About a year ago my son whittled us some traveling chocks, just bits of 2-inch aluminum angle Swiss-cheesed to save weight. We’re a performance family, so everything from boiling pasta to petting the iguana gets the treatment.
Recognizing the little wedges could come in handy, I dropped two of them in the Starduster’s headrest. And they’ve proven perfect for holding the box kite against a slightly sloping hardstand while running in for breakfast or spending a few minutes catching up at a distant friend’s hangar.
And so it was the chocks were in the headrest during a recent trip to Mojave Air & Space Port. There was a talk going on, and as usual, I was behind schedule as I taxied into the spot indicated by the lineman. By chance we were facing east on the concrete desert that is Mojave’s transient ramp when I pulled the mixture control. Even while the prop surrendered to the engine’s compression strokes, a bit of the crowd was walking in from almost all points of the compass—the rabbit’s last sight as the coyotes move in.
“Where did you fly in from?” and “Was it cold up there?” were answered as I got the camera out and stuffed the GPS unit and leather jacket down into the tattered cockpit. Pawing around in the headrest locker like a bear with a new picnic basket, I came across those two small chocks…I might as well put them somewhere, crossed my mind in the rush to get moving. It was the perfect high desert day, visibility aloft was a cloudless 50 miles and there wasn’t a breath of air. The forecast said wind was coming around 5 p.m.—three hours after I’d be gone—and for now the day was as calm and beguiling as brunch on the porch. There was no need for tie-downs or chocks, except sometimes people lean against things, plus it was inevitable the warming desert would produce rising air somewhere, setting the windmills on the horizon to lazy rotation. So, mainly because it took the least time and had a symmetrical look, I slipped the chocks on both sides of the tailwheel tire while trotting off to the auditorium. It was 11:18 a.m.
A bit over two hours later, I headed out of the auditorium to the shuttle bus and the first thing I saw was the sky brown with dirt. It was breezy to say the least in the lee of the auditorium, but as soon as we motored around the side of the building I realized it was blowing. Seriously blowing.
When the wind blows in Mojave, it doesn’t do it half-heartedly, and the way the flags were straight out and the poles leaning back told me all I needed to fear. The airplane, my airplane, was not tied down and was sitting out on the vast, open ramp where the wind was the worst. The ramp runs parallel to Runway 8-26 and the wind was hard out of the west. I knew right then my Starduster had to be wadded against another airplane or a huge steel hangar. But I also remembered there were ramp personnel thanks to the event, and maybe they had saved my bacon. It was an anxious ride to the flight line.
As I beetled through the pedestrian gate to the full fury of the ramp, the first thing I realized was how difficult it was to walk. I was being pushed so hard downwind that it took extra effort to keep from stumbling forward. But I could see the Starduster, alone down the ramp, tail to the wind. Unfathomably it was still in the same spot. That little chock, that four inch bit of aluminum, thrown under the tailwheel only because I had accidentally come across it, had to be holding all of my aviation from sailing off to oblivion.
Finally at the plane, the biplane’s upper right aileron was bent down over-center, locking the stick to the left while the gale provided the favor of downforce against the elevators. But the rudder was banging hard and repeatedly from stop to stop. In desperation I held it for a while, until the wind shifted a hair and the rudder also stayed to one side. A look around showed Mojave’s multiple huge windsocks straight out as if starched by God. The wind was massive and absolutely without respite, an unseen but ghoulishly felt presence, the sort of wind that makes it difficult to think, even though a quick review showed nothing was damaged and I had gotten lucky—very lucky—yet again. At least the wind was incredibly steady and holding a better heading than I can hand-fly cross-country.
Admonishing myself to not forget anything, I managed to get my gear stowed, a not inconsequential task against such force. After one last forlorn appeal for help from the emergency personnel who were too busy assisting other aircraft further west to notice my flailing arm signals, I resolved to knock out the chocks and make the dash for the cockpit unassisted. Downwind, at least, there was nothing immediate to hit, only a mile of deserted concrete.
Standing by the rudder like a 7-year-old atop a YMCA high dive, I wondered if I really wanted to pull that little hard-working chock, but there was little practical alternative. Prying the firmly wedged angle from in front of the tire, I scrambled as fast as an old man can around the tail group, up onto the lower wing, left hand on the upper wing hand grip and right leg swinging into the cockpit. Looking down, the ramp was moving under the Starduster at several mph and gaining speed. I slid in and got on the brakes.
Using semi-locked brakes and incredible amounts of power, it was possible to crab along to the taxiway. From there no power was needed to be pushed along by the wind as I held a constant full right rudder, but S-turning for visibility in the hose-nosed taildragger meant lightly letting up on the right brake for a left turn and pretty much locking the brake and 2000 rpm of prop blast to swing it to the right.
The takeoff was predictable. I lined up somewhat athwart the runway to directly address the wind, which the tower was calling “35 gusting to 44,” and rolled in the throttle. With 300 hp to work with, we rolled maybe 80 feet and were flying before I could get the throttle all the way in. The climb was more like an elevator and turning downwind (thank goodness) to head home, the GPS noted a 191-mph ground speed. Not bad for an old biplane.
About 35 minutes later I was on the south side of the Angeles Crest mountains where Ontario ATIS announced winds as “270 at 9.” Just another day, in other words.
Most discussion-worthy of all this was the Ernie Gann randomness of my good fortune. My son had made the chocks unprompted. I had put them in the headrest just because and had deployed them on a dead-calm day only because they were there and might as well have gone around a tire as sat in the headrest. Then there was the complete chance I was parked facing east and not west. The tail to the wind pushed the taildragger down against the ground and into the chock. Pointing west would have lifted the airplane; would it have stayed in the chock? Likely not. A Cessna just a row over was blown out of its main gear chocks and captured by ground crew a little before I got back to the Starduster. And there’s a chance the tailwheel would have swiveled into the wind. Perhaps most fortunate, I had seriously considered taking our little Cessna 140A to the event…it would have blown away even if chocked on all three tires and couldn’t have been taxied in that wind. The heavy, big-block Starduster, with its oversized tail group and endless control authority took a little technique, but was up to the job. What could have been a disaster turned into little more than a great learning experience.
And what did I learn? Mainly to tie it down in the high desert no matter what.