Ask the pilot

The airport city of Miami International -- a metropolis for airline geeks to savor.

Published March 21, 2003 8:30PM (EST)

Miami International Airport is the nexus of air routes connecting South and Central America to the United States. It's a plane spotter's heaven, and airliner geeks with tripod-mounted Nikons and binoculars press against windows and chain-link fences, snapping pictures and recording tail numbers. (Or at least they used to. Our current fears and hysteria have, as might have been the case in Cold War Bulgaria, caused the banishment of such eccentric pursuits from most of the country's airports.) I remember once taxiing past a gaggle of spotters near runway 30, sliding open the right-side window, and exchanging waves with our admirers.

As a Latin crossroads, Miami International probably has more Spanish-speaking pilots running through their checklists in a given moment than do Buenos Aires, Lima and Santiago combined. All that's missing is the right soundtrack. Maybe Willie Colón doing "Como un Huracan" as the planes roar away. Lined up for takeoff, widebodies from Lufthansa or Air France seem prosaically out of place among the spicy liveries of Avianca, Mexicana, and Aerolineas Argentinas.

Famous as a kind of aviation chop shop, the airport is also home to droves of maintenance and salvage companies of varying eminence. The newest copy of the BellSouth Yellow Pages devotes 12 full pages to MIA, with a "Parts and Suppliers" heading that covers more than five single-spaced columns. In the airport's corners and crevices one finds dozens of anonymous storage yards and rows of ramshackle hangars.

The old abandoned propliners are mostly gone now. The carcasses of the DC-3s, DC-7s and C-46s that were once strewn about the field, bleached and rusting in the grass, have been broken up for scrap. But there's no shortage of jet-age relics still to be found along the MIA perimeter -- dilapidated Douglases and Boeings in different stages of dismemberment, giving the airport's far reaches the look and feel of an East L.A. garage: A DC-10 without landing gear. A wingless 727 with its markings sloppily whited out. An L-1011 with a gaping hole beneath the tail the size of a two-car garage, its No. 2 engine cannibalized and carted away.

In some cases, though, it's hard to tell which of the venerable machines are derelict and which are operable. This is the fifth-busiest air cargo center in the world, trading more gross tonnage than places like Singapore, JFK or Heathrow, and in the middle of the night, many of the seemingly orphaned DC-8s and 707s fire up their turbines and fill with freight. Still others touch down, arriving in the humid predawn hours from Cali, Bogotá, Guayaquil or Tegucigalpa with pallets of produce and flowers, cages of tropical birds, and god only knows what else.

Beyond the tarmac, the people, roads and buildings around Miami International form a kind of airport city -- a thriving, round-the-clock hive of industry, where every surrounding establishment, it seems, extends one vital tendril or another to the MIA apron. This is true of most large airports -- a shockwave of aeronautical commerce blowing out from an epicenter of terminals and runways -- but there's something peculiarly, decadently flavorful about Miami. It's a hot, oily, concrete-flavored character, but a character still.

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In the breakfast bar of the Holiday Inn Express on 36th Street, a long, noisy boulevard that runs parallel to MIA's runway 09L, I meet two young pilots sitting at a table. They're dressed in polo shirts and sipping coffee from Styrofoam cups, brand-new leather flight cases resting at their feet. Their names are Richard and Marty, and they are training to become 737 first officers with an upstart Mexican airline.

This innocuous breakfast scene is a routine many pilots will identify with at once: the anxious wait in the motel lobby for the simulator instructor. We chat briefly, but the sense of preoccupation is nearly palpable. I know what they are going through: thoughts abuzz nervously with checklist items and emergency callouts -- all the things to do, and not do, when the engine catches fire during takeoff. And it will, very soon. "OK, guys," the instructor will chirp, stepping off the elevator, "Let's go play." The pilots will fling their cups into the trash, and off they'll go in a rented Camry to one of the nearby flight academies, to sweat away four hours of mock disaster.

Marty tells me he is 24 years old and has 300 flight hours, total, which is something I can hardly fathom. When I was a 300-hour pilot, about 15 years ago, the biggest thing I'd flown, and would fly for almost the next thousand hours, was a four-seat Cessna.

Outside the Holiday Inn, 36th Street is alive with 18-wheelers puking out clots of greasy smoke. There are six lanes of highway, then a series of ugly lots and fortress-style buildings. Then comes the long, clay-colored wall that marks the property line of the MIA complex itself. A 767 is one of several planes sticking its nose over the wall, almost touchable to the passing traffic like an elephant reaching its trunk to children at the zoo.

I walk west along 36th, then double back and come east again. The whole way I'm getting socked by wake turbulence. Except it's from trucks, not planes, as the sidewalks here are dangerously skinny. There are hundreds of bellowing vehicles but not a single other pedestrian in view. One more reason to hate Florida, I think to myself. I pass the palm-ringed parking lots of a half dozen chain motels, each one more or less identical to my Holiday Inn Express, their suffixed names, generic amenities and chemically greened lawns the stuff of canceled flights (like mine) and quickie layovers.

To my right is a store, Tally-Ho Airline Uniforms, and another one called Oshkosh Pilot Shop. Across the street a gigantic, windowless brown building rises like the wall of a canyon, marked only by a huge sign that declares simply, in an oversize jolt of meaningless flummery, "AeroThrust."

A silver canteen pulls up to the streetside entrance of an unmarked hangar, and a crowd of workers in blue overalls -- they seem to be mechanics -- gather quickly, shouting to one another in Spanish. I have been told that to be an airplane mechanic at MIA one needs to be Cuban. As it was explained to me by a somewhat resentful Dominican who'd lost his job here, the business is controlled by a kind of impenetrable Cuban mafia. Many of the older guys, he told me, had trained in Russia before finding their way to South Florida. "Little Havana is only three miles away. This is their airport."

Whether this is true or not I can't say, but I remember flying here many times, arriving just after sunrise, and how the mechanics would bring us shots of Cuban coffee while we refueled. Two or three of those and we'd be jittering all the way to San Juan.

About three blocks down from the AeroThrust monstrosity is a small shop called Plane World, which bills itself "the world's best store for the aviation enthusiast." Peering through the window, I can't imagine the world's best anything being found along this goddamned miserable highway, unless maybe it's the chance to get run over or deafened by a mufflerless Peterbilt. But I'm lured inside by the display cases of die-cast models, books, videos and postcards.

Ivan Hoyos is the owner, a half-Cuban, half-Spaniard who opened the place about six months ago. Curious about his background and clientele, I decide to play journalist and ask if he'll do a short interview. (For this I need some fast credibility. What to do? So I snag a recent copy of "Airways" magazine from one of the shelves and flip it open to an article I wrote about the Timbuktu airport. "Listen, Ivan, I'm Patrick Smith and I wrote this piece here, and I was wondering...")

Hoyos is grateful to talk and suggests we sit in first class. Literally. The centerpiece of his store is a scavenged pair of seats from an Eastern Airlines L-1011. They are a hideous brown dappled with orange and yellow, a testament to their early-70s vintage. They are also for sale at $550.

"I plan to triple the price," Hoyos explains, "if it turns out they are from the wreckage of flight 401." What he's talking about is the infamous Everglades crash in December 1972. Parts of the airplane were pulled from the swamps and stored for years at MIA, and Hoyos thinks these seats might have been among them.

I ask him about the store. Why are many people in love not with flying per se, but with the airlines themselves? "The airline industry is culture," he says. "From the fashion statements of the uniforms to the beauty of the airplanes. But it's much more colorful, more faceted than most other businesses. Glamorous, even today."

He says he does about half his business as mail order. His biggest overall seller? "Anything Eastern." By that he means Eastern Airlines. A shelf across from us is covered with neatly arranged souvenir first-class cups and tumblers, all marked with the old Eastern trademark, a winking blue and white oval. This is a Miami thing, maybe, as Eastern had a huge South Florida presence before being dismantled in the early 1990s by Frank Lorenzo.

"Miami Springs!" Hoyos corrects me, making sure I'm aware of our exact location and its meaning. Apparently the locus of Eastern culture is precisely here and not a zip code further. "But remember," he continues, "for a time Eastern was the largest airline in the free world." I hadn't heard that one in a while: free world. For airplane buffs this is a quaint reference, a way of discounting Aeroflot, the once giant carrier of the Soviet Union.

What's conspicuously missing from the merchandise, however, is any sort of Pan Am memorabilia. They too were a big player at Miami. Hoyos tells me he avoids selling anything Pan Am "out of respect" for something called the Pan Am Aware store. This is a small establishment on the other side of the airport, a sort of shrine to the Pan Am memory run by an octogenarian former employee.

Hoyos motions toward his collection of books. "These are bibles to some people." One of his books is entirely about how to locate and visit crashed and abandoned airplanes all over the world. Airliner Hulks. Armed with this volume, a reader can track down the forsaken remains of a Lockheed Constellation in the jungles of Haiti or visit the rows of retired jets mothballed in the Arizona desert.

When I bring it up, Hoyos bristles at the expression "airliner geek," preferring the term "fanatic" instead. "My customers are normal people," he insists, a tad defensively. "And not just airline workers. I get pilots, mechanics and ticket agents, but I also get doctors and lawyers and bank tellers." With that, two teenagers come in and he immediately begins a discussion with them in Spanish. The words I pick out are "Fokker" and "AeroPeru."

"One thing for sure," Hoyos proclaims with a pointed finger. "About 95 percent of my clientele is male." This isn't surprising, really, but he makes no mention of the woman whose order he was ringing up when I first walked in.

"We have our conventions too. Each year Miami holds a national, and we get about 200 people from around the country, buying and trading. A couple of years ago we had the international, with more than 500 hobbyists from all over the world."

I'm silently scrutinizing Hoyos as he speaks, wondering if I'll catch a glimpse of myself. Is there something, anything, perhaps even a physical trait, that we fanatics all share? Is there a glimmer in the eye, some mysterious praxis, a secret handshake? He's got the look of a Latin soccer player, hardly a techie or a nerd. As for me in my ratty Tevas and an old pair of shorts, I'm disheveled, sunburned and unshowered. It strikes me that Hoyos might have a hard time believing I'm a pilot, a pseudo-journalist, or for that matter a sane human being.

I'm rather uncertain if my little interview is going to expose any provocative gristle, assuming there is any, about the mind of an airplane lover. And suddenly I think of an old Raymond Carver poem, a favorite of mine, about the life of the famous highwire daredevil Karl Wallenda.

When you were little, the wind tailed you...
when you bowed to the Emperor Haile Selassie

I don't think any pilots have ever bowed before emperors -- even Lindbergh. Maybe there's a high-minded sexiness to balancing on a tightrope that you don't find in aviation -- much the way Cirque du Soleil draws its share of upscale patrons while, say, an air show is left for the bubbas of suburbia. Certainly there are no poems about a guy's devotion to collecting cups and saucers from jetliners. But who knows, maybe Ivan Hoyos can win me a PEN prize, or Ken Burns will buy the rights to a 10-part series about his store.

I make a few notes and pick casually at the brown cloth of my chair. I'm now uncomfortable with the thought of this being an actual reclamation from the Everglades disaster. I try to imagine what it would have been like for some unfortunate passenger on this same cushion in 1972, catapulted into the wet, jet-fuel-soaked darkness. Hoyos, meanwhile, is doing his best to further envenom the karma:

"We had a cargo plane crash a few years ago. A DC-8 went down at 72nd Avenue. The smoke was everywhere. You can see where they laid new pavement." And in a hangar across the street, it turns out, a worker was crushed to death when he was caught in the leading-edge slat of a Boeing 727.

I stand. But not wanting to wear out my welcome, I purchase a 7-inch die-cast model of an Air India 747 for $28. Plane World has several shelves of these small metal models, lined up no different than a display of Corgis or Matchboxes in a toy store. There are several makers of these -- companies like Gemini Jets and Dragon and Atlantic Models. They're painted in excruciatingly accurate detail, right down to the windshield wipers, and buyers look not only for favorite liveries but also for specific registration numbers of actual planes they may have once flown or worked on. My Air India jet is registered VT-ESO. It's the Khajuraho. (No offense to Hoyos' boast of "world's best," but the most spectacular collection of these things is probably a place called World of Wings at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.)

Also for sale at Plane World are three large boxes of postcards. Back in the day, the airlines used to publish thousands of cards featuring glossy photographs of their planes. There are those of us who collect these things, and there are Web sites (who would have guessed) devoted to the selling and bartering of them. The first I ever owned was an Avianca 747. Today I still have about 500, though I'd have hundreds more if I hadn't thrown them away during high school, when my soul was on temporary loan from Boeing to the gods of punk rock. Thumbing through the boxes the way I once thumbed through used 45s in record shops (Bad Brains, Minor Threat, Misfits), I'm touched to see someone has immortalized the likes of a Royal Air Maroc 737 and a Ukrainian Tupolev.

Just after I leave, I'm stopped by a squad car at the corner of 36th and Lavilla Drive. One of Miami Springs' finest wants to know why I'm casing around near the airport with a notebook. I tell her my name is Karl Wallenda and I'm researching an article on highwire daredevils. Doubtless she wonders what publication would be at such a loss for material as to send this strange-looking writer along this diesel-sooted edge of highway.

Back at the Holiday Inn Express, I catch Richard and Marty returning from their adventures in the simulator. Marty looks as if he's just crawled out of a crash. "How'd it go?" I ask him. He gives me a twisted grimace and a wavering thumbs-up.

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Do you have questions for Salon's aviation expert? Send them to AskThePilot and look for answers in a future column.

By Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is an airline pilot.

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