Summer Hours

Pilots wanted: low pay, long hours.

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At nine the next morning three tours are waiting and there's only one pilot on hand. When Mankedick arrives, he slaps a wooden "9" over the "10" in the "Open at 10" sign. Summer has officially begun.

Ten weeks later, Mankedick reports that business has been down 20 percent from last year. "We lost two pilots: one love affair gone bad, one new job offer," he says. "Right now, the guys are preoccupied with job opportunities, falling in love, falling out of love." Tracy Johnson has left town after a relationship with Biplane Scott went sour, and Mankedick has decreed that "no one falls in love the rest of the summer." Darwin Ford and his smile left to fly Grand Canyon tours in single- and twin-engine Cessnas.

Part of the drop in business was due to twin hurricanes: Bertha, who blew through in mid-July with 100-mph winds, and Fran, who arrived on Labor Day weekend. "We caught up on sleep, drank a lot of beer, and sat on the porch," says Ossman. "We had some time off." They managed to cram all 10 airplanes, various lawnmowers, and Greg Wartes' car into the hangar before the worst of Bertha hit. July 5 was the summer's record: 101 flights.

Turner got to log some twin-engine time: "I met a guy who had to fly his Cessna 310 back to New York, and I told him if he let me fly the plane back with him I'd buy the gas. I washed and waxed it, flew it back to New York, then got a train home." When the 310 owner came back down to fly the Waco for Challice, who needed a little time off, Turner negotiated a week in the 310. "I got 25 hours total between flying it back to New York twice and flying him around. I was paying for all the gas so he didn't care. Now I have almost 50 hours of multi time." He also logged a little social time and is smitten with a young woman who works at the legendary Old Rhinebeck Aerodrome. "She flies taildraggers," he says proudly.

Biplane Scott is subdued, still smarting from an encounter with First Flight's wildlife. He swerved to avoid a deer on the runway. The brake cable let go and the airplane went into a ground loop, which beat up the right wing.

Jon Riebau is a new hire, a reserved man who got a late start on a flying career. At 35, he is some 10 years older than most Aero Tours pilots, and differs also in that he is not remotely interested in an airline job. Riebau spent 10 years in Alaska and wants to return as a bush pilot. Mankedick hired him on the spot when Riebau, in a textbook example of being in the right place at the right time, stopped by the Booth to ask about a job. With 640 hours, he plans to winter over and make it an even 1,000. "In the two months I've been here, for the 140 hours I logged, I would have had to pay $6,000 just for renting a C-172," he says. "This is Mecca." But even pilgrims wane in the pursuit of their passion. "You do 14 tours a day in seven or eight hours, you start bumping into yourself," he says. Riebau lives in a camper on the lawn in front of the Shed--no AC, no water, no toilet. But he has his privacy. "I'm an Alaskan," he reminds you.

Brandon Bent is the other new hire, an outgoing and highly confident young man who announces: "By 2000 I should be flying for United." Bent has been banned from Wright Stuff lectures at the museum: fancying himself a stand-up comic, he ad-libbed most of his presentation ("The Wrights didn't bring their wives, since they were hoping to find mermaids..."). The Park Service was not amused.

There's an impromptu party at the Shed that night, with music courtesy of the Skyco Strangers, a local band (very local, like next door). "They're called Strangers because when they play, they sound like they've never met," says Turner. Pilots not on duty today have been wielding brooms and dust rags and stuffing the Shed's flotsam and jetsam into closets. At 9 p.m. the band is tuning up and a tray of potato chips is set out on the counter. The Skyco Strangers are indeed awful, but the beer is cold and the mosquitoes are not too bad tonight. The neighbors show up, along with a few townies, but attendance is sparse. Outside, Riebau stands in the yard, nursing a beer and gazing at the Milky Way, a broad ribbon in the clear black sky.

At 8:30 a.m. on the day after Labor Day, Mankedick is on the phone in the hangar ordering a 125-pound pig for the end-of-season party. It wasn't Aero Tours' best summer, but it wasn't the worst. Besides, he says, "on Labor Day, whether you've had a good summer or bad, there's an air of celebration. Everyone's glad to get their beach back, get their town back."

Dreelin is now ready to graduate to tours; Riebau, the new guy, will take over banners. The two are wrapping up banners that won't fly until next summer. "The Flat Flounders letters look real rough," says Riebau, fingering the shredded nylon. "Yeah, but from the beach they look killer," says Dreelin. They decide to replace bad letters before storing the banners, and deftly unsnap the many fasteners. A well-worn copy of a popular pilot's newspaper lies on a scarred couch. "That's where we sit around and read Trade-A-Plane and dream about the jobs we're going to get and the planes we're going to fly," says Riebau. The biggest ad in the Help Wanted section is for Flight Safety's pay-for-training program.

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