Lunken Airport’s Grand Old Lady

The historic airfield gets a major facelift.

I’ve been hanging around this Art Deco, WPA-era building for nearly 60 years and would recognize it with my eyes closed. The same smell permeates the place as it did the first day I walked in—an industrial strength disinfectant, which I think emanates from the bathrooms. In the “ladies,” there used to be one of those World War II-era memes of a little guy with a big nose peering over a wall with the inscription, “Kilroy was Here.”

After I learned to fly and put in a stint with TWA as a hostess, in 1963, I met, fell in love with, and went to work for Ebby Lunken in multiple roles for his new Midwest Airways. Our office and counter were in this building, right where the old American Airlines counters had been from the 1930s until 1946. The Sky Galley Restaurant opened when the terminal was built in 1937, as American Airlines’ first Sky Chef. I always felt a real sense of history standing behind that counter but, despite our work and hopes and dreams, Ebby (a wonderful pilot) wasn’t a businessman and eventually the little airline failed.

The big carriers had abandoned Lunken (KLUK) shortly after World War II for a former military field called Boone County—later the Greater Cincinnati Airport (KCVG) located across the Ohio River in Kentucky. It was inevitable; Lunken’s runways weren’t adequate for higher performance post-war aircraft, there was little room for expansion, and it wasn’t called “Sunken Lunken” for nothing. Surrounded on three sides by hills at the confluence of the Little Miami and Ohio rivers, it was on a flyway for birds and subject to dense ground fog on many mornings.

But since its founding in 1925, Lunken enjoyed bustling commercial activity, beginning with the Embry-Riddle Company. In fact, in 1930, it was named the world’s largest municipal airport. During World War II, many families said goodbye to their servicemen who went to war from here on American or Delta, hopefully to return. There are so many things I could tell you about the history of this iconic building but you can find that online. My most vivid and cherished memories are about the people and the shenanigans…and that smell.

In the early 1960s, Hal Shevers and partner Russ Falk opened a shop across the lobby called “Sporty’s” where American Airlines had had an office. 

Truth is, while Russ did a brisk business selling charts and pilot supplies to customers at the counter, he tried keeping Hal busy in the tiny back office. Hal had, well, a limited reservoir of patience and a lifelong propensity for pissing off people—including customers. But they were great guys, and we’d sometimes fire up a grill on the terminal’s back porch behind Sporty’s and cook steaks or burgers. The flavorful smoke would drift into the Sky Galley restaurant, and we still laugh about an evening when restaurant owner Bob Gauche and city official Gordon Howe lurched out onto the porch from the Galley bar, declaring this was “very undignified.” Sadly, the city (not the first or last time) refused to provide more space for Sporty’s growing business and, eventually, they moved 10 miles east to the Clermont County Airport (I69).

[Courtesy: Martha Lunken]

We had fun visiting the tower, which was easily accessible through an unlocked door on the second floor and climbing up a ladder to the cab. In those days, the only “threat” was successfully negotiating that steep ladder, especially for anybody who’d imbibed too freely downstairs in the Sky Galley bar. A group called the Greater Cincinnati Airmen’s Club (GCA) formed in about 1937, and had a large membership of local pilots and a large clubroom/bar on the second floor of the south wing. If I lugged one pot of chili, boxes of doughnuts, or projection equipment up those stairs, I hauled 100 in my FAA years.

GCA was purely a social club, meeting informally on Wednesday nights and sponsoring spot landing contests, poker and efficiency flights, and wonderful Sunday cocktail parties about four times a year. Oh, the characters… I remember Meg Berning wearing a beanie with a lighted propeller spinning on top, running up and down the old Runway 15/33 right outside the terminal building. The tower, in the spirit of things, would shoot green light gun signals until somebody went out to retrieve her. 

Another couple, Bill and Myra Mitzel, who owned a beautiful Cessna 180, operated the only crematorium in Cincinnati in those days. When things got going, they’d invite members over for a tour. 

The Sunday afternoon cocktail parties and T.W. Smith’s annual Christmas party with plentiful food and drinks were joyous, raucous, and unforgettable. 

When Ebby had an office on the second floor and I was acting like a secretary (who couldn’t type or take shorthand), I had a lovely herb garden on the roof. And, always curious about those mysterious Quiet Birdmen, I’d occasionally climb out the men’s room bathroom window on a Friday night to see the bare-breasted bartenders from the roof window.

When the terminal recently closed (more about that), I inherited the Airmen’s Club sign-in “logbook” and, paging through the years of names and events, I alternately laugh and cry. So full of memories, it occupies a place in my living room as a kind of relic of “the old days.”

The city allowed the building to badly deteriorate and the popular Sky Galley restaurant left a couple of years ago. Poorly designed, added “wings” were ugly—not in the style of the building. Finally, the Environmental Protection Agency (or somebody) was making louder noises about “flood plain” violations, so we all wondered what would happen.Then word went out that negotiations were in the works to long-term lease the site to a developer who would rehab the original building. Plans are to restore the old control tower, open a new restaurant, and expand the building to include a 50-bed hotel. This developer, I think, is very talented and has a beautiful concept.

But I’ll miss that ’60s-era alcove with a teletype machine spitting out reams of yellow paper with weather and the .-.. / -.- / .-  (LKA in Morse code) monitor broadcasting in the background. Heck, I’ll even miss the smell of disinfectant.

Not so “grand” old lady… scheduled for a major facelift.


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