Let Me Tell You About Tom

Here’s to the friends who bring us into the aviation fold.

[Credit: iStock]

I wish every pilot could find someone who not only encourages but profoundly affects his or her early years in the air, someone who is there for a lifetime of flying and who you will never forget. Not an instructor or mentor, but just another pilot who encourages you to embrace and enjoy the glorious fun and not-so-serious side of flying. And I hope you’re lucky enough that it’s a person as colorful and kind, as funny and intelligent, as quirky, competent, unique, and loyal as my friend, Tom.

Tom was one of the ‘60s and ‘70s “South Line crowd,” mostly young guys, but actually pilots of all ages. They had no problem accepting and welcoming kindred spirits in “the Franke girls” (my sister and me). Most owned little airplanes and spent nearly all their free time at the airport, which had far fewer restrictions and regulations in those days—certainly no locked gates and 8-foot fences. Maybe I’m looking through rose-colored glasses at old memories, but I’m pretty sure it was a time when people seemed to enjoy, trust, and even take care of each other.

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Tom was a plant physician at a large uranium facility west of Cincinnati and, when accused of glowing in the dark, he didn’t disagree. Our first adventure was a flight to Moraine Airport, south of Dayton, in an 85 hp Piper J-3 I flew out of Blue Ash Airport. It was a short flight on a beautiful summer Saturday morning but, coming home along I-75, this big dark gray “thing” appeared to the west over Middletown. Soon, the fast-growing blob turned an ominous shade of green, and hard rain began pelting the Cub. Tom shouted if I’d checked weather, and I shouted back, “Hell no; why would I do that when it was severe clear?” An end run seemed “logical,” but Tom was for turning east, ahead of the storm, and landing at Johnny Lane’s grass strip in Lebanon, Ohio.

Visibility was miserable, and it was raining so hard we couldn’t find the strip even leaning out of the open door and window. Soaking wet, we continued east with this monster on our heels and picked up State Route 42 since, where it turned into a “double-barreled” highway, there was another grass strip—Red Stewart Field. When we got on the ground, Red came running out to help us wrestle the Cub into the lee of a hangar and tie it down.

We spent the next three hours in an old concrete shack, and Red kept scratching his head and asking, “You say you just got a commercial license?”

Tom was a true “grommet” (gourmet) cook, and on a foray to Cincinnati’s Findlay Market, we bought a pig’s head—yeah, the entire thing. Since he was a doctor, I thought it would be a great learning experience to prepare it in my tiny kitchen. We did, using copious amounts of beer—in us, not the pig. I can’t remember much about the results, but he did teach me to cook and make rather exotic libations. There were memorable parties in the little two-room upstairs apartment Mary and I shared that summer and, more often than not, Tom would sleep on the floor between our beds.

He had a Piper Comanche 180 when I first met him, but then bought a 1958 150 hp Champ Challenger (7GCB) which had been operated for some years by the Ohio Highway Patrol. Of course the N-number was changed, but it still sported the distinctive black and silver “cop colors” and paint scheme. Tom taught me how to fly over interstates and position the airplane so its shadow was just ahead of a car. What fun to watch the vehicle slow down...drastically. I’d ferry the Champ back and forth to Columbus, Ohio, when Tom was doing a specialty in aviation medicine at The Ohio State University. I loved the huge paper sack of M&Ms on the floor.

He drove an elderly green diesel Mercedes that would start only after pressing and holding a glow plug. We named it the “Getaway Car” and piled in to listen to “The Banjo Brothers” or eat spaghetti at the Greenwich Tavern.

“Alice,” a pet boa constrictor he kept in his apartment, had to go when neighbors found out about the reptile. He put her in a weighted box on the back seat and set off to give her to a doctor friend in Fort Wayne. After a breakfast stop, he came out to find Alice was gone and did a frantic but fruitless search of the parking lot (imagining the chaos she would create). Another search of the Mercedes revealed Alice coiled up under the dashboard, warming herself near the engine. 

He taught me to fly at night since, in those days, you didn’t need any night time to get a private pilot certificate. One evening when he wanted to get to Hamilton, Ohio, I offered him a ride in the Ercoupe. Now I had zero night time but, heck, it was only 25 miles away, and the weather was great. Smiling, he agreed and off we went. Before even clearing the hills around Lunken, I was totally disoriented—no idea where we were—so what followed was a session of night “dual” navigation, and takeoffs and landings. We landed back at Lunken, and Tom got to Hamilton the next day.

When a friend was hospitalized with hepatitis A, Tom brought gamma globulin to the airport and, in Sporty’s back office, we all dropped our drawers and got jabbed with a needle.

But things changed after he was badly beaten late one night in the airport bar parking lot. He had no family, so I sat with him in the hospital for some days, but he was never the same—his personality and outlook had instantly and drastically changed. I’d always known he was gay, and it didn’t matter. He was, I thought, my forever friend.

We lost touch when I moved to Chicago with the FAA. To say I was devastated when, a few years later, friends called to say he’d taken his own life, is putting it mildly. He’d become angry and unpleasant and was drinking heavily. Was the Tom I knew a coverup for deep depression, or had the terrible injuries from the beating caused some brain damage?

But I can still hear him say. “Let’s go fly...meet you at 3 or 8 thousand feet over the power plant.”

I’m pretty sure I’ll meet Tom at 3 or 8 thousand feet on the Other Side.

This article was originally published in the March 2023 Issue 935 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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