Of this I’m convinced; had I arrived in Fargo, North Dakota in a Skyhawk, Sundowner or Cherokee instead of a homebuilt, my brief stay would have suffered for it. My time at Minot Air Force Base, two days later when my Sonex, Metal Illness, and I shared a ramp with a B-52 and a B-1 would have suffered as well. But I’ve gotten ahead of the story. I’ll back up to the evening of July 6th, 2006.
My post-shutdown experience at Fargo’s Hector International Airport was unusual. No planes, anywhere. No people, anywhere. None. A 24-hour FBO appeared to be out of business. Until that evening, even at the smallest airports, I was always, always met at the fuel pump by an airport bum lured to the shiny finish and curious shape of Metal Illness like a bass to a crankbait. Fargo, the largest airport I’d ever landed at, had the most deserted ramp I’d ever occupied. Alone under the falling sun, I tied Metal Illness to the earth, removed my luggage, and wrestled a canopy cover into place against the protests of North Dakota’s perpetual wind. In the distance a hotel beckoned, its room rate advertised larger than the hotel’s name. I lifted my bags off the warm tarmac and began walking.
Planning will only take you so far before—I’ll call it fate—has to fill in the blanks. My plan for the day was fully consumed the moment I began walking across the deserted ramp toward the hotel. Fate let me take only a few steps before it sent a man on a motorcycle. He recognized my Sonex and asked if I wanted to put it in—in his words—“a hangar.” I accepted. I roused Metal Illness from its brief rest and taxied behind my new friend until we arrived at the last hangar of the last row. It was large, with a sign: Fargo Air Museum. The hangar door opened and revealed a P-51 Mustang, T-6 Texan and an RV-8 poised at the door’s threshold. Duggy, the smiling, yellow DC-3, towered over them like a watchful mother.
My unforeseen host, Bill Cowden, was a commercial pilot who was active in the museum, an F-16 pilot with North Dakota Air National Guard’s Happy Hooligans, and owned the RV-8, which he built. We resettled Metal Illness, resecured the hangar, and joined his friends on a hangar deck for a beer (T-6 Red Ale from Warbird Brewing, appropriately) and the sunset. After logging time hangar flying—mostly touch and goes on numerous aviation topics—I was given the key to the museum’s courtesy car and the key to a hotel discount: “The air museum sent me.”
One Stubborn Texan, Two Amicable Airmen
In the morning, while I planned the two-hour flight to Minot, Bill made plans for me. We were going to fly the Texan. I can say with some authority that ground positioning a tailwheel Sonex is as simple as picking up the tail and having your way with it. A Texan has its way with you. We tugged, pushed, and cajoled the stubborn Texan, trying to work it around obstacles, until it had us sweating. Duggy hovered overhead, smiling at the activity below. With each move, the T-6 embedded itself deeper in the quicksand of the crowded hangar. I offered numerous, half-hearted outs so Bill could end our game of hangar Tetris, “As much as I’ve always dreamed of flying in a T-6, if this is too much trouble…” Bill didn’t listen.
Although I was raised Lutheran, my Wisconsin-nice personality bore a Catholic’s guilt from Bill’s effort to do something nice for me. We persisted. Duggy smiled. The P-51, unruffled by the activity, obliged when I needed to rotate its propeller to allow the wing of the T-6 to ease by. The Texan was at last free, as Texans want to be. Duggy smiled. Neither a faulty intercom nor the heavy haze that accompanies summer in the Dakotas diminished the thrill of the hour-long flight, which included aerobatics and 10 minutes for me to command the aircraft. Bill fulfilled a decades-old dream I harbored of flying in a T-6. I smiled.
Metal Illness and I departed Fargo behind two Happy Hooligans and flew to Minot to participate in Minot Air Force Base’s Northern Neighbors Day open house. One of only a handful of civilian aircraft in attendance (clearance was required weeks in advance to land without causing a scene), I was parked by a B-52. The event’s fly-in coordinator, who asked not to be named, was building an RV-8 in his garage; a difficult task when actively serving in the military. As we visited—me with my back to my aircraft, he facing it—the shine of Metal Illness again drew attention, some unwanted. My host winced at questionable behavior by my airplane until he could take no more and included it within the rope that cordoned off the B-52. A Bonanza looked on with envy.
I didn’t know I was setting these events in motion seven years earlier when I started fastening aluminum together with rivets. I thought I was building an airplane, but fate turned my labor and the sum of those materials into unforeseeable and unforgettable experiences. There’s no telling what may come from crafting a pile of Sitka spruce, 4130 tubing, fiberglass or aluminum into an airplane. Exciting, isn’t it?
While researching forgotten details for this column I learned that Bill Cowden passed away in June, 2014, while performing in an airshow in a Yak-55. This month’s column is for Bill, a stranger who welcomed and embraced a fellow homebuilder. Bill was building his second RV-8 when he passed. His family established the Bill Cowden Memorial Aviation Scholarship for pilots in the Midwest pursuing advanced training in aviation.