Jon and the Twisters

No, this is not a tale about a rock group, or even about a guy named Jon and some fifties dancers. It is an odd story of a flight instructor and the weather.

The scene: A huge IBM manufacturing plant in Vermont. Jon is a process engineer, but in his off time flies small airplanes for fun and a little profit. As he is also a flight instructor, and one of the scarce instructors who will teach in conventional-geared aircraft (call them taildraggers). He is often stopped in the long corridors of Big Blue by those who wanted a ride sometime, or opine about always wanting to learn to fly.

Jon had good IBM friend named Paul, who had once shared a love of sailplanes, both soaring the mountains ranges and ski hills east of Burlington at the Sugarbush airport, where Jon had met his future wife. Paul stopped Jon in the hallway once and of course the conversation drifted away from wafers and silicon to airplanes. They talked about Paul getting back into flying sometime. Another engineer joined in, a fellow with curly hair and a ready smile, a fellow the ladies all stared at, whose name was Stan, but who they secretly called Gorgeous. Somewhere along one of many conversations between Paul and Gorgeous, the two talked about buying a little airplane and having Jon teach them to fly it.

Time went by and an occasion came up where Jon had to fly down to Fishkill, New York, on company business. Jon chose to fly his own airplane south, instead of going through the hassle of a commuter airline. An engineering technician named Suzette, also with business down there, was intrigued with the idea of not having to drive, and asked for a ride. Since Jon was happily married, and the attractive, long-legged engineer was not, she was dubbed The Floozy. She loved the experience of that day, and somehow got linked with Paul and Gorgeous.

Some time passed, and a two-place Cessna 140 taildragger was found, and a partnership was struck by Paul, Gorgeous and The Floozy. On the edge of the town of Burlington, along the lake, was a little grass airfield with hangar space, and so the flying lessons began.

Meanwhile, about the same time, a young family man with a farm in the Champlain Islands north of Burlington got interested in flying. Jimmy was a hard worker, delivered the heating oil around the islands, and often lingered around the small airport Jon had carved out of a pasture several miles from Jimmy’s farm. Jimmy made a serious decision to fly, and Jon’s wife was sent down to Pennsylvania to pick up Jimmy’s “new” airplane, a pre-war Aeronca Chief … two-seats, fabric cover, and of course, a taildragger. Jimmy and his dad built a small wooden hangar, bladed off a short grass runway and proudly tucked his prize away after each flying lesson with Jon.

Now … about weather. The first recorded tornado to hit Vermont was in 1782. From 1955 to 1993, there were forty tornadoes on record. This is not a large number compared to Florida, Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. But each one got big press, because they were so rare. They usually came out of nowhere … no sheets of heavy flooding rain, no green sky for which the mid-west was famous, and no warning sirens to announce their approach.

One of these rare tornadoes dipped down across Lake Champlain to the little grass airfield by the lake. It was a tiny thing by comparison, perhaps only a hundred feet wide. It took a bead on one hangar … the hangar with a Cessna 140 inside.

The airplane had just had its oil changed, and Paul had left the pot of oil sitting under the engine as the last drips filled the container. He stacked the empty oil cans in a pyramid at the bottom of the side wall foundation, and had gone home.

After the wind died down a bit, the airport manager came out to make his rounds, and made a short call to Paul, and one to Jon. “Better come down here,” he said.

Paul and his family arrived, then Jon and his wife, and all were amazed at the sight. The hangar was 100 feet away from its foundation, in various-sized pieces. In the middle of the rubble was the pride and joy of Paul, Gorgeous and the Floozy, upside down, bent and broken. Nothing else in the neighborhood was touched, and nothing else on the field was touched. The pot of oil and the pyramid of cans sat spookily in the places they were left. They all wondered what would have occurred if the airplane had been tied down inside the hangar, but that question was left unanswered.

A year or two later, it was a stormy day and things at Vermont airstrips were getting tied down and put away. Jon’s phone rang and it was Jimmy, calling from his house about six miles away. “Come on over,” he said.

Jimmy’s hangar, right behind his house, was gone. The airplane was gone. No damage to the trees at the edge of his field, no mark on the house.

Neither airplane was ever replaced. Jimmy gave up flying. Gorgeous never flew again, and the Floozy quit IBM and went to Alaska. One wonders if Jon and the Twisters caused some eerie consternation among the local pilots. But some years later, with no fear, Paul carved out his own airfield on his foothills farmland. Jon and his wife sold their airport and moved to Arizona, another place where tornadoes are scarce.

There have been nine other tornadoes to strike Vermont since 1993, but none near Lake Champlain or an airport. Paul, with his Cessna 180 tucked in a big strong hangar, watches the sky anyway. Meanwhile, in Arizona, in January, 2010, two tornadoes were spotted near Phoenix.

 

About the Author

Presently furloughed from solo flying and detailed artwork due to an eye problem, Bette Bach-Fineman lives in a hangar in Arizona. She is happily married with five children living dangerously in an unsafe world, and too many grandchildren and step-grandchildren to keep track of or worry about. Her book Patterns is now appearing in serial form on www.friendsofaviation.net. You can learn more about Bette on her web site: www.bettebachfineman.com.

One Comment

  1. Nice one, Boopy.
    What IS it with pilots & Twisters?
    I’ve now JUST been missed by three of ’em. (Less than 500′!)
    One hit Guelph Air Park many years ago. Utterly bizarre. Picked up a twin, spun it around, and dropped it right next to our pal, Rotten’s, C-140. Hopped OVER his airplane, destroyed ALL the other tied-down aircraft, then did the most remarkable thing. Stopped at the intersection, made a 90 degree left turn right down the N/S runway, travelled to the end, stopped right in front of a friend’s house, made a 90 degree right turn , then dropped the garage roof right on top of the JUST-completed Zenair it took him 10 years to build. Totalled it. Heart-breaking.
    At least your article let me know – it’s not just us.
    Thanks for the post. Look forward to more.
    GN

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