“I asked my brother, Jed, if he knew of any crop dusting activity in North Dakota. He said he didn’t,” said Zeke after she’d returned and they carried the things into the hangar.
“You sure can’t say that about here,” Sally replied. “Everybody and his uncle is bidding for work here.”
“All the more reason to get out before you are forced into upgrading. I don’t know how many acres it takes to support a crop duster.”
“A lot. You’ve done a lot of this maintainer work, haven‘t you? What was the toughest job?”
“Repairing damage from a lightning strike,” Zeke replied without hesitation
“When I first enlisted, the air force sent me to school on airborne navigation systems and then assigned to the A&E Squadron with the 72nd Bomb Wing in Puerto Rico. I hadn’t seen any of the systems I found on the bombers and tankers. I played catch up for a few months.
“Our wing commander, a brigadier general, attended an Eighth Air Force Commander’s Call at a Massachusetts air base. I don‘t know how often he made the trip, but when he went he always used a base flight aircraft, one of the two 1942 C-54s. One night, while returning from Commander’s Call they flew into a severe storm somewhere over the Atlantic and took a lightning strike.
“It fried everything that required electrical power – generators, batteries, lights, navigation and communications systems. They were in the dark and alone. Fortunately, the navigator knew how to navigate with out all the bells and whistles. Using only a watch whiskey compass, flashlight, sextant, and of course the Celestial Navigation Book….”
“What’s a Celestial Navigation Book?“ Sally interrupted.
“Oh, that’s an old book published in England that lists the exact positions of certain stars used to navigate by at certain given times. With that book, a watch, and a sextant a navigator can calculate a present position, called a waypoint and from that lay in a course.“
He suspected she didn‘t know what he was talking about, but that was okay. It wasn’t important, so he carried on with his story.
“The navigator laid a course straight to Ramey AFB on the west end of the Puerto Rico. They had to pump the gears down by hand. Having no landing lights they had to buzz the tower so they would turn on the runway lights. Probably scared the crap of the guys in the tower,” he said, smiling.
“The following morning the general came to our shop with verbal orders that he wanted a man assigned to base flight to fix that airplane. I’d been to school on APS-42 search radar system way back when, so I was sent to do the job.
“I found the wiring harnesses damaged beyond repair. Had the decision been mine, I would have thrown the plane away, but that wasn‘t an option. At that point I was in way over my head. I’d never done anything that extensive in my life.
“I was able to order wiring harnesses salvaged from the air force bone yard in Arizona. I then installed serviceable components – receiver/transmitter, antennas. That stuff was hard to get. Even with a general’s pull it took seven weeks before we could put that C-54 back in the air.”
“Did you get a promotion because of that?”
“Of course not.”
By evening we had finished one aircraft. As Sally drove Zeke to a motel for the night he explained that the industry was using the old biplanes anymore. They were changing over to Air Tractors and helicopters. “It’s only a matter of time before they force to upgrade or get out.”
She nodded and then swung into a motel with a vacancy sign.