Budd Davisson, Private Pilot, Dec, 2003

Of Av-gas and Horse Biscuits

It takes a little hands-on caring to become a 'plane whisperer

I’m writing this while sitting on a bale of hay in a horse barn in Salem, Oregon. I’m a long way from home both physically and philosophically. Basically, I’m killing time on the laptop while the Arizona Redhead helps her sister shovel horse-exhaust products into a wheelbarrow while cleaning out a horse stall. Watching them reminded me that as soon as I return home I need to devote a few airport hours to cleaning my airplane’s stall.

I’m not big on hangar neatness. In fact, The Other Redhead (our airplane) sits in a much-bigger-than-necessary hangar that suffers from “saw tooth” hygiene: I’ll let dirt and grunge accumulate until I can’t stand it anymore, go into a cleaning frenzy, then let it slowly coast downhill again until the cycle repeats itself. I’ve always envied those who have shiny-floor hangars, with pictures on the walls, furniture scattered around and the airplane featured in the middle as if it’s a centerpiece in a living room. I admire them because I’d love to have such a pristine setting to show off our airplane. There is, however, something about on-going order that runs counter to my basically chaotic way of thinking.

Even though I’m not a neat freak, however, I do get a certain amount of perverse pleasure out of cleaning the hangar. In fact, while watching Marlene and her sister wrinkle their noses as they sank their shovels into piles of questionable origin, I could see a direct parallel with cleaning a hangar—there is something enjoyable about caring for things that we love. At the same time, I can’t help but point out that Pitts poop isn’t nearly as aromatic. This is good, since it is probably 110 degrees in the hangar right now.

Other than the obvious (hay, oats and horse biscuits) the horse/airplane care syndrome has more similarities than differences. At the heart of the matter is the relationship between man and airplanes, man and horses, which is extraordinarily complex and intensely personal. The relationship differs from individual to individual, but there is an undeniable kinship here that elevates the non-human part of the equation to something more than a machine, something more than simply an animal. And that’s where it gets complicated and difficult to either explain or understand.

Cats purr. Dogs give puppy kisses. In my experience (which I admit is equine-limited), however, neither airplanes nor horses are prone to emotional displays. Not once have I had an airplane give me a quick lick on the nose for no apparent reason. And I doubt if many folks have had a horse curl up in the hollow of their back while asleep in an effort at getting closer. Still, there is an unspoken connection between horses, airplanes and us.

As I watched The Redhead wiping down the horse’s legs I thought back to how many hours I’ve spent rubbing down leading edges or lying on my back scrubbing bellies. Marlene looked as if she was enjoying the process and I know for a fact that I enjoy running my hands over my airplane. Why is that?

When you’re tending to the needs of something for which you have a strong emotional attachment, there’s a feeling that you’re needed. That you’re doing something for them they can’t do themselves. And, although we could be fooling ourselves, we feel as if they appreciate our efforts. Somehow, we sense that they are happy that we’ve cleaned and curried, degreased and buffed them. I’ve never seen a horse smile, but I know for a fact that my airplane flies better, with more spirit, when it’s just been bathed. More important, it seems to have a more cheerful vibe to it. When its belly is oily (IO-360’s are notorious leakers) or hundreds of bug cadavers litter its leading edges, it’ll still fly, but it’s not happy about it—I can easily tell when the airplane is simply doing its duty and when it is truly enjoying that particular flight.

It’s the same thing with horses. In their own way, they are people too. They have personalities and comfort zones and you know when they’re in a good mood. And it’s hard to be in a good mood when you’re dirty and feeling icky.

And then there is the age-old process of bonding. In some primates, the process of personal grooming is carried on by others: one will sit and pick and preen the other and in the process not only clean, but through touching, transfer some emotionalism that tightens the bond between them.

Horses learn to trust and care for those who are constantly talking to them, touching them, caressing and generally being part of their personal space. We bond with our airplanes the same way. Every time we clean their hangar, we’re spending time close them and they become more a part of our lives. When we run brushes and rags over them, we become intimately familiar with every inch of their being and they come to know our touch.

Essentially, airplanes and horses learn to love those who love them. Are we any different ourselves?