Lee Pitts: Grounded
One of my biggest regrets in life is that I never got my pilot’s license. I often wonder what kind of career I’d have had if I took the money I spent on getting a college degree and spent it instead on auction school and flying lessons.
I’ve always been mesmerized by small aircraft and I come by it honestly. I grew up in a small town two hours north of Hollywood and many of the stars kept their planes at my hometown’s famous airport because it was seldom fogged in. Steve McQueen had a couple large hangers filled with fast cars and even faster airplanes.
I got scared off flying a little because a couple of my idols had their brilliant careers cut short when they crashed, including Will Rogers and Jim Croce, a favorite singer of mine. Richie Valance also crashed in an airplane called American Pie, which lent its name to a famous song by Don McLean.
The first time I ever flew in a small plane was when my wife and I were going to school in Australia and a nice lady took us up in her Cessna and showed us Australia’s Gold Coast from the air. I was immediately smitten. After that I flew in small planes almost on a weekly basis because many purebred auctioneers flew their own small planes to get from one sale to the next and I often hitched a ride. I could either spend eight or ten hours driving or two hours flying. It also often meant I could be home with my wife every night instead of sleeping in some lonely motel. I announced a video sale once a month for over 20 years and my friend John Rodgers hauled me to most of them all over the west. We flew in the fog, in the snow and one time over Donner Pass in smoke so thick we couldn’t see a thing. Johnny called the tower in Reno and asked what we should do and the air traffic controller suggested prayer and told us to try and avoid crashing on anything expensive or inhabited.
I also flew with ranchers like Jeff Lane of the Bell Ranch who later died in a crash. I flew with auction market operators and with cattle buyers, including one who I later found out didn’t even have a license and whose plane was really an engine mounted on a coffin. The world was a safer place when his plane got stolen on one of his trips to Mexico to buy cattle.
I loved flying in small aircraft because it was convenient, fast and interesting. But it could also be dangerous. One time we landed with only a teaspoon of fuel left in the tanks and another time we almost crashed in a cemetery. (I remember wondering how they’d ever get all the bodies straightened out.) Then there was the time we were running late to get to a bull sale and we couldn’t land due to fog. Johnny wanted to try landing but I insisted we stay in the air because most accidents are caused on takeoff and landing. As long as we were in the air we were safe.
One time we took Ellington’s King Air to Ogallala and we started icing up over Wyoming and had to get down real quick. We ended up landing in Rock Springs at one a.m. and just try finding a motel room at that hour of the night. I even got to fly in a Lear Jet a few times and if I owned a plane it would have to be one of those magnificent machines.
Although I also flew in commercial aircraft on a regular basis it just didn’t hold the same allure for me as small planes did. The last flight of any kind I took was a United flight from Denver to LA that ended up being twelve hours late and I got home at 5:30 in the morning. Finally having lost my courage, and in no mood to tempt fate any longer, I haven’t been in a plane of any kind now for five years. And there’s no place I want to go to bad enough to put up with any more fog, mechanical failures, 350 pound fat guys in tank tops sitting next to me or being groped by the TSA.