“If you’re ever in the Bay Area, you should head out to the Nut Tree and say hello to Duncan Miller … he’s been around a long time … still flies, and has hangars full of interesting stuff. If you’re lucky, you can sign his guestbook like about 4 million other people.”
This bit of advice came, more than once, from my friend and former colleague Marty Blaker. (Marty – if you’re reading this, “Hey.”) It came most recently about a week ago on a trip that found me in said Bay Area with a bit of extra time on my hands.
Now, I’m a gregarious sort of fellow – after all, one doesn’t become the single best Flight Simulator Community Evangelist in a company the size of Microsoft without being a bit of a people person. But I already know a lot of people, and I’m inherently skeptical when anyone says “Oh, you have to meet so-and-so”. Given that, my knee-jerk response to such a suggestion is to want to simply smile and nod, say “I’ll be sure and do just that” while gingerly filing the whole thing under “I’m really just being polite.”
(Besides, the last time I went to the Nut Tree, a roadside fruit-stand turned fly-in restaurant and mini-theme-park, I had a soul-shatteringly terrifying experience involving a miniature train and a scarecrow; was I really ready to go back to that area, only 36 years later?)
Thankfully, I have two knees, and, in this case, the second one jerked and reminded me that Marty wouldn’t steer me wrong, not to mention the fact that I’m a connoisseur of interesting stuff. So, like George Costanza ordering a chicken salad on rye, I decided to give it a go. I called Marty and asked if he would call his friend Duncan and give me an introduction.
Marty’s response filled me with the opposite of confidence when he said “Oh, he won’t remember me at all! Just show up, and tell him that you heard that, if you’re into old airplanes, you have to stop and say hello to Duncan. It’ll be great!”
So … I was not only expected to just walk into some stranger’s hangar and say “Hello”, I was supposed to do it entirely unannounced. With a jaunty “why not?”, I set out to do precisely that. And I would have made it, too, if it hadn’t been for those meddling kids at the TSA who decided to erect fences and security gates around this little airport in a fit of post-9/11 spending. Thanks to those precautions, I arrived at the airport and found myself peering at Duncan’s hangar and what I could see of his airplane collection, clutching at the chain link fence like a Dickensian orphan or a really easily deterred terrorist.
A few minutes after I gave up, I saw someone circling in front of the hangar on a bicycle, took my chances and waved them over. As he coasted to a stop, I asked if he was Duncan Miller, by any chance.
“I am,” he said.
“Well … my name’s Hal, I’m an old airplane guy, and I’ve heard that, if I’m in this area, I have to stop by and say hello. So … hello!”
Duncan sized me up for half a beat, then said “Head down to the gate over there. The code is and I’ll meet you back at the hangar.”
When Duncan said “hangar,” he may well have said “museum,” or, simply, “home.” I walked in past the Lockheed PV2 and the Grumman S-2 Tracker parked on the ramp and saw two beautiful restored Stearmans, two vintage Fords, and a spotless Piper Cub, all surrounded by photos and parts and memorabilia, the seeds of a thousand stories. Duncan got me a soda from his refrigerator, and we sat in an air conditioned “ready room” in the corner of his hangar. One of his hangars, that is.
There’s an unspoken ritual when pilots meet, especially those of us with a penchant for the old and unusual. It’s something that my friend Jim called “authentication,” and he was spot on. In this case, I was the interloper, the stray punk off the street who may or may not have been selling something, so the burden to authenticate was clearly mine. This process usually, and often very subtly, involves answering three questions in the course of a conversation: “Do you know what you’re talking about?”, “What have you flown?”, and “Who do we both know?”
My authentication took the form of interested commentary on some of the pictures on the walls, and then we started leafing through one of Duncan’s sixty-five overstuffed photo albums. He pointed at one picture and asked if I recognized the location—I did, it was Reno/Stead. Other pictures came and went, each with their own stories, spun quickly and handed off by a man who has been flying nearly every day since 1939. I mentioned flying Tiger Moths and growing up with a “Bamboo Bomber” (a 1944 Cessna T-50), and, naturally, Duncan used to own one, back when he started a non-scheduled airline flying C-46’s out of Boeing Field near Seattle, which reminded him, did I know so-and-so, oh, great, he thought I might …. The connections were found and forged almost synaptically, and before I knew it, it was time to go.
Time for Duncan to go, that is. He had to run an errand, so I started to take that as my cue to leave, but he asked me to stick around. He gave me the keys to his other hangars, reminded me about the refrigerator, asked me to sign his guestbook, and told me to make myself at home. I’d clearly been authenticated. Wandering through his hangars I saw Stearmans and T-28s and more classic cars and even a Vultee BT-13, not to mention countless more bits of aero-ephemera. I was like the proverbial kid in a candy store except that nothing was for sale and there was no risk of diabetic coma.
After about thirty minutes, some kind of 70s Oldsmobuick docked itself outside, and a guy named Mike hopped out.
“Hello there. If you’re looking for Duncan, he went to get a part and said he’d be right back,” I offered, helpfully.
“Oh, hi … yeah, Duncan told me he was going to go get a part, and said he’d be right back” said Mike.
With that superfluous redundancy out of the way, Mike and I sat down for a chat. He’s based in Alaska but had come down to stay for a few weeks and fly the BT-13 to a few air shows. I never did get Duncan’s age, but Mike is 86 and adamantly identifies himself as the younger of the two. They’ve been flying and working together for a long time, at least as far back as the early 50s, and, when Duncan got back, the three of us settled in for a marathon of story-swapping and a few more test questions for me, though all in good fun.
There was an unobtrusive wooden sign on the wall that read “Pals Forever.” It seemed a little trite at first, frankly, but, in talking with these two guys, the cynicism ebbed. Sometimes, people actually do say just what they mean.
Between the two of them, I’m fairly certain that they’ve flown everything and been everywhere. We talked about the handling of the BT-13 compared to the Harvard, we talked about Moths and Bamboo Bombers and Beech 18s, about one of their friends who flies a DC-3 out of a 700-foot grass strip. Duncan talked about ferrying an RP-63 King Cobra during WWII, and how heavy it felt with the additional armor plating. It seems the R model was used for gunnery practice— not as a remotely piloted drone or towing a target but as a manned target that fighter pilots shot at with plastic bullets, their hits scored automatically by what the pilots called the “pinball machine” inside the cockpit.
Lousy work, if you can get it.
Duncan had mentioned earlier that he was going to show me “something that Churchill gave back.” When I reminded him, he responded with a question, another test:
“Do you know what an AT-19 is?” he asked.
The wheels turned, the gears ground…. AT was the U.S. Army Air Corps designation for “Advanced Trainer.” Our very own Cessna T-50 was known in some guises as an AT-8 or AT-17, for example. In addition to those, I could identify an AT-6, AT-9, an AT-11 …. Then something clicked, and a picture snapped into my head.
“Was that the gullwing Stinson? The V-77?” I asked with what I’ll call “confidesitancy”.
As it happened, I was right, and that seemed to be the last of the tests. Duncan asked if I wanted to go and look at one, and I replied with something articulate like “well, duh!”, but before we got up, Mike interjected.
“Wait. What was the AT-19? Did we figure it out?” he asked.
“Yes, Hal got it. It’s a gullwing Stinson. Where were you?” Duncan replied.
“I was busy trying to remember what the hell an AT-19 was!” Mike responded.
“Don’t you remember? You crashed one!” said Duncan.
“I crashed? Are you sure? I don’t remember … “ Mike said.
Duncan gave an exaggerated eye-roll and I said something about hoping to live long enough and spend enough time flying that I’d someday not be able to remember something as dramatic as a crash. They both laughed, and then Duncan said that it was great to see that the younger generation was taking an interest in these things. Having accidentally turned 40 a couple of days ago, being referred to as “the younger generation” was surely the best present I could hope for.
As promised, Duncan took me to look at the Stinson, and, as expected, it was absolutely gorgeous. Of the 500 or so built, about 380 of them went to the UK as part of our Lend-Lease agreement and this was one of the aircraft that was given back—truly lent, rather than leased. This example looked factory new in British Royal Navy colors, ready to patrol the seas on the lookout for enemy Unterseebooten. It’s for sale, too; a fact that I immediately tried to forget.
At this point, something like six hours had flown by, and I started to politely make my exit, not especially looking forward to the 90-minute drive to my hotel with a stop at a restaurant where some fancy waitress with big hair and fake nails tries and fails to find a polite way of saying “Oh … just one of you tonight?” Then, mercifully, the idea of the three of us having dinner seemed to spontaneously suggest itself. I agreed to join them, but only if they were sure I wasn’t intruding, and if they’d let me treat.
It was then that Mike suggested Taco Bell, and Duncan shot him a look filled with what I’m fairly sure was mock indignation and said:
“Mike! We have a guest! We are NOT going to Taco Bell!
We… are going … to Denny’s!”
And so we did, Mike and I shrugging and shaking our heads while every waitress in the place cooed and giggled with Duncan, all but sitting on his lap to take his order. Duncan must be somewhere around 90 and belies the old adage about there being no such thing as an “old, bold pilot.” If he ever does leave this world, heaven forbid, the odds are it won’t be in an airplane, or in a hospital, but at the hands of a jealous husband. God bless ‘im.
After dinner, we (and by “we” I mean Duncan) got one of the waitresses to take a picture of all of us, after she had several taken with him, of course. While we sat smiling for the camera, I heard Duncan whispering something. It wasn’t “cheese,” it was something that sounded like part toast, part mantra: “Pals forever, pals forever.” There was obviously a story behind it, but it seemed private, and I was perfectly happy to just take it at face value.
And so it is that I’ve found another home-away-from-home, a reminder of the kinship of aviation, where just a few key pieces of trivia are a viable shortcut to a very real friendship. And all I had to do was trust somebody I already trusted anyway, and then simply show up.
Pals forever, indeed.
So, here’s a bit of advice. If you’re ever in the greater Bay Area north of San Francisco, California, and you like old airplanes, you just have to stop in and say hello to Duncan Miller. And if you go out to eat, don’t settle for Taco Bell.