The Great Key Drop

Published on March 7, 2013 by in Essays

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One day back when I was a kid, my mom loaded my brothers, sisters, friends and dogs and drove the carful of us to a remote beach on Washington’s Olympic Peninsula for a day of beach fun. As the afternoon wore on, fog formed offshore and crept inland. About the time the temperature dropped, one of us kids locked the only set of car keys in the trunk. These were the days car trunks were really inaccessible, MacGyver had not yet been born to inspire anyone, and cell phones were only a gleam in a geek’s eye.

The only choice it seemed was to get someone to the nearest phone (which was about fifty miles away) and get them to report the problem to my father at his office.  Some departing tourists agreed to make a call on our behalf. Time passed and we sat on a log as fog teased the beach and the air got colder. Our peanut butter sandwiches were long gone and our growling stomachs made us eye our bucketfuls  of raw clams. Maybe we were stuck for good, we thought.

Then, over the wind, we heard the familiar sound of a Jacobs R-755 radial engine. My mother, (who was a pilot) said to all of us, “What sort of idiot would be flying in this sort of weather?” Right then her question was answered as our family’s blue and white Cessna 195 flashed low overhead through a hole in the overcast. Next we heard the engine rev up as my oddball pilot dad put the prop forward and descended.A minute later, our plane came barreling down the beach at about 20 feet.

Beachcombers, tourists, and clam diggers hit the deck. Not us; we knew the events about to occur were simply a normal family procedure. Dad pinpointed us on the log, and waved out the fabulous roll-down pilot window which was standard issue on all 195s. Carefully, he flew out over the ocean, turned inland, and lined up for one more low pass on the beach. Passing overhead, he flung a set of keys attached to a long bandage out the window. They landed at our feet.

We kids grabbed the keys and loaded up the car, and then we all drove off to the incredulous stares of the beachgoers while the Old Man circled overhead, making sure we got underway. Then he flew back to town and went back to work, never missing an appointment in his office. The Old Man was quite a flyer. Years later he set a world distance record and won the Louis Bleriot Medal from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale (the world record sanctioning body), but that is a different tale for another time.

Just last year, my brother and I found and bought the very 195 used in this story and we are restoring it to key dropping condition. Don’t lose your keys before our plane is done or you are S.O.L.!

Rod Nixon

Rod Nixon, the key dropper. He flew this Stinson on house calls as a flying doctor in the Canadian north (BC) in the late 1950s to early 60s.

Contributing writer Ross Nixon recently began flying right seat in the Dash 8 for Era Alaska. He only flies tricycle geared aircraft if he is paid. Before flying commercially he was a police officer and a commercial harvest diver in Puget Sound. He lives in Anchorage, Alaska now. For fun he flies a Piper PA-20 and is restoring a Cessna 195. His writing has been published in Alaska Magazine. He recently finished a book on the Carla Corbus air crash tragedy that led to the development of the ELT. The book, Finding Carla, will be published in 2013. 

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26 Responses to “The Great Key Drop”

  1. Matt says:

    Ross is a great writer and brother. I was there and the old man was a site in that white and blue buzzard.

    • Mark says:

      That’s so great you guys are restoring your dad’s old plane. I have a 1979 T-210N Cessna that I’ve only had for two years. My son is only 17, without much interest in flying real planes yet. He loves to fly his RC ones. I’m hoping that someday he takes up the interest so I too can have a flying legacy in the family.

  2. Ian says:

    Great story Ross. I can just imagine the looks on the faces of the others on the beach as your Dad swooped in!! LOL.

  3. Merri Lynn Weatherson says:

    Can’t wait to read more of your writing, Ross. In my mind, I was right there on the beach as the keys were dropped to the waiting family.

  4. Brian says:

    Great story Ross, absolutely enjoyed that.

  5. Bill says:

    Wonderful story. It truly illustrates what great adventure generators our aircraft can be.

  6. Tony says:

    Great story of days long gone. In today’s environment the FAA would have had him arrested and his ticket pulled.

  7. JudyAnne says:

    And that’s why I just love pilots and Dad’s too…

  8. Mark says:

    As I was reading, I was wondering how he was going to land on the beach. The key drop was the better choice. How fun that must have been to see your dad flying overhead knowing what a cool guy he was. Thanks for the story. Come back and show us pictures of the restored 195.

  9. Tony McFarland says:

    Fantastic story, having lived both in the northwest and Alaska, I am very familiar with the weather and the ingenuity of both pilots and families.

  10. Stephen Blucher says:

    Being a Civil Air Patrol pilots for nigh on 50 years, I know the Carla Corbus tragedy, watched the evolvement of the ELT and saved some lives because of them. I look forward to reading the book.

  11. Jim Densmore says:

    My Dad had a 195 too. He told of staying at a Mexican resort once with another couple; the resort had a short dirt strip adjacent to the 5th green. The winds were brisk enough to take off toward the golf course on the day they departed at oh-dawn-thirty in order to get home. As he crested the small hill between the strip and the course there was an early morning golfer lining up his shot for par … Did I mention the strip was short? And you’re all with me on the sound of a Jake in full song? Boy howdy then, you’ve got the picture and the look on that golfer’s face.

  12. Steve Fox says:

    That is a grate Story Ross. Best of luck to you in your restoration.

  13. Dave Diamond says:

    Sounds like the intrepid birdman broke a few FARs about proper vertical clearance from people on the ground. Sending people scattering by buzzing was then, and is now the sort of thing which results in heavier regulation of the rest of us.

  14. Malki Zee says:

    Great story. I need to get my tail-wheel endorsement!

  15. Dale says:

    To Dave Diamond:
    So are you saying that he should have come in for a regular landing on the beach or just drop the keys? He was using common sense to clear the area, because he probably knew he could not land, checking the the wind direction and then drop the keys. If he came in for a landing without clearing the beach he may have caught a few people in the prop or since he dropped his keys he did not want to hit anyone as that would hurt.

    I came into an airport one time without buzzing the field and almost met up with a deer. It was time of evening when it was hard to see an animal. When I had to go to another field I was told before hand to buzz the field to clear the animals before landing. So the intrepid birdman used good common sense.

  16. Ross says:

    Thanks all, it was fun remembering this from over 40 years ago!

  17. Riley says:

    As an old 195 owner, I envy your plans to restore your Dad`s aircraft. To Malki Zee, if you get your tailwheel endorsement in a 195 , all other tailwheels will be a piece of cake

  18. Femi says:

    Sometimes the clearest mirrors come from those who are outside looking in. As a pilot and a father myself, I will definitely do the same for my family. Your story really touch my heart, and can’t wait to see the 195 after restoration. Good luck to you and your brother.

  19. Denise Rankin says:

    That was a wonderful story Ross. It’s really nice that you and your family have the plane back in the family. Can’t wait to read your book.

  20. Ron MacDonald says:

    Hey Ross,

    Enjoyed reading the story of the key drop, thanks for sharing.


  21. Willy Coon says:

    Thats cool Ross, thanks for the story.

  22. Diana MacDonald Anderson says:


    Wonderful story! You are a gifted writer as your words painted the memory clear enough for all of us who weren’t there to have a ring side seat. Loved it! Can’t wait for your book to come out! I want more!

  23. Glenn herbst says:

    What a great story. Your talents were wasted on being a police officer but I am glad our paths crossed. Safe flying, all the best to you.

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