The Journal of Prevarication
Here lies Jim Cook, official state liar of Arizona
There we were, eight hundred feet above Oak Creek, without a parachute.
It was a gloomy winter day, and a rare north wind roared down the canyon. The sixty-five-horsepower engine on our little Aeronca two-seater was churning away, but the headwind equalled the engine’s thrust. We were standing still. Canyon walls hemmed us in, so we could not turn back toward Sedona.
Big Jake, my older brother, was at the controls. I was in the rear seat, holding three sixty-yard rolls of duct tape on my lap.
“We’re running out of gas,” Jake called out, over the hum of the engine.
We had flown to Phoenix just to buy the newfangled duct tape. It had been developed during World War Twice so that the military could waterproof ammunition cans.
Before that, all we’d had was black friction tape. It was meant to be used as electrical insulating tape, but we used yards of it for whatever problem could not be corrected with baling wire and glue.
Now this marvelous hundred-mile-an-hour tape was available, and Jake wanted some. The post-war housing boom had started in the Phoenix area, and builders were actually using it to tape ducts. That’s the least of its uses nowadays.
We had used a little of it to patch the aging Aeronca before we left Deer Valley Airport, beefing up a wobbly landing gear strut, and patching a tear in the fabric on the underside of the right wing. .
Now we were stuck, bobbing like a cork over the same spot in Oak Creek, making no headway.
Jake called, “We need to lose some weight. Why don’t you roll out that duct tape and use it to climb down to the top of that big rock down there?”
“You’re crazier than a bedbug,” I called back. “We need a skyhook.”
“Man,” Jake yelled, “we’re running out of gas. When we do, this Airknocker will be like a kite in a hurricane.”
Jeez. I had promised myself that I would never again let Big Jake be the bug on my windshield. But crashing into those red rocks didn’t sound like a winning propositin.
I wrapped a loop of duct tape around the back of Jake’s seat and tied it in a granny knot. I opened the door and crawled out into the slipstream. I looped both arms through that big roll of duct tape, and turned loose. I felt like my arms were the spindle through a roll of toilet paper, not an inappropriate metaphor at that moment.
The tape began to unroll with that ripping sound that duct tape always makes as it separates from itself. It unrolled faster and faster. Dang, sixty yards is not very long. And that north wind was blowing me sideways, instead of letting me down toward the rocks.
Fortunately, with my weight out of the plane, the Aeronca began to rise and move forward at about fourteen miles per hour. Jake found a wide spot in the canyon and banked left, heading back toward Sedona.
Centrifugal force flung me out like a slingshot, and I scared the tar out of a pair of hawks perched in a treetop on the cliff below.
I was scared spitless, too, but it was a thrill ride you couldn’t buy. Now the wind was behind us, and we were moving faster than an Airknocker was purported to go.
Oops. I was almost at the end of that roll of duct tape, and I couldn’t slow down it’s unrolling. I wished I’d brought one of the other rolls with me. I started climbing back up toward the plane, hand-over-hand.
This was not easy. Duct tape is awfully easy to get hold of, but hard to turn loose of.
As we passed over the village of Sedona, the Aeronca ran out of gas. Its engine sputtered and died and Jake began a glide, just as I crawled back into the plane.
Then as now, the Sedona airport sat on a mesa just south of town. We were lower than the top of the mesa, and we weren’t going to gain any altitude until we stopped for gas.
Fortunately, there was Grasshopper Flat, just west of Sedona. It is covered with houses and businesses now, but in the 1950s, there wasn’t much there but a stretch of U.S. Highway 89.
Just as fortunately, there was no traffic on the highway. Jake managed to stretch our glide and touch down on the highway at the very edge of Grasshopper Flat.
For a time, that trailing strip of duct tape just bounced along behind. Then it got friendly with the pavement, and seized it by the asphalt. The plane veered right, into a clump of junipers.
A deputy sheriff found Jake still in the plane, taped into the pilot’s seat with yards and yards of duct tape. His passenger was nowhere to be found.