The Dawn Patrol

Know when to hold em, know when to fold em.


Rick Bennett from Ohio in his Graham Lee Nieuport 23 makes a pass down the flight line.

“Man oh man,” I said to myself, “I’m getting waaay to old for this stuff.” I didn’t actually say “stuff,” but you get the idea. I’ve actually made this comment before, many times as a joke over the last 35 years, but this time…I meant it. It was no longer a joking matter.

Sweat was running off the brim of my hat in a steady stream. I was wondering if it would be better to just throw up, wet myself, or pass out…Or just go for broke, get it over with, and do all three at once.

The temperature was in the upper 90s. The humidity was off the charts. The heat index had hit 110 F. I’d been in this situation before, and it was never fun. Now it was even less fun.

The Liberty Landing Intentional Airport’s display. From Left to right: Morane Parasol, Nieuport 16, Nieuport 11.

Tim Gerlach and I were in a field between runways 17/35 and 8/26 at the Gardner, Kansas, Municipal Airport. His crumpled Graham Lee Nieuport 11 was lying forlornly in the trampled down thigh-high wheat, weeds, and stickers.

Tim and I were working on taking the wings, tail feathers and other assorted goodies off the plane, so we could try to get a crew to carry the stripped fuselage out of the field of woe. But first, maybe I need to tell you how we got in this mess.

Beautiful all wood SE-5A project by Randy Roy.

As usual, the Friday and Saturday of Father’s Day weekend was the date for the Gathering of Eagles WW-I Fly-In, held at the Gardner Municipal Airport just west of Gardner. The event has been going on for over 20 years at this location. Gardner Municipal is a beautiful little field with three runways. Runway 17/35 is an absolutely dreamy 3237×90-foot grass expanse. It’s perfect for WW-I aircraft. Grass is very forgiving to a short-coupled, twitchy, short-fuselage aircraft.

Sweltering lineup with everyone taking shelter in the canopies.

Pavement, on the other hand, like Runway 8/26, is a snarling, drooling, red-eyed pit bull with a toothache just ready and willing to bite you on the butt at the slightest hint of inattention during takeoff and landing. Be just a little bit off track, and the pavement will grab those skinny little tires and you’ll swap ends in a New York second. I personally will take grass with a 90-degree crosswind over wind-down-the-runway pavement any time.

Anyway, this year was going to be a first for Gardner. The forecast said we were going to have flying weather for both days. This hardly ever happens. Usually on one of the days, the wind is gusting to over 30 mph. Or, we’ll have a classic big black surly Kansas thunderstorm descend on us with horizontal rain and howling straight-line winds. This always makes the day more interesting when it transforms the calm, placid field into panic-stricken pandelirium.

The only fly in the soup this year was the unusually high temperature forecast. Highs in the upper 90s with heat indexes in the 100s meant it was going to be really miserable on the field. At least we were going to be parked on the grass and not the paved ramp.

Charlie Radford in his Airdrome Airplanes Fokker E-III gets ready to commit aviation. Rotax 503 power.


The forecast weather was really a big worry for Sweetie and me. We’ve both become quite a bit more “mature” as the years have dragged on. We’ve found that hot weather is a worrisome issue for both of us. Last year she almost passed out at Gardner, and it wasn’t as hot as it was forecast to be this year.

As for me, the Wednesday before the Gardner weekend, I experienced what I like to refer to as an “episode” related to getting overheated on a day a lot cooler than the forecast weather for the days for the event. The episode bothered me enough that I went to my good old sympathetic family doctor to get a checkout. He’s been bullying me for over 40 years. I told him what had happened and asked what I could do to make sure it wouldn’t happen again.

“Get younger,” he said.

“Thanks Doc.”

Then I got the standard stern finger-in-my-face lecture about the effects of high temperatures on overweight, pudgy, out-of-shape men of my advancing years—followed by the orders that “old fools” in my condition should not even consider flying in the extreme weather coming up over the weekend.

The Fokker D-VIII cockpit.

Check out the dummy guns on the Fokker D-VIII.

Then the dirty rotten dog called Sweetie (aka Nurse Ratchet) into the examination room and told me the same thing again in front of her.

Well, that did that. I knew I’d be on static display at Gardner for the first time ever. Mark Pierce was in the same boat, but for a different reason. His Nieuport engine was freshly overhauled with less than an hour on it. He sure as heck didn’t want to do his break-in flights in front of a big crowd.

Sharon was grounded too for Gardner. She’d broken her right wrist after falling off a chair she was standing on while washing windows. This was after a recent back operation, too. We won’t go into the intense discussion we’d had about what momentary lapse of reason had possessed her to be doing that. Let’s just say I retreated with wounds.

Robert Baslee’s full-scale Fokker D-VIII stole the show. Suggested powerplants are: Lycoming O-235, Rotec Radial, VW w/PSRU, or equivalent.


Early Friday morning Mark, Sharon, and I convoyed to Gardner and set up our static display. Sweetie and I didn’t even put our planes together. Mark just put his together “finger-tight” so it would come apart fast.

By Friday noon the joint was jumping. Fly-in attendance was down considerably due to the weather. The only plane flying in was Marvin Berk’s magnificent SPAD XIII. Marvin lives just a short flight south of Gardner, so it wasn’t that big a hardship to fly up. But The Trailer Weenies were there in force.

The crowd was, as usual, made up of die-hard WW-I aircraft builders, wanna-be builders, and other interested folk. People showed up from Colorado, California, Ohio, Florida, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Oklahoma. Quite a few were there to go to school on different kits to see what interested them the most.

Robert “Bullwhip” Baslee, as usual, didn’t disappoint. His newest creation, a full-scale Fokker D-VIII stole the show. It is magnificent. It also sports a big, roomy cockpit. And again as usual with one of Bullwhip’s creations, it’s very trailer friendly. (Trailer Weenies rule!)

Charlie Radford makes a pass down the runway in his Airdrome Airplanes Fokker E-III. Rotax 503 power.

As Friday progressed it got hotter and hotter. Someone reported the density altitude at Kansas City International Airport (MCI) at 3500 feet. Sweetie’s face was getting redder and redder. I was drinking water like a racehorse and still starting to feel a little queasy. So, we bailed out, jumped in our air-conditioned Stealth Van, turned the AC up full blast, and headed home.

It turns out we missed the excitement later that afternoon. Several guys were flying as the sun was going down. It wasn’t great, but it was the best it had been all day. Tim Gerlach from Kingman, Arizona, was up making passes down the runway when he developed flutter in his elevators. It was so bad, he was afraid the elevators were going to rip off the plane. He immediately lined up to land on 26, but a plane was staged getting ready to take off. So Tim tried to make the 90-degree turn at the end of 26 to land on 17 and lost it making the turn.

Marvin Berk’s O-200 powered SPAD XIII. Beautiful plane.

As he described it to me, it was a soft impact. Almost like my landing in the corn in my Taube back in ’05. I’ve landed harder than that crash. If anyone ever has any doubt about the safety of tube-and-gusset construction, those crashes really tell the tale. Even after looking at the damage to his wings, there wasn’t a single wrinkle in the fabric on his fuselage. The gear was toast. Right wings, upper and lower, were toast. Left upper wing…OK. Left lower wing…repairable. The tail feathers were all good to go.

Dick Starks and Tim Gerlach sweat bullets while taking the tail feathers off Tim’s plane.

Anyway, someone in the houses across the road from the airport saw him go in and called 911. That resulted in a replay of the D-Day invasion. Fire trucks, police cars, county sheriff’s cars, highway patrol cars, ambulances and…God help us…TV stations started to show up—followed by…the FAA! (Oh, boy…into the abyss we go!)

The FAA wouldn’t let them move the plane from the “crash scene” until they could examine it the next morning, so it was still there when Sweetie and I arrived. We knew all about it, of course. The Kansas City TV stations had been all over the story by midnight.

Hooked up to the boom hoist on the tractor and ready to head to the ramp.

Hold or Fold?

A group of us trudged out to the plane and started making plans to get it out of the field. It was going to be a challenge. But this is no problem for The Dawn Patrol. We’d all been there before. This was pretty much everyday stuff to us. In fact, a polling of the assembled pilots there showed that all of us had spent some quality time in farmers’ fields. Meaning…We’re all members of the Dawn Patrol Combine Service…”No Crop Too Tall.”

Some of us have even earned oak leaf clusters.

Well anyway, Tim had all his tools there, so he and I went out to the plane and started taking parts off. Everyone else went up to the flight line to get stuff arranged for the crowd, which was starting to arrive.

We started with the tail feathers. I held up the fuselage while Tim muttered and mumbled, taking nuts and washers off and dropping them in the dirt.

The long slow ride to the hangars following the tractor. Marvin Berk driving, Tim Gerlach carrying the tail. Dick Starks offering words of encouragement.

It was hot and unbelievably muggy. I was dripping like a faucet. We had no water. The sun was beating down on us with renewed fury. That’s when good old Doc Hall’s warning words started running through my thoughts. I started humming that great classic song by Kenny Rogers, The Gambler. “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em / Know when to fold ’em / Know when to walk away…”

I started to think it was time for me to fold ’em and walk away.

It got worse as time dragged on. Tim and I finally got the tail feathers off. I was taking more and more breaks, bent over staring at the ground.

Tim and I were using all the appropriate words we knew trying to get the left lower wing off when my cell phone started playing Jerry Lee Lewis singing Great Balls Of Fire.

Gulp…It was Nurse Ratchet’s ringtone.

I answered, “Yes my little commandant.”

Her first screamed questions were, “Where are you, and what are you doing?” I confessed. The following one-minute tirade included the terms “stupid old fool,” “men of your age,” “one-cell brain,” and “Weren’t you listening to Doc Hall?” Throughout the tirade she sprinkled the commentary with some descriptive, personally hurtful adjectives that the editors of this fine magazine would refuse to print.

About five minutes later, the Stealth Van came roaring up with Mark Pierce and Sweetie. Two minutes later I was in it, heading to the shade of our shelter with several bottles of cold water. We’d left Tim to his fate. After all, he’s a lot younger!

Back at the flight line, things were jumping. The crowd was a lot larger due to the TV and newspaper coverage of the Friday-night adventure.

Robert Baslee was cornered all day long with guys wanting information on his kits.

James and Alaina Lewis from Culver Props/Valley Engineering showed up. People wanting information on Valley Engineering’s VW and Big Twin engines surrounded James.

Tim Gerlach tries to talk Alaina Lewis into some warranty work on his prop. Alaina wasn’t buying it… (That ship never left the dock.)

Alaina was mobbed with guys wanting to see what prop they needed to order for their planes. She was taking orders on scraps of paper, note cards, and over the phone from guys that had got too hot and had to leave.

This lasted until about one in the afternoon, and then things really slacked off. It was really getting seriously hot and muggy. The crowd trickled down to nothing.

The Retrieval Squad

Marvin Berk showed up with his 1963 Minneapolis-Moline Jet Star II tractor with boom hoist to get Tim’s plane out of the field. We’d already tried to lift it, and not even six guys were going to be able to do it without someone getting injured.

Marvin’s arrival meant The Gardner, Kansas, Municipal Airport Rapid Response Aircraft Retrieval Squad was on the scene and ready to swing into action. The mob headed down to the end of the field to the crash scene. It only took 30 minutes to get the plane hooked up to Marvin’s tractor and out of the field. The crew immediately started yanking the engine off. Rick Bennett, a VW guru from Ohio, was going to take it home and overhaul it for Tim.

Alaina checked out the Valley Engineering PSRU on Tim’s plane and aside from a little belt dust from a misaligned pulley pronounced it good to go.

The prop was toast. Tim tried to talk Alaina into doing some warranty repair on it. That ship never even left the dock.

While that was going on, the rest of us went back up to the flight line and started putting planes on trailers. It was time to head for the home fields. Another Gardner gathering was history. The miserable weather held fly-in and trailer-in attendance down. But the drive-in, go-to-school group seemed larger. Interest in WW-I aircraft was just as high as ever.

Oh…concerning the flutter—Bullwhip Baslee has a theory as to why it happened, but I’m not going to advance it ’til we’ve had a chance to check it out.

The Adventure Continues.

Dick Starks has written two books about the joy of flying; “You Want To Build And Fly A What?” and “Fokkers At Six O’clock!!” He was the recipient of Flying’s 2001 Bax Seat Award “for perpetuating the Gordon Baxter tradition of communicating the excitement and romance of flight.” Dick and his wife, Sharon, both fly WW-I replica aircraft.


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