Bill Sniffin: Old Pilot, New Jet Planes Meet-Up at Quiet Airfield

in Bill Sniffin/Column

By Bill Sniffin

There are old pilots. There are bold pilots. There are NO old bold pilots. – old flyer saying

One of the curses of being a private pilot for 30 years is a bad habit called “airport bumming.” This is where, even when you are not flying anymore, you tend to like to hang around airports.

Wyoming is full of wonderful airports for us older flyboys.  I tend to like the smaller ones like Evanston, Rawlins, Worland, Sheridan, Hulett, Lander and the old one at Thermopolis.  Bigger ones with scheduled airline service are fun, too, but have much higher security in place.

Not long ago, we found ourselves in Washington State visiting our son Michael, his wife Lisa, and their four children.

They live in a little town called Warden just south of Moses Lake where we stayed at a motel. Inevitably I started gravitating toward the local airport, which has the distinction of being perhaps the biggest airport in the country without regular airline service.

But, wow, did I get an eyeful as we drove out to Grant County International Airport.  Almost as far as the eye could see were 221 Boeing 737 Max airliners, lined up, and stacked almost on top of each other.

It appears that since Boeing (which originally started as a Cheyenne company) kept making the ill-fated 737 Max models in Seattle, even though they were grounded, needed some place to store them.

Moses Lake was famous during World War II for storing bombers and training bomber pilots. It has the second longest runway west of the Mississippi River. Vandenberg AFB in southern California is the only one longer. Both were certified as landing sites for the NASA shuttle program.

The planes stacked up in Moses Lake were valued at $6 billion.  The tails and paint schemes were impressive.  I was able to get pretty close and snap some videos and photos. These airliners are scheduled for delivery to just every continent.  Many were headed to India and China and a bunch were colorfully painted with African paint schemes.  One was reportedly earmarked for an Arab sheikh.

Later on I chatted with some weekend staff hanging around in the main terminal. They said the first 737 Max flew in and damaged its engines because of the volcanic residue left over on the pavement from the 1980 eruption of nearby Mount St. Helens.

Boeing immediately instituted a vacuuming plan where every inch of the vast aprons were scrubbed and scrubbed and scrubbed again. One janitor in the terminal laughed that you could eat off those pavements.  The subsequent jets were flown in and then the engines were shut off immediately. Then the planes were towed into place. The engines all had elaborate covers on them.

The airport was famous during World War II for the way they stored bombers.  They were put in a “Christmas tree” formation, which maximized how many planes could be stored there.

The reason the 737 Max was grounded was because two planes crashed, one in Ethiopia and one in Indonesia. In both cases the pilots had little experience with 737s and the new computer system caused them to make the wrong decisions killing everyone aboard on both planes. It is assumed that American pilots, who have lots more experience with the regular 737, did not have similar problems.

Originally, the “fix” planned for the planes called for each plan to be jacked up off the ground and the engines fired up.  Then the techs will “fool” the plane’s computer into thinking it is flying and then tweak its program to eliminate the glitch.  Once was done, the plane would have been given a test flight and then flown off to its original customer

The whole 737 Max fiasco cost the Boeing Company its CEO and probably billions of dollars.  But the  $80 million (each) planes are hoped to be flying again by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, I had wandered over to a different part of the Moses Lake airport where a giant bright red 747 was parked. It was being retrofitted with some different kinds of engines. Not sure what its ultimately use was going to be. 

So far, there is just one 747 being used as a fire retardant bomber. Maybe that one was going to be the second one?

Our Washington stay was brief and soon we were back in Wyoming. If you see some guy wandering around your local Cowboy State airport, it probably is some old pilot.  It could be me.

Check out additional columns at www.billsniffin.com. He has published six books.  His coffee table book series has sold 34,000 copies. You can find more stories by Bill Sniffin by going to CowboyStateDaily.com.

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