Finding Wilbur Wright on the Wabash

In my travels, I did stumble onto another memory: a house between Mooreland and Millville, Indiana, with a sign indicating it as the birthplace of Wilbur Wright before the bishop and his family moved to Dayton, Ohio.

The sign marks the house between Mooreland and Millville, Indiana, where Wilbur Wright was born. [Courtesy of Tom Bosse]

Flying from Cincinnati west to Columbus, Indiana (KBAK) is popular with local pilots because it’s only about 60 miles and the airport restaurant is great. Naturally, it’s also popular with the locals, so getting a table for 6 or 8 fly-in airplane pilots usually involves a wait.

I don’t mind because I like remembering so many interesting hours (and days) in that terminal build- ing doing Part 135 flight checks and type rating rides in Rhoades Aviation Douglas DC-3 freighters. What a bunch of characters—not to mention, what a collection of hard-used DC-3s. This gig began (for me) in the 1980s when I was an inspector in the Indianapolis FSDO, and a guardian angel nudged somebody in the FAA to send me to DC-3 flight training with Hector Villamar at Opa-Locka Airport (KOPF) in Miami. But you’ve read my stories about that. As a memento, I have a nearly destroyed piston head from a Pratt & Whitney R-1830 and a box of rose petals from a bouquet those beloved ruffians sent me one Valentine’s Day.

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It’s no secret that I’ve written some less-than-flattering things about the FAA (and continue to question the “sanity” of possibly appointing an administrator who knows nothing about aviation). But there are good memories of the Indianapolis FSDO where I worked with some really fine people for five years. And, yeah, there are a few less-than-fond memories about some dreadful accidents and a few scalawags I inherited as an inspector.

Del Shanks, a long-time mechanic with Ohio Aviation in Dayton, had been hired by the FAA and was now the maintenance supervisor in our office. And Del really knew his business.

It was a miserable cold winter day, and I was sched- uled to give a 135 six-month’s check in a Beech 18 to a pilot from Sky Castle Aviation. But one of the Marlatts who owned the operation called and said the pilot was returning to Sky Castle because he couldn’t get the gear down in the Beech. Del heard the conversation and, being an old Beech guy, said to relay a message to the pilot: “Tell him to lift off the red cover between the pilots’ seats and smack the clutch pedal with something substantial (like a shoe). That can release the gear motor from all the mechanical paraphernalia and allow it to free-fall into position. Then tell him to hand crank the gear/flap handle to assure it’s fully extended.”

I think it was John Marlatt who relayed the message, worked! What actually happened was a piece of felt “cushioning” glued on the cover had worked loose and jammed itself around and under the clutch pedal. With some difficulty and monkey motions, the pilot was able to remove it and get the gear down.

I guess my point is that these days, damn few FAA inspectors—if you could even reach one—would stick their neck out to help a pilot with a mechanical problem in flight. But the Indy office was full of good people still in love with airplanes—and airplane people.

My assigned operators—Air Marion, Anderson Aviation, Brown’s Flying Service, Muncie Aviation, Sky Castle, Van S, Washington Aero, Indiana Airmotive, and Morgan Aviation—were also good people (despite the guy who brought out his skunk whenever I walked in the office or the operator who’d greet me with a large pistol prominently displayed on his desk). The skunk had been denatured, and the armament was purely for show. Oh, there were a few relatively minor offenders like the kid, a student who flew below the top floors of the municipal building in Connersville, pissed off and buzzing his girlfriend in a truck with her new husband. Or not-unusual situations where operators would charge passengers for flights in airplanes not on their Air Taxi (Part 135) certificates—commonly known as “Part 134 1⁄2-inch” operations.

By far the sleaziest—someone everybody relished investigating—was a guy with a Part 135 certificate using a Navajo largely in air ambulance operations. Either an inspector checked on the planned flight or, more likely, another operator (familiar with this guy’s questionable practices) alerted our office. He was flying to Houston to bring a very sick, elderly cancer patient back home to Muncie, Indiana’s Ball Hospital. Besides the woman on a stretcher, medical equipment, a nurse, at least three family members, and baggage, a legal fuel load would put the airplane well over gross on the return flight. So our office alerted the Houston FSDO, and an inspector met the flight on landing. When he questioned him, the pilot told the inspector his trip had been canceled. In reality, he called his passengers and told them to have the ambulance bring everybody to an outlying airport where they departed...well over gross.

The pilot was suspicious and worried about the FAA. So he landed somewhere en route and arranged to have an ambulance meet them at New Castle, Indiana Airport. They would deplane there and be driven nearly 30 miles on a state road to Ball Hospital in Muncie.

We received a complaint from the family, and I was sent out in a G-car to interview the pilot (who, of course, I couldn’t find), the nurse, and family (two women and a close friend). The elderly and terminally ill patient had died somewhere in this odyssey.

The family and friend were outraged. They had no idea why they had to change plans and meet the airplane at a smaller airport in Houston. And the friend, who was rid- ing in the right seat, described a frightening near mid- air collision at the nontowered Sky Castle Airport (home of my old friends, the Marlatts). I tried to reconstruct a weight and balance from passenger weights and baggage estimates, but that was iffy at best.

The nurse I located “taking care” of an elderly man confined to a wheelchair and living alone in an apartment. It was dreadful, and she—who seemed to work with this operator—was surly and uncooperative.

I don’t remember the outcome, except the operator did get a violation for operations during an airshow at Mt. Comfort Airport.

In my travels, I did stumble onto another memory: a house between Mooreland and Millville, Indiana, with a sign indicating it as the birthplace of Wilbur Wright before the bishop and his family moved to Dayton, Ohio. Turns out the bishop didn't move his family to Dayton until after the legendary inventor's birth.

This column first appeared in the June 2023/Issue 944 print edition of FLYING.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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