UN­USUAL AT­TI­TUDES

You’d never guess the peo­ple you meet along your avi­a­tion jour­ney

Flying - - Con­tents - By Martha Lunken

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

The Pil

fa­vorite quote from

grim’s Progress

) 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

The Sunkist

a poem called “

Val­ley

,” 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.

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