience might kindle a fire and yearning for better things. He was also the consummate story teller. I knew that something had triggered some memories, and I sat back with a pen and paper ready to record the stories I would hear.

Mr. Wendel smiled as he began. “I remember back in ’66 or ‘67—you were probably just a glimmer in your daddy’s eye—when old Flanigan ran the airport. A bunch of us were sitting around and listening to Municipal on a hand held radio.” (Municipal was where Mr. Wendel had learned to fly in a Piper J-3 cub in 1947. It is now better known as Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport).

“They were really busy and the next thing you know we hear a woman student pilot on the radio. She’s asking for assistance because she’s lost. They fool around, have her do some turns and stuff when she finally says ‘Look, I gotta’ land now! I’m low on fuel.’ The tower replied, ‘Well, where are you?’

‘You, darn fool,’ she replied. ‘I told you that I was lost!’

We all about cracked up. Anyway it turned out that she was right over ‘a river, a highway and a bunch of long rectangular buildings.’ She was over the chicken houses on Almond Road, about 10 miles from here, so Municipal sent her to us, and we got her straightened out, gassed up and headed back home.”

Mr. Wendel had lots of stories about getting lost pilots turned around, and as a truant officer, that is what he was about—getting lost kids turned around and back on course. He was a character, and some of the stories he told were a little, well, colorful. His head and his heart in the right place, and when I think of him now I hope that my daughter will be as lucky as I was to be surrounded by such character (and characters) in her village as she grows up.
© 2009 Michele Arduengo. All rights reserved.

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