Flying - - CONTENTS - By Martha Lunken

Tur­key Bot­toms, Lunken­heimers and Em­bry-Rid­dle

I was sur­prised when Fly­ing cel­e­brated its 90th birth­day last Au­gust. Could the magazine re­ally be that old? Heck, am I re­ally this old? And then I re­al­ized that dare­devil avi­a­tors — fol­lowed by le­gions of pru­dent and pro­saic cor­po­rate air­plane driv­ers — have been launch­ing them­selves into the air from the Tur­key Bot­toms, aka Cincin­nati’s Lunken Air­port, for even longer than 90 years.

It’s a spe­cial place to me, but then, who doesn’t feel that way about their “home field?” Mine’s older than most, with a rich his­tory that mir­rors what was hap­pen­ing across the coun­try when the air age was new. In the early 1920s, I’m told, the fed­eral gov­ern­ment re­al­ized that fly­ing was prob­a­bly here to stay — but there were few air­ports. So, the gov­ern­ment be­gan pres­sur­ing (if you can imag­ine the feds pres­sur­ing any­body) cities to build their own aero­dromes for de­fense, com­merce and the car­riage of mail. I can just hear those cau­tious, con­ser­va­tive Cincin­nati city fa­thers: “Build a (har­rumph) … a what? They want us to buy land for those kites, those con­trap­tions, those (sput­ter) so-called fly­ing ma­chines?”

En­ter the owner of Cincin­nati’s Lunken­heimer Co. (“the one great name in valves”), who had lots of money, civic pride and an adult son who was crazy about air­planes. The son, Eshelby Lunken, con­vinced his old man, Ed­mund H., that it would be a splen­did, phil­an­thropic gesture if he’d buy some land for an air­port and deed it to the city.

Among an as­sort­ment of small strips and pas­tures, two sites in this area were par­tic­u­larly pop­u­lar with fly­ers, many of whom had learned to fly in the Great War. The one called Gris­ard sat on high ground north­east of the city; the other was a large tract of land on the river, just east of town. Known as the Tur­key Bot­toms, for its pop­u­la­tion of wild tur­keys (ac­tual birds, not pi­lots — at least not yet), it was home to a polo club, farm­ers rais­ing corn and soy­beans, and a grow­ing num­ber of avi­a­tors who’d try any aerial es­capade they thought might turn a buck. Gris­ard was seen as the bet­ter site un­til postal au­thor­i­ties an­nounced it was too far from town for the air­mail. So, Ed­mund pur­chased 204 acres of Tur­key Bot­tom land and, in 1928, deeded it to the city with the stip­u­la­tion that it for­ever be called the Lunken Air­port.

Ask me, and they should have stuck with “Tur­key Bot­tom In­ter­na­tional” or some­thing mel­liflu­ous like the “Lunken­heimer Land­ing Field.” But they didn’t — and they still don’t ask me about much of any­thing. The city grate­fully ac­cepted the gift but re­al­ized a re­spectable air­port would re­quire more land. So, they floated a bond is­sue and stoked en­thu­si­asm by park­ing a Waco bi­plane on the steps of the main post of­fice down­town. And an­other Waco fly­ing over the city one night wowed ev­ery­body by “mag­i­cally” turn­ing on a bright bea­con atop the Carew Tower. The stunts worked, the bond is­sue was a suc­cess and Lunken Air­port sud­denly grew to en­com­pass about 2,000 acres. It was, for a time, the world’s largest mu­nic­i­pal air­port.

About Lunken­heimer mor­ph­ing into “Lunken”? Well, Lunken cer­tainly sounded more tony, and the fam­ily re­in­forced the Bri­tish Up­stairs, Down­stairs fla­vor by be­stow­ing names like Eshelby and Ed­mund and Pat­ti­son on their prog­eny. When we were mar­ried, my hus­band Ebby (ac­tu­ally Ed­mund Pat­ti­son Lunken — Ed­mund H.’s grand­son) told me the change hap­pened shortly af­ter his great-grand­fa­ther Fred­er­ick Lunken­heimer re­turned from a valve con­ven­tion in At­lantic City, New Jer­sey. When he tried to reg­is­ter for a ho­tel room, the desk clerk said there was noth­ing avail­able. Old Fred­er­ick was

So, Ed­mund pur­chased 204 acres of Tur­key Bot­tom land and, in 1928, deeded it to the city with the stip­u­la­tion that it for­ever be called the Lunken Air­port.

un­der­stand­ably an­gry; he was a big player in the valve world, the con­ven­tion was be­ing held in that ho­tel and rooms had been re­served well in ad­vance. But the im­passe was, well, an im­passe; there was “no room at the inn.”

Fi­nally, in an em­bar­rassed, hushed tone, the clerk said he was sorry but the ho­tel “served a Chris­tian clien­tele only.”

No, I don’t know if or how Fred­er­ick Lunken­heimer con­vinced (demon­strated?) he wasn’t Jewish, but I do know the name was le­gally changed in 1892.

The post of­fice’s con­cern about the dis­tance from town was un­der­stand­able since air­mail was the main rea­son for hav­ing an air­port. But you have to won­der what they were smok­ing when they set­tled on the Tur­key Bot­toms site. OK, the land was flat and close to the city, but it would take dams, flood walls and pumps to try (not al­ways suc­cess­fully) to keep it above wa­ter in the spring and fall floods. Right at the con­flu­ence of two rivers, it’s on the cen­ter­line of a nat­u­ral fly­way and home to a gazil­lion birds. Nes­tled pic­turesquely in a val­ley, it’s so hard to find — es­pe­cially at night — that the air­port bea­con sits 2 miles away on a hill­top wa­ter tower. And, more of­ten than not, morn­ing fog en­shrouds the air­port while the rest of the world is ceil­ing and vis­i­bil­ity un­lim­ited.

When things would, uh, “heat up” dur­ing our long courtship and even­tual mar­riage, I would oc­ca­sion­ally toss out these ob­ser­va­tions about the fam­ily’s gift of “Sunken Lunken” and, for good mea­sure, add a few com­ments about those mis­er­able Lunken­heimer primers that drib­bled fuel on your knees. No won­der it was doomed (the mar­riage, not the air­port or the primers).

Any­way, the Army moved its two ob­ser­va­tion­squadron hangars to Lunken from Gris­ard, and the city built three large brick hangars for a fly­ing school and full-ser­vice avi­a­tion op­er­a­tion owned by a flyer from Pikeville, Ken­tucky, named Paul Rid­dle and fi­nanced by a lo­cal rich kid he’d taught to fly named T. Hig­bee Em­bry. Sound fa­mil­iar?

Paul and I be­came friends in the 1980s when I was in­volved in a his­tory project for Lunken’s 60th an­niver­sary. We’d spo­ken of­ten by phone but didn’t meet un­til the city and Em­bry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity brought him to Cincin­nati for the three-day cel­e­bra­tion. What a charmer! Well into his 80s, he was still hand­some and sharp as a tack and just fun to be around. Paul, Ebby and I had a mem­o­rable din­ner at a posh restau­rant down­town, where the two old fly­ers — both deaf as door­nails — shouted across the ta­ble at each other to the dis­may of nearby din­ers and an­guished looks from the maitre d’. When I drove him home that night, he wanted to stop at the air­port. Stand­ing on that dark ramp in the rain in front of those old Em­bry-Rid­dle hangars with John Paul Rid­dle — it was one of those mag­i­cal mo­ments you never for­get.

Although he’d been gone for more than 50 years, he was full of mem­o­ries and sto­ries and told me how “Hig” Em­bry’s mother kept them afloat with in­fu­sions of cash and by buy­ing air­planes. But af­ter strug­gling for about five years, in 1930 they ac­cepted a buy­out from the con­glom­er­ate Avi­a­tion Corp. (Avco), and Hig­bee moved per­ma­nently to Cal­i­for­nia. Ten years later, Paul was back in busi­ness in Florida, with a gov­ern­ment con­tract for Em­bry-Rid­dle schools that trained thou­sands of pi­lots for the mil­i­tary. Af­ter the war, he sold his share to a part­ner, so while the name re­mains, to­day’s Em­bry-Rid­dle Aero­nau­ti­cal Univer­sity is re­ally the brain­child of Mr. and Mrs. John McKay. Paul was off to other avi­a­tion ad­ven­tures — train­ing pi­lots in Brazil and then a world­wide

Stand­ing on that dark ramp in the rain in front of those old Em­bry-Rid­dle hangars with John Paul Rid­dle — it was one of those mag­i­cal mo­ments you never for­get.

freight air­line and heaven only knows what else.

It’s funny how things some­times come around full cir­cle. We were sit­ting on the sofa in my liv­ing room, look­ing at a large photo of the 1928 Em­bry-Rid­dle grad­u­at­ing class. Paul had metic­u­lously penned in the name of each new pi­lot, and he even knew what hap­pened to most of them. Ex­cept one. He said he couldn’t re­mem­ber that short man in the first row. And I be­gan to laugh. “That’s Ed Sohn­gen.” “Who?”

I told him about some friends of my mom and dad — nice, quiet, un­re­mark­able peo­ple who lived near us on the west side of Cincin­nati. I was just a kid, but even then I was crazy about air­planes, and Mr. Sohn­gen used to tell me sto­ries about go­ing to avi­a­tion school at Lunken Air­port and learn­ing to fly. It seemed un­likely, even to this 9-year-old girl. Mr. Sohn­gen, a pi­lot? No, cer­tainly not this nice, kind-of-short, quiet-spo­ken man who owned a neigh­bor­hood jew­elry store in Pleas­ant Ridge.

But there he was, in the front row of the 1928 Em­bry-Rid­dle grad­u­at­ing class. So many of those men had gone on to ca­reers with the air­lines or the mil­i­tary, and I found my­self wish­ing I could ask Mr. Sohn­gen why. Any­way, Paul smiled and care­fully penned in his name on the pho­to­graph.

He died about a year later, and I’ve al­ways felt blessed to have known John Paul Rid­dle, and priv­i­leged to call him a friend.

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