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I started teaching flying in 1971. The economy was good and the airlines were hiring. There were enough students pilots that I could fly day and night, and needed to if I wanted to make a living.
Instructors were mostly young, single, perpetually broke and living at home. Overworked, underpaid and oversexed, we spent what little extra time and money we had looking for cheap fun.
We were an interesting mix of aviators. Here are some of my favourites. I have changed their names for reasons that will become obvious.
McDonalds was the lunch spot of choice for underpaid, overworked flying instructors. The take-out was quick and the food was cheap. The difficulty was sneaking out for a burger undetected. A quickie dash for lunch would turn into an order taking, mind-numbing marathon if others in the flying school discovered where you were going. You'd return late for your next booking to a hungry crowd of fussy cheapskates. They'd complain about the long wait and whatever you bought for them. You'd always end up short changed.
One day Instructor Barney asked me if I wanted to go for lunch.
"Sure," I whispered, "but we'd better go out separate doors."
"Don't worry about that," he replied. Then he raised his voice to the flying school lounge. "I'm going to McDonalds. Anyone want lunch?"
We were immediately surrounded by eight people. They all talked at once.
Barney pulled a scrap of paper and a pen from his pocket and started scribbling on it.
"Big Mac, hold the pickle and onions, small fries, no salt..."
"Quarter Pounder, double cheese, ketchup on the side..."
"Two McFish, extra sauce..."
"Two Big Macs, large fries, cherry danish and..."
He was done in a minute. "Be right back," he said to the group. The pen and paper went back into his pocket. He turned to me, "Ready to go?"
"You're amazing," I said.
Barney drove. He parked the car and we walked into the restaurant. Barney stepped up to the counter. "I'd like twelve Big Macs and twelve small fries, to go."
The order was filled in two minutes.
"Let's have a seat," Barney said to me.
I followed him to a table. He pulled out a burger and a serving of fries and handed them to me. "I think that's what you ordered."
"I didn't order anything," I said. I unwrapped the Big Mac.
Barney grinned. "Then I can't be wrong."
We sat and ate.
"What about the list?" I asked.
He pulled the paper from his pocket and showed it to me. It was blank.
"I can hardly wait until we get back."
"No problem. The longer they wait, the less fussy they get, besides, I think this stuff all tastes the same when it's cold."
We were surrounded again when we walked into the flying school.
"I'll take the..."
"What took you so long?"
"Did you get..."
Barney held up his hand for silence. "The cost is five dollars each including carrying charges," he said. "No money - no food - no exceptions."
Someone handed him $5. "I ordered a Quarter Pounder, double cheese..."
Barney handed him a big Mac and fries.
The next guy said, "Mine was the two McFish, extra sauce..."
Barney handed him a big Mac and fries.
And so it went. The volume of complaints rose as people unwrapped their food.
"If you got the wrong order," Barney announced, "trade with someone else."
"I didn't order fries," one guy said.
"OK." Barney took them and put them back in the bag.
"I should get change."
Barney pulled out the packet of fries and offered it to him. "This is all the change I have."
The guy took it.
"I bought extras if anyone wasn't here when I was taking orders," Barney announced.
"What've you got?" a customer asked.
"Whatever you want," Barney replied, "five dollars."
He sold everything.
"Interesting exercise," I said.
Barney grinned. He held up a fist full of fives. "We made an extra fifteen dollars and we didn't have to sneak out."
Instructor Cam lived with his parents. He took his dates to the airport and entertained them on the chesterfield in the flying school lounge.
The rest of the staff considered it sport to check for Cam's car when near the airport at night. If it was there, we'd coast into the parking lot with lights off, tip-toe to the lounge door, unlock it, slide a hand along the inside wall and flip on the light switch. This was usually followed by a scream and a thud as the coupled couple hit the floor. Then we'd run. Cam vowed to find out who was doing it. We all were.
There was a popular ice cream parlour near the airport. In the summer it was staffed with a gaggle of high school girls. The dairy maidens weren't busy on bad weather days. Neither were the flying instructors so we'd hang out at the dairy bar. We could get a triple-decker ice cream and conversation with fresh-faced, well-muscled teenagers for the price of a kiddy cone.
Instructor Dan was tall, dark and handsome, and he knew it. He played his good looks to the max with the girls. He'd go to the ice cream shop wearing aviator sunglasses, an open shirt and talking pilot lingo with a deepened voice. The young scoopers eagerly gathered around him leaving the rest of us muttering to ourselves.
I went for ice cream one rainy day with Barney. Dan wasn't there. The girls asked where he was.
"It's his day off," Barney replied. "He's probably at his cousin's place planning their wedding."
The teenagers looked stricken.
"Don't mention that I told you," Barney said. "Dan's kind of sensitive about marrying his cousin." Barney lowered his voice. "It's a shot-gun wedding."
There were several gasps.
"Of course, I don't think it's such a big deal," Barney continued. "The woman already has two kids."
The next day, Dapper Dan came back from the dairy bar. He took me aside.
"Look at me," he said, stepping back.
"What's wrong with me?"
"There has to be. I was just at the ice cream shop. The girls avoided me like I had the plague!"
YOU BET YOUR LIFE?
Sometimes our merrymaking backfired.
One of the aircraft mechanics came into the flying school lounge at the end of the afternoon.
"I just did a tool count," he said to me. "I'm short my half-inch wrench. I must have left it in the tail of the Super Cub when I was checking the bolts on the tail spring. Where's the Cub now?"
"It's flying. Edsel is teaching spin recoveries in it."
"Better see if you can get him on the radio and tell him to come back."
I phoned the control tower. "If you can raise Edsel in the Super Cub, tell him to return to airport immediately."
I stayed on the telephone while listening to the office radio monitor. Edsel responded to the call.
"Garth says to return to the airport immediately," the controller told him.
"Why?" Edsel replied.
"He wants to know why," the controller said on the phone.
"Tell him we believe that a wrench was left in the tail of that airplane during an inspection."
The controller passed on my message.
"Tell Garth," Edsel replied, "that his weak sense of humour is too obvious. He'll have to do better than that to get me to turn around."
"Did you hear that?" the controller asked me.
"Yes. Ask him if he wants to bet his life on whether I'm joking."
Edsel returned to the airport. I met him on the ramp as he swung the Cub around and parked. I reached under the stabilizer, popped off the inspection plate above the tail spring, reached in among the rudder cables and pulled out the wrench.
Garth Wallace flew for 12,000 hours as a bush pilot, charter pilot, flying instructor and corporate pilot in Canada. His laughter-filled books are based on the characters he met and the fun flights he survived.