The Energy Crisis '74 was major news as I guided the 7ECA Citabria downwind to yet another touch-n-go at Mesa Verde airport. Now opposite the mid-field, the corner of my eye caught something move; instantly I saw the engine tachometer had dropped to zero, though the engine was running fine (the tachometer cable had broken). I hollered over the engine noise to Max Collier ("Mr. Collier" to me) the tach had just died. He responded, "The engine still running?"
"Yes," I came back with.
"Use your ears."
So we went on to accomplish a couple more touch-n-goes without the tach. In this way I remember Max Collier.
I worked for Max in the summer of 1974, trading my labor for flying time in his Citabria (7ECA) and his Cessna 150. At 16 years old, I longed to follow my father's lead and become a pilot; Mr. Collier provided the means to begin the journey.
The Mesa Verde airport was like a history lesson and safety seminar all wrapped up in one. Right next to the gas pump in front of the hangar was a pile of wreckage that'd once been a Cessna 182 someone had flown into a thunderstorm. The weed-strewn wreckage was a constant reminder not to tangle with thunderstorms. Inside his hangar, in every nook and cranny, were bits and pieces of airplanes and airplane history only Max really knew. Many years later, when I was overhauling my own airplane's engine, I had a question and called him about it...he not only knew of the part I spoke of but had a couple of them laying around.
In a world where 16-year-olds saw pilots as high-tech girl magnets, imagined with sparkling teeth and aviator sunglasses, Max showed me America's real pilots were college professors and part-time farmers, average guys and gals who thought not of speed but of just defying gravity. They came to buy gas in airplanes from World War II and fresh from the showroom. They were Republicans and Democrats, crop dusters and skydivers, teachers and mechanics--all tied together by a common love of flight and the flying machines. Max provided a catalyst--Mesa Verde airport was a meeting place where wrenches were turned while hands described arcs and turns of imaginary airplanes as tales were told of flights past.
To be sure, if you were 16 and wanted to work for flying lessons, Max ensured you held up your end of the deal. In my mind are flashbacks of summer days spent inside the tail cone of a Piper Cherokee scrubbing corrosion off a counterweight or pulling the interior out of a Beechcraft Musketeer. There was assisting him mounting an inverted fuel system can into a Monocoupe as he modified the airplane with the engine out of a Citabria Decathlon that'd been the unfortunate victim of a tornado. There was pushing brooms and dropping markers while riding on a corn planter (an ancient farming technique meant to thoroughly coat one's scalp with dirt). But the reward came when Max would casually say, “Why don't you go preflight the Citabria.”
Like (and probably mostly due to) Max, that 1974 small airport experience has led me down an aviation career spanning nearly 40 years. From F-16's to Cessna 150's, I've worked on, owned, and flown all kinds of airplanes and, now, I look at retiring from the military part of it in the near future. Max's legacy has come almost full circle.
After another lesson full of touch-n-goes, Max told me it was time to go in but this particular time he asked me to stop at the end of the runway. He got out of the airplane and said, “Why don't you take it around once and then come back to the hangar.” With an empty seat behind me, I nervously watched Max walk a short distance away and turn to watch. As done so many times before, I lined up with the runway, pushed up the throttle and brought the stick back slightly to start the climb. Across the end of the runway was a line of trees, which I looked down on and thought to myself, “Wow. Now I have to save my own life.” I've often wondered how many of his other students, with a freshly cut-off shirt tail, could recall thinking the same thing.
Thanks, Max. It's been quite a ride.