You’d never guess the people you meet along your aviation journey
We’re kindred spirits or you wouldn’t be reading this, so you understand how very much I love hanging out at the airport. When I (sort of ) learned to fly, was collecting certificates and ratings and then running my flying school and working at Ebby’s airline, the airport was literally home. More than once I slept on an office couch or in a sleeping bag on the floor and ate breakfast, lunch and dinner in the Sky Galley restaurant. When I wasn’t physically on the field, I was hanging out with airport buddies and aviator boyfriends.
The FAA years in Chicago and Indianapolis were pretty gruesome, but finally they gave me a transfer (albeit on my nickel) to the Cincinnati office, which had been on Lunken Airport since the CAA days in the 1930s. The first day back, driving to work in a horrid but cheap Subaru Justy, I crossed a levee on the northeast side of the field, and I vividly remember feeling very much like a dog struggling out of a muddy, debris-filled river, soaking wet, bedraggled and panting, but vigorously shaking free of the dirty water — happy to get home.
I worked in that office and flew out of Lunken as an inspector for almost 25 years, doing assorted check rides or flying rentals for work at other airports. When the FAA banned the use of rental airplanes for inspector travel (go figure), I bought my own and used it — “reimbursed” at 11 cents per mile.
As soon as I was eligible, I knew the wise thing was to “git” while the gittin’ was good, so I retired and successfully applied to be a pilot examiner. For the next 10 years, there was always a reason to be at the airport. Oh, I’d grumble about crawling out of bed on cold mornings to grind around in a 172, a PA-28 or an Aztec, or bitch about hauling the 180 out of the hangar on sticky summer days to fly a Sport Pilot check in a Cub or Champ at some grass strip. But I loved it — the flying and the people and the airport.
Life changed abruptly after I crunched my Cub a year and a half ago, because the FAA immediately terminated my designation. I’d been pretty active, and my record was spotless, so it seemed abrupt and less than fair. A lawyer friend opined that the feds might be less than happy about some of the stuff I’ve written, but whatever the reason, fighting it was pointless and costly. It’s history, and I try to remember a favorite plaque on my wall that reads, “Never look back.”
My airplane still lives in the hangar at Lunken, only five minutes from home, and I went there often just to mess around and to fly. But it was becoming “different.” I was troubled because there was no mission, no need to fly, no place I had to go for work. I’d pull the 180 out and dream up something — maybe a 30-mile flight to a hamburger joint at Middletown, or maybe a 300-miler to someplace just because I’d never been there. I actually felt guilty about flying, and missed the friends who used to drop anything to come along but who are gone — flown away to glory.
I asked myself, Do I still “belong”? Is that beloved airport and even more beloved airplane really still mine?
If all this sounds pretty desperate, you should try writing it!
But, as Jerry Swart used to say, “What are you going to do, bail out?” I’ve been around long enough to know that when you hit turbulence, get lost or have a vacuum-pump failure in IMC, calm down and think it through. The way will show. And it did. I was still wallowing in this “Slough of Despond” (my
favorite quote from
) when some friends planning to fly into Lunken called, wondering if I’d be around. All my heroes and most of my friends fly airplanes, and they come in all shapes, sizes, ages and levels of skill and experience, from newly minted private pilots to old hands.
Life changed abruptly after I crunched my Cub a year and a half ago, because the FAA immediately terminated my designation.
Spending time with pilot friends you haven’t seen in a while — even those who are a little full of themselves (a charming and not unusual trait in aviators) — is special.
The first visitor was actually a fairly recent acquaintance, flying his A36 from Santa Monica, California, to New York with his instructor. Because he’s working on an instrument rating, he launched on this ultimate cross-country for fun, transportation and to knock off the edges for his check ride. Cincinnati was sort of on the way, so they decided to overnight here.
We’d exchanged notes (with actual pen and paper because he hates computers) for some time, but all I knew was that he reads my column and loves to fly. I had no idea — and didn’t much care — how he fed, stabled and flew the A36 and the Husky he owns. But the stationery was thick and creamy, the notes brief and witty, and the return address intriguing.
Then I realized he was the source of mysterious little treasures that occasionally came in the mail — antique aviation postcards, old airplane pins and so on — so I Googled his name and found he’s a rather well-known author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and stage play and film director. As someone reasonably well educated, sort of a writer, a voracious reader and a lover of language, I was embarrassed, but it didn’t seem to bother him. He just wanted to visit with me and talk airplanes.
So, imagine how excited I was to finally meet this guy and his instructor and have a long conversation over dinner.
Except that’s not true at all. I was flat-out terrified. What could I possibly talk about with a famous writer and movie guy and his high-time corporate pilot instructor? After a few days of agonizing, thinking up excuses why I wouldn’t be around, that angel who’s always nearby whispered, “C’mon, Martha, the only interesting thing about these guys is they fly airplanes. You’re one of the best old airplane drivers on the planet, and you certainly fit into the full-of-yourself category — which we should probably talk about.”
So, I emerged from my catatonic state, met Dave and John when they landed at Lunken, and we had a great time at dinner, shar- ing experiences and telling airplane stories.
Then, within a week or so, Wynn Baker and Louis Manyak called — each was coming to Lunken and wondered if we could get together. These are guys with wildly different backgrounds, but both are old friends and rank somewhere between Lindbergh and the archangel Raphael as aviators.
What have I done to deserve friends like this? The answer is I fly, and I’m obsessed with airplanes and airplane people. Gill Robb Wilson wrote
a poem called “
,” and while Gill can get a little flowery, I love this one because it says a lot about fliers being special people.
A cautionary note: This will resonate if you own anything with round dials, a comm radio and a VOR receiver. If you grew up with glass screens, it will make absolutely no sense unless you pretend you’re aviating without the glass and, damn, you left your handheld GPS, two ipads and iphone in the car. This isn’t an emergency; it’s just “back to basics,” with a whiskey compass, pilotage, dead reckoning and basic radio navigation. It’s also great fun; I sympathize if you’ve never flown that way. Anyway, Gill wrote:
When you’ve flown enough years to have crossed many hills and valleys, and known much loneliness and endured
many uncertainties — why, then you’re a pilot. You can never be too much afraid of what lies ahead. If you don’t venture on sullen skies, you never come to sunkissed valleys. If your palms have never been moist, your heart has never thrilled. If you have never been afraid, you have never been courageous. So I think he learns of life, this one with the seven-league boots. And if it does not mold him in humility of mind and in peace of heart — then I have not read with understanding the long, long thoughts of my confreres — they who have earned a citizenship in the airman’s world.
Trading airplane stories with old and new friends and rereading that poem reminded me that I don’t need the “excuse” of a job to drag an airplane out of the hangar and fly. It’s OK to fly purely for the challenge and the fun of it. While I don’t have “seven-league boots,” I know a lot about sweaty palms and the joy of sun-kissed valleys; I’ve surely been humbled, and maybe I know just a little about peace of heart.
So, this is a thank you to Dave, John, Wynn, Louis, Gill and to that angel for reminding me I’ve earned a place in the airman’s world — and to quit thinking and go fly something!
I Googled his name and found he’s a rather well-known author, playwright, essayist, screenwriter, and stage play and film director.