REMEMBERING BUCK DAVIS
It’s said there are two types of pilots: old ones and bold ones. Buck Davis was one of the former, and to fly with him was to realize there was no just no way he was ever going to die of anything other than natural causes. Buck was too competent, too careful, and deliberate to a degree that simply drove some of his students mad.
At the age of 19, I was one of them, and how well I remember the warm windless morning of May 19, 1962. Halfway down the north-south runway, Buck braked the 1943 Piper Cub to a stop and climbed out.
“I suppose there are some things you may never learn,” he announced. “The airplane will probably get off the ground a lot quicker without me in it.”
With that, Buck latched the door and stepped aside. I pushed the throttle forward and hauled back on the joy stick. Buck was right; the bright yellow J-3 fairly leaped into the sky. For the first time ever, I found myself alone in the cockpit!
Fifteen minutes later, Buck noted in my logbook that I had completed a “satisfactory solo.” Coming from him, that was high praise. Filled with pride, I returned to my terrestrial duties, which included sweeping the hangar, washing windows, pumping fuel, checking oil levels, wiping down wings, darning windsocks and polishing plexiglass windshields. The job paid one dollar an hour, half of which went into flying lessons. In other words, thirty hours of pushing a broom handle translated into half an hour of jockeying a joy stick.
Buck considered me one of his more industrious assistants. What he didn’t know is that the spark coil on his 1956 Oldsmobile transmitted a particular static signature, which could be picked up by the Unicom radio in the airport office. Whenever I heard that static, I knew I had approximately five minutes to get myself out of the boss’s chair and back to work.
For the remainder of the day, Buck would sit and I would sweep. Buck wasn’t exactly a chatterbox, and our daily routine at the Carbon-Emery Flying Service was eerily similar to that of the Trappist monastery at Huntsville.
Sometimes I would reconnoiter the grounds. In a far hangar sat the remains of an aircraft Doc Whiting had crashed, while returning home from Provo. In another, an Aeronca Champ belonging to the local chapter of the Civil Air Patrol gathered dust. From time to time I would scale the beacon tower, just to boost my blood pressure. One winter I stamped out “Merry Christmas” in giant letters on the snow-covered tarmac. The pilot of a passing airliner called in to wish me the same.
From the office ceiling dangled dozens of model airplanes—handiwork of Buck and Frances Davis’ aviator son, who long since had flown the nest. The back room workshop smelled strongly of carburetor cleaner, and featured an enormous WWII-era shortwave radio on which I could monitor ham traffic worldwide. It was a perfect place for daydreaming, and for taking imaginary flights of fancy to faraway places.
About my boss’s past I knew just a little. He had grown up in Nebraska, where he had played on a championship football team. While courting Frances, he had flown a DeHavilland biplane cross country, making dozens of forced landings along the way. Whenever he flew, Buck always kept one eye on the ground, mentally registering potential emergency landing spots.
Once a year, Buck and Frances would take off in his Cessna for Nebraska, leaving me in charge of the airport for a few days. I’d always wait a few hours before telephoning my friends—mindful of my predecessor, whose riotous wind sock hop had abruptly ended after the boss returned, unannounced, to retrieve something he’d forgotten to pack.
Some years after I moved away, the old hangar burned to the ground, and since has been replaced by a modern building that may or may not smell of carburetor cleaner. The red brick bungalow where Buck and Frances raised their family has disappeared as well. The bright yellow 65-horsepower Piper J-3 N88244 in which I and so many student pilots had learned to fly was sold to a new owner who promptly managed to fly it straight into the ground. He was a bold pilot.
Or, as E.L. “Buck” Davis would say, “There are some things you may never learn.”