The Auburn Witch Project

(Posted August, 1999)

This one is *so* bloody weird, I hardly know where to start. I just want to assure people that it's all true... Seattle EAA'ers can give Cecil a call for verification, if they'd like.

The weather here in Seattle has finally broken for the better, and last night, I decided to take Moonraker out for a maritime patrol over Puget Sound. Rumor has it that a pack of Australians are trying to sneak a replica of Captain Cook's ship into one of the small harbors around here, and such a challenge certainly can't be refused.

When I got to Auburn airport, I noticed Cecil's Thorpe T-18 Tiger sitting outside his hangar. Cecil's plane sits in the T-hangar next to mine, sharing the space with an Ercoupe belonging to another Chapter member. I recently posted about the awkward aspects of sharing the Fly Baby's hangar with a T-18; an Ercoupe is a *lot* bigger. They fit the planes in by running the T-18 in first, with its right wheel up on a wooden ramp to lower the left wing. Then the Ercoupe rolls in on the Tiger's left side, with ITS left wheel on a higher ramp to raise its tail and lower its right wing. The planes fit like a jigsaw puzzle, with the Ercoupe's aileron directly below the T-18's spinner, and the T-18's left wing under the Ercoupe's fuselage.

Anyway, the T-18 was sitting outside the hangar parallel to the taxiway. The flaps were down, and the canopy was cracked open six inches. Cecil runs car gas in his plane, and that's the way he parks when he goes out to the gas station after flying. I didn't give it a second thought.

I rolled Moonraker out of its hangar, preflighted, and mounted up. The flight went per plan, with only a largish sloop sighted in the patrol area. Close inspection didn't reveal any Foster's cans in the sloop's wake, so I brought the Fly Baby home.

After getting gas, I taxied back to the hangar. Cecil's T-18 was still sitting there.

That was strange. Maybe he'd stopped to get supper, but he usually ate at one of the fast-food restaurants around the airport. It had been over an hour since I first came to the airport; more than enough time. I started wondering if he'd flown earlier, got sidetracked after landing, and went home forgetting the plane was still out. I pulled out the phone and dialed his number. He *was* home.

"Uhhh... Cecil, did you know your plane's sitting outside the hangar?"

The phone lay silent for a moment. "No!" he finally said.

"You mean you didn't leave it outside?" I glanced through the open canopy. "Everything inside looks OK." Cecil uses a handheld, but he has a panel-mounted transponder. No signs of anything being ripped out. I could even see his headset lying in the behind-seat baggage area.

"I'll be right out," said Cecil. I decided to stay there and wait.

And started noticing unusual things. Like the greasy handprints on his vertical stabilizer and on the Ercoupe. The fact that the wooden ramps for BOTH airplanes had been moved. The fact that the Ercoupe wasn't just sitting was *tied down*. Loosely, but the ropes were looped through the tiedown rings. I noticed the cockpit cover on the Ercoupe was untied. And the scrap of paper on the T-18's hat-shelf area and the Mini-Mart soft drink cup on the floorboards (Cecil is quite fastidious). The folded piece of paper had some writing on it.

Finally, I noticed the big one: A big, L-shaped scratch/crease on the upper surface of his left wing. And other large scratches on the fiberglass wingtip.

Something very weird had been going on.

The owner arrived about twenty minutes later. "Hey, Cecil, you've got some bad scratches on your wing."

"Well, those are probably old."

"I don't think so..."

Cecil cussed as he saw the crease on the wing. We started speculating about workmen who have been repairing hangar roofs for the last several months. Maybe they'd moved the planes to work on the roof from underneath.

Cecil reached in and grabbed the scrap of paper. It was the cover-sheet for a Toy-R-Us employment application. On the back, several company names and phone numbers were written in blue ink. One was a construction company. The company that was repairing the roofs? Then why was the number for a local Ticketmaster outlet there, too? And that of two other construction companies?

What in the heck had been going on?

Cecil decided to call the cops. He also said he was going to contact the airport manager to see if the repair crews had been around his hangar that day. As it was nearly dark, I headed on home, leaving my business card with Cecil in case the cop wanted to talk to me.

This evening, I decided to give Cecil a call to find out what the cops had to say. "He's not here," said his wife, "He's at the airport." Sure enough, I lifted a pair of binoculars and saw his mini-van parked outside his hangar. I hopped in my car and drove downhill to the airport.

I found an Auburn Police car at his hangar, as well. The officer was just finishing dusting the airplane for fingerprints. "No luck," said the cop. "Too smudged."

The cop didn't really have a good theory for what had happened, either. The repair crews hadn't been out to the hangars that week, so that theory was scratched. "Somebody probably tried to steal it for a joyride," Cecil hazarded.

"Geeze, no offense, Cecil, but there are a couple of planes on the airport that are nicer looking than yours." (His T-18 is over 20 years old, and has the original paint.) "And what kind of airplane thief would not only roll the Ercoupe back into the hangar, but tie it down as well?"

Still, there was an argument or two in favor. Cecil's T-18 uses ordinary toggle switches for the magnetos; you don't need a key to start it. However, the master switch is hidden. We apparently had a thief brazen enough to take the time to roll the Ercoupe back into the hangar and tie it down, but too chicken to hand-prop the Tiger's O-290. But why leave portable valuables like the headset?

Cecil, me, and the cop just stood there for a minute, shaking our heads. We thanked the cop profusely (it speaks well of the Auburn Police Department that they willing to come out and take fingerprints), and he got into his squad car to leave.

"I gotta go to the john," said Cecil. The airport porta-potty is several rows down, and Cecil keeps an old bicycle in the hangar to shorten the trip.

A few seconds later, an incredulous shout from Cecil: "Hey, my BICYCLE'S gone!"

I sprinted after the departing cop. I told him the latest news. He added it to his notes, shaking his head some more.

I joined Cecil in the back of his hangar. He was taking inventory of the parts and hardware he keeps there. "You know," he said, "I'm missing something else, too. I used to have a ten-foot piece of three-inch PVC pipe back here."

"Let me get this straight, Cecil. A guy comes to the airport, sees that your airplane doesn't need a key to start, and decides to take a joy-ride. Instead of rolling the Ercoupe down the ramp, he knocks the ramp out of the way, dropping the 'Coupe on top of your wing. He gets them untangled, rolls both airplanes out of the hangar, rolls the Ercoupe back in, ties it down, then gets in your airplane. He's stymied because your master switch isn't in plain sight, so he gets on your bicycle and pedals like mad, carrying a ten-foot length of PVC pipe on his shoulders."

"You know," I conclude, "I don't even think my INTERNET buddies are going to believe this one." My neck is sore from shaking my head, so I just tell Cecil "Good night" and head for my car.

I exit the airport gate and follow the perimeter road around. As I'm taking the hard turn by the hotel, force of habit makes me glance toward the departure end of the runway.

No one there. But in the foreground, just inside the airport fence, is one of the transient tiedown spots. No airplane, but there's a jumble of SOMETHING lying there...looking like a bicycle.

I whip my car around and head for the nearest entry gate. I drive up to the tiedown spot and....

Most of you who know me know that I don't cuss very often, beyond an occasional "hell" or "damn." But as I sat there, looking at the bicycle lying in the transient tiedown spot, I muttered, "You have *got* to be F***ing kidding me...."

It was Cecil's bike, all right.


The tail tiedown rope was looped around the rear wheel of the bike and loosely knotted.

I think my poor little brain is losing what tenuous relationship with reality it had. There was a walk-through gate in the perimeter fence. just fifty feet or so from the tiedown spot. But it's locked beyond the hours of 8 AM to 5 PM. Did the guy try to steal the plane in daylight...or did he need the PVC pipe to pole-vault the fence?

On the other side of the fence lies a park-and-ride lot for the local bus service. About a quarter-mile south of there is a seasonal hobo camp. Did we get some kid, riding the bus on his last days of summer vacation, who decided to see if all the hours online playing "Fighter Ace" would pay off? Was it an ex-Air Force tramp, trying to steal a T-18 to fly to drier climes?

I guess we'll never know. And THAT'S the part that bugs me the most.....

Ron Wanttaja

PS: I repeat, I am *not* making this up. It all happened.

Comments? Contact Ron Wanttaja.

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