Flights & Fancy: Homage

Flights & Fancy: Homage

David Clark

In 1976, as a student pilot at Palwaukee Airport, north of Chicago, I got the instructor that all the junior birdmen were dying to get.

Fred W. Porps looked like a Fred W. Porps: five-foot-five in his stocking feet, adorably bald, with the physique of the Pillsbury Doughboy. But looks can deceive. Fred could bench-press a Chevy Monza, swim—or at least float—for hours, and fire an M1 and hit an aspirin tablet at a hundred yards. He was a licensed electrician, carpenter, and plumber, beekeeper, and welder. He could build a house in six months and rebuild a Studebaker in six days. His kites flew higher, his potato cannons shot farther, and his solar-powered cigarette lighters worked better than anyone else's in the county. And he was a certificated flight instructor.

Fred didn't put much stock in lesson plans. He didn't put much stock in lessons. He put a lot of stock in doing things that interested him, and if quite a few of these involved flying, so much the better. To Fred, flying was something that, like welding, every American citizen should know how to do before being allowed to vote.

Fred assumed that you, the student, were as smart, skilled, motivated, clever, and gifted as he was (something of a stretch in my case). He didn't leave you down at the level of a student pilot; he raised you up to the level of a Fred Porps. Were you having trouble with takeoffs? Landings? Steep turns? He knew that sooner or later it would all come together for you, and if it was taking you longer to learn the automatic direction finder than it had taken him, that was undoubtedly because you saw in that wretched instrument some fascinating complexity that he had missed.

I remember coming back into Palwaukee one afternoon in a no-gyro, no-nothing beater Cessna 150 as the weather slid from good to bad to awful. Fred solved the problem of staying alive by piggybacking onto another guy's air traffic control clearance to land. He knew that the weather was so lousy that the controllers in the tower couldn't tell if any airplanes had made it in, let alone how many. We landed, taxied back to the ramp without a word to ground control, shut down the engine, and then collapsed in each other's arms, alive and illegal instead of legal and dead.

Fred took to unloved facts the way women take in stray kittens. Do you know how many ping-pong balls a standard toilet should be able to flush? Do you know how to fix a slot machine? Fred did. How do you put in bay windows? How many liters to a gallon? How do you hot-wire a Lamborghini? Ask Fred.

With Fred, there were only interesting problems requiring interesting solutions. Could a mere airline pilot or brain surgeon or philosophy professor have invented a Porps-O-Phone, let alone build one? A Porps-O-Phone was a battery-operated doorbell linked to the inclinometer on a turn coordinator with limit switches. Every time you skidded in a turn you were informed of your malfeasance by a doorbell going off in the cockpit.

Fred gave to all who flew with him something much more than flight training. He gave them an example of a fully engaged human being working at the peak of his capabilities. To be with Fred was to want to be like him in some way, no matter how small, because he found everything in the world so very interesting, and deep down inside, that part of you untouched by cynicism realized intuitively that interesting was a very good way to view the world.

I showed this remembrance to my wife, and she said, "You make it sound like he's dead." So I called Fred to ask if he'd like to read his obituary. His reply?

"Not yet."

Peter M. Cleland, a flight instructor at the Stick & Rudder Flying Club at Illinois' Waukegan Regional Airport, has been teaching people to fly since 1981.

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