How Our Earliest Flying Experiences Can Create Some of Our Fondest Memories

roscoe turner
Roscoe Turner with his airplane.Martha Lunken

It’s been said that you don’t actually remember an event from your past; what you recall is your last memory of it.

Maybe, but I’ve kept little day books since about 1970, so I can usually reconstruct events with some degree of accuracy — both fortunate and unfortunate because it’s all there, the good and the not so good. My sister has solemnly sworn to destroy this cache before the dust settles and/or all parts of me and the airplane are recovered. But since these reminiscences precede those logs, I’ll do my best.

Mary and I began flying in winter 1961-62, in what was, I suspect, a far-less-than-airworthy 1946 Ercoupe squatting in a muddy field on the south line at Lunken Airport. When we showed up for our first lessons, they were rescheduled because the nosewheel tire was flat and a wing tank had sprung a leak. The new, young mechanic who repaired it was a little scruffy looking and not too well spoken, but I would later learn that the only A&P school in the state of Ohio was the Chillicothe Reformatory.

This Ercoupe had no gyro instruments, and the turn and bank indicator had been liberated from somebody’s Link trainer so the whole instrument rolled left and right with the airplane. I marvel when I think about corrosion issues with “minimally maintained” Ercoupes, but I guess that angel was working overtime because N341 valiantly stayed in one piece.

We flew it on generous loan from the owners, two young priests whose prized possession had slipped under the radar of the local archbishop — a humorless, self-important guy who lived in a mansion built by Powel Crosley (did Jesus really have this in mind for the “shepherds” of his flock?). When His Excellency found out and they were ordered to divest themselves of this frivolity, Mary and my dad each kicked in half and bought it for $2,500. Having no money, I kicked in nothing but flew the hell out of it. After one lesson my father decided flying wasn’t for him.

My parents were unhappy when my grades in college went from straight A’s to include a smattering of B’s, so I was under strict orders to stay away from the airport. So the morning after they left for a Mexico vacation I rode the city bus to Lunken Airport (instead of college) and walked down Airport Road. There was 341, sitting as usual in the grass. No problem.

Wrong — problem! My father had wrapped a hefty chain with a big padlock around the prop. So I was forced to enlist the aid of my new best friend from the reformatory, who deftly wielded a bolt cutter. After two weeks of flying to my heart’s content (it had no telltale hour meter) he reinstalled the chain and padlock.

Mary left teaching late that spring to work for Lake Central Airlines as a stewardess in its DC-3s, and I had a later training date as a hostess with TWA in Kansas City. A newly licensed private pilot, she was on standby and living at home but would drive her VW Bug across town to Lunken to practice touch-and-goes in the Ercoupe. If the airline called her for a flight my mom would call the tower and they’d tell 341 to “make it a full stop.” She flew the Coupe to CVG (the big airport) for a flight one afternoon and, floating down final for Runway 18, the tower sent the 707 behind her around. Unlike her younger sister, Mary was shy, apologetic and hugely embarrassed, but she still talks about looking up, hearing a tremendous roar and seeing “a sky filled with aluminum.” The Lake Central crews thought it was rather funny, and one guy computed it cost the airline more to send the jet around than the Ercoupe was worth.

Dropping her off at CVG one afternoon, I landed on 18L — except there was no 18L. It was a taxiway. Well, a really wide taxiway. No problem, no NASA forms, no letters from the FAA. It was a different time.

Then there was the bluebird afternoon that spring when I flew N341 to Indianapolis’ Weir Cook Airport for the fun, I think, of being allowed to check weather at Lake Central Operations. In those days Lunken had nothing more than a chattering teletype machine manned by the janitor in the terminal building.

After parking at Roscoe Turner Aviation, I went inside and was greeted by a tall older man with a mustache. Now, here’s where the memory thing comes into play. I remember this was Roscoe Turner himself, and that he showed me his Turner Special hanging from the rafters in an adjacent hangar. But, while I knew he was kind of famous, I had no idea how famous — all the records, air races and trophies; his famous lion, Gilmore; and even his Distinguished Flying Cross. When I told him I’d flown in from Cincinnati Lunken, he smiled and said he had fond memories of that airport.

The flight home was also memorable. To this day, I remember the magnetic course from KIND to KLUK is 117 degrees. At that time I was, uh, navigationally challenged and hadn’t absorbed the concept of a compass rose and courses or headings being three-digit numbers. So after leaving Indianapolis, I turned to my computed heading of 170 degrees and, a half-hour later, was lost over the wilds of Indiana.

Eventually, I realized that “one seventeen” and “one seventy” are very different and take you to very different places. When I found myself on the sectional I realized I was south of (and had barely avoided) the Camp Atterbury restricted area. That big airport to the east was probably Freeman Field in Seymour, Indiana, so I landed and confirmed it by checking to see where the string started on the big wall chart (you old guys know what I’m talking about). Then I plotted a two-legged course — northeast to North Vernon Airport and then east, around another restricted area, home to Lunken. Navigating in Indiana, it’s important to remember that North Vernon is in the south, South Bend is in the north and French Lick isn’t, uh, what it sounds like.

Years later, combing boxes in the old Queen City Flying Service hangar at Lunken, I discovered why Roscoe had fond memories of Lunken Airport. It seems he’d been a friend of part-owner Max Schmidlapp and had hidden his Turner Special racer in the back of Queen City’s hangar for over a year to keep it from the clutches of a soon-to-be-ex-Mrs. Turner. After the divorce dust settled, his rental bill was considerable. Roscoe, I think, lived pretty close to the edge. In the copy of a charming letter, Max told Roscoe his airplane was ready anytime, and consider the rent “a gift from a friend.”