The wag who said he was "sure there was money in aviation because he put it there" might have been Ebby Lunken, who saw a sizable chunk of cash disappear into his beloved Midwest Airways. It was a grand idea and would have succeeded if the income from ticket sales had even approached the outgo from a series of unfortunate setbacks and avoidable screw-ups — gear collapses, belly landings, blown engines, militantly gay station agents (when that was an issue), lost and damaged bags, oversold flights and justifiably pissed-off passengers. On the bright side, it launched a bunch of young guys into airline careers, faithfully paid salaries to everybody except Ebby and gave us a reason to hang out at the airport. Midwest was my baptism into the business end of aviation and of life; for five years we worked all hours of the day and night, laughed often, cried some and cursed a lot. But, crises and all, it was a helluva ride.
His vision was a scheduled airline that could put a business traveler in Cincinnati, Cleveland or Detroit for a day's work and have him back home that evening for dinner. And it could work because of convenient downtown airports — Cincinnati Lunken, Detroit City and Cleveland Burke Lakefront — that eliminated the hassle of commutes from outlying airline airports. Chicago Meigs would have been ideal until (albeit some years later) the mayor chopped it up and threw the pieces in Lake Michigan. Sure, that was wrong, but Mayor Daley's gutsy style of dealing with bureaucrats was so very "Chicago" you just had to love it! (Letters, here they come!)
Midwest Airways really took flight in the late '50s when, totally bored with the family valve business, Ebby bought Queen City Flying Service with his friend Bud Hilberg, who was totally bored with the family meat-packing business. Both were scions of old Cincinnati families whose German immigrant grandfathers had started and built substantial companies. Maybe times had simply changed, or maybe there really is something to the "third generation wealth meltdown" theory? Anyway, Queen City was a venerable Beech dealership at Lunken Airport with a carriage trade clientele and a thriving charter business, which got even better when the railroads canceled train schedules to northern Michigan. Generations of Cincinnati's "400 Richest" had owned and summered at "cottages" in the Traverse City, Charlevoix and Harbor Springs area. Suddenly Wequetonsing- and Harbor Point-bound clans were looking at horrible airline connections in Chicago or Detroit or, worse, a 10-hour drive. There were other charter services, but most local bluebloods expected "our pilot Ebby" to solve the dilemma.
I was home from a rather short career as a TWA hostess after training in Kansas City and flying out of Chicago. About six months into it, barely 19, unbelievably naive and hugely homesick, the deciding moment came while sitting in the cockpit of a Constellation on the ramp at O'Hare one night listening with a mechanic to a Cubs game on the ADF receiver. This total stranger, who I'm pretty sure was actually my guardian angel in TWA overalls, listened patiently while I spilled my guts and then offered, "You need to go back home and grow up a little. Finish school and reapply; they'll hire you back if that's what you decide, but go home now."
Coincidentally, this was my introduction to the DC-3. My sister Mary was a stewardess for Lake Central Airlines and knew a crew that RON'd in Chicago. They offered to bring some bulky items back because I didn't have a car. It was especially precious stuff like my folk music records and my autoharp. … C'mon, it was the '60s! So I hauled it to O'Hare on the bus one night and met this nice young copilot on the Lake Central ramp. It was pitch dark and I'd never been inside a DC-3, but Rex gallantly helped get the stuff uphill in the narrow aisle and stashed near the radio racks across from the hamburger door. But then the nice, young, gallant and handsome Rex kept backing me into the cockpit until my ankles and legs were enmeshed in what I'd later learn were gear and flap handles. It took me a while — talk about clueless — to understand he was moving in for the payback. Whether it was my giggles or genuine naiveté, "no harm, no foul," both the autoharp and my virtue remained intact.
But it was home to a pretty dreary autumn and winter. With a loan from Mary for tuition, I rode two city buses every morning to college in Covington, Ohio, and then sold ladies sportswear at the Mabley & Carew department store at night. When I could find the time and an extra $7, I'd rent Tony Maier's Cessna 120 at the airport. And occasionally, from Tony's hangar, I'd watch a breathtakingly beautiful blue-and-white P-51, N151Q, take off.
"Oh, that's Ebby Lunken. You know he flew 51s in the Bendix Races, but this one's a Cavalier conversion with a passenger seat. He's probably picking up his gal, Lyle, at Greater Cincinnati. She's a knockout, an American stew based in New York, and I hear Ebby taxies up to the same gate as her flight and she climbs in back."
Gee, with a boyfriend like that I'd have stayed with TWA!
Life takes funny turns, and that was the spring my world changed … maybe not exactly as my angel had envisioned. Ebby's friend Bud, ever on the lookout for a face and figure, noticed me — well, maybe my face but hardly the figure — and introduced me to Ebby in the Sky Galley restaurant one afternoon. Dear God, this elegant man with courtly manners looked like a cross between Gary Cooper and Howard Hughes and, by the time we'd parted, he'd asked me to be stewardess on his airline to northern Michigan that summer. The P-51 had been sold as well as a big chunk of Lunkenheimer holdings to buy four Lockheed Electras. Wow, pretty impressive equipment for this new airline, and I'd be in it from the beginning.
He said a stewardess with real training and experience would be a great asset and would keep the copilot in the cockpit instead of back pouring vast quantities of booze into commuting husbands. This sounded a little strange for an Electra, but was there even a decision? I loved airplanes and I needed a job, and schlepping slacks and bathing suits rejected by fat lady shoppers at Mabley's was not on my short list of career choices.
I'd rather have been up front, of course, but a private single-engine land ticket didn't cut it, and he promised right seat time on test hops and ferry flights. And I would make enough to earn my commercial and CFI ratings that summer. Mostly, though, I learned about old round-engine airplanes, schedule changes, dispatching, weather vagaries, handling inebriated passengers and falling in love.
See, Midwest's Lockheed Electras weren't big L-188 turboprops but the original Electra Model 10s. These classic taildraggers from the 1930s look like larger, more graceful versions of the Beech 18 and have 10 passenger seats, a small galley area and even a tiny "blue room" (potty) in the tail. You'd recognize it as the airplane Amelia Earhart made famous when her secret plan worked and she successfully disappeared on an uncharted island, happily living out her days with Fred Noonan. Our airplanes came from unlikely places like Mercury, Nevada, the Canadian Gaspe Peninsula and Unalakleet, Alaska (well, at least the data plate came from a Lockheed embedded in the snow near Unalakleet). Yeah, there were regulations, but Part 135 was just a vague concept in some bureaucrat's mind, so life was a lot simpler.
Midwest's intercity service would begin that fall, so the northern Michigan flights were kind of a shakedown. We'd depart from Lunken with one or two airplanes on Friday afternoons at 4 o'clock to Traverse City and Charle-voix and terminate on the grass runway at Harbor Springs. It was always a balancing act in the swaying tail as we climbed to altitude. I was mixing drinks and passing out sandwich boxes in my khaki skirt, blue oxford shirt, madras jacket and TWA hat retrofitted with Midwest wings. And when that summer front that hangs across the southern edge of the Great Lakes around Fort Wayne, Indiana, kicked up its heels, I'd just perch on a midships armrest and hand out sick sacks.
Joe McPhillips at Charlevoix was pretty sore that we bought fuel from his competitor at Harbor Springs, so he'd refuse to answer the Unicom. I'd go up front and make the call inbound as "Piper Colt 58Z" or some other fictitious flying machine and, when the Lockheed rolled up and offloaded passengers, he'd carry on like Rumpelstiltskin.
Usually we flew low after departing Cherry County Airport at Traverse City unless the weather closed in at Charlevoix and Harbor Springs and we shot the ILS into Pellston. But that was rare; Ebby's "Harbor Inn Approach with a Petoskey Transition" had minimums of about a mile(ish). We'd hug the shoreline from Charlevoix, watching for the cement plant with distinctive stacks at Petoskey. Then a left turn to 020 degrees, maintaining 800 to 900 feet over Little Traverse Bay for three minutes until we sighted the bright red roof on the Harbor Inn hotel. ROOF was the FAF, and it was gear and flaps with no-nonsense descending and a right-turn landing east on the grass runway at Harbor Springs. I think that's the way it was, but you know how time can play tricks with your memory. … Maybe it was pretty good VFR.
Harbor Springs was Camelot, a magical place with lakes sparkling in crisp, clear air and baskets of flowers decorating every long, white porch. On Saturdays, we'd order up "Thunderclouds" at Juilleret's and hang out at the airport, tinkering with the Lockheeds. Or I'd fly Joe Phillips' Maule to sightsee or maybe visit the Haters over in Charlevoix. Evenings were cocktail and dinner parties with Ebby at those elegant Victorian cottages on Harbor Point staffed with cooks, gardeners and maids. Something magical was happening and, on the second weekend, as we walked back to the Colonial Inn under the stars over Little Traverse Bay, he proposed. Yeah, Ebby was nearing 50 and I'd turn 20 in July that summer of '63. But, oh, it was perfect heaven.