Whenever I think about Midwest Airways I’m reminded of Bob Newhart’s skit “The Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Co.” But I think too of the title of a Pete Seeger and The Weavers album, “Wasn’t That a Time!”
From the late ’50s into the ’60s, Ebby Lunken operated a seasonal, weekend air service for Carriage Trade clientele — wealthy people with summer homes in northern Michigan — who were devastated when longtime scheduled train service from Cincinnati ended. While the enterprise wasn’t exactly profitable, it gave Ebby a reason to fly the Lockheed without losing much money. Then, after the summer flights of 1963, when he’d hired me as a stewardess and proposed, Ebby expanded the operation (the airline, not the marriage proposal) to a year-round commuter airline with weekday service between Cincinnati’s Lunken Field and downtown airports in Detroit and Cleveland. The “valve works” (The Lunkenheimer Co.) had been sold, and a partner bought out his share in Queen City Flying Service. My husband, or E.P. as I called him, wanted to build an airline; he idolized C.R. Smith, Eddie Rickenbacker, Bob Six, Juan Trippe, Pat Patterson and Bud Maytag, head honchos of airlines in their glory days. And he looked enough like the handsome but eccentric TWA mogul that he was known as “the ‘Poor’ Man’s Howard Hughes.”
There were formidable obstacles. For-hire interstate air carriage required a Civil Aeronautics Board certificate of public convenience and necessity, which was expensive, time-consuming and politically difficult to obtain. So we were restricted to airplanes under 12,500 pounds gross takeoff weight. Midwest flew the early Michigan runs with a high-gross (10,200 pounds) Conrad Conversion Beech 18 until Ebby found a Lockheed 10 Electra. This mid-’30s vintage airplane was larger and sleeker and carried more people and payload than the high-gross Beech, but, with those same R985 engines, it suffered some in performance. But E.P. used to say he was “just queer for Lockheeds.” (Yes, I know that’s politically incorrect, but it’s what he said.) Now, with expanded service, the challenge was to find at least two more Electras, and, even in 1963, flushing out a covey of Lockheed 10s took some doing.
He found one sitting in the desert, someplace called Mercury, Nevada, and mechanic Jim Sievers went out to “stiff-leg” it and get a ferry permit. Jim made sure the 10 got safely to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Spartan hung two new engines, and then home to Lunken Field for more work and the installation of an Ebby Lunken “De Rollo” interior. Curiously, for a “Silver Spoon Yalie,” he was far more adept and happy at flying and this kind of work than at reading a balance sheet. It was common to see him crouched inside the airplane installing a headliner. And he was infamous for going to town with “dikes” (diagonal cutters) on airplanes he bought, indiscriminately severing everything behind the instrument panel to make certain it was replaced with new wiring.
The time and cost to get our eventual fleet of three L-10As airborne was bad enough, but Ebby wanted airframe ice protection. So a wiry little guy named Ace Corben arrived from Miami and single-handedly installed wing and tail de-ice boots on all three airplanes in less than a week. Ebby’s full-closing wheel-well door project was an even bigger can of worms. But, many thousands of dollars and months later, we had an STC, the Electras were fitted with the doors, and cruise speed was about 8 knots slower.
Finally, we were in business with an office and ticket counter at Lunken. Ebby was CEO, chief pilot, decision-maker and sometime mechanic. I was secretary, reservationist, ticket counter person, sometime stewardess, ramp agent, baggage handler and occasional illegal copilot.