Am I an Oshkosh Wimp?

Every once in a while life intrudes on this love affair I have with airplanes, and I feel like that bewildered soldier at Little Big Horn: "Mr. Custer, what are we doing here?" How often did I gaze out the window of some FAA office (when they were still on airports), angry, frustrated or scared because I was in trouble again. "But all I ever wanted to do was fly airplanes." Life and I have been cruising in pretty smooth air, lately, but there are always occasional patches of chop.

Saturday, I headed downtown to get my card punched at the fastest Mass in town and with a stop at the jail first to visit the son of an old airport friend. Yeah, he acted like such a jerk his family and friends have mostly bailed. Now he's stuck in this awful limbo between lawyers and jurisdictions. I'm not too sure why I go -- it's pretty grim -- but I think it's about, "There, but for the grace ... ." Parking is a challenge in this neighborhood unless you do alleys and risk losing your car, if not your life. I skidded to a halt when I saw I'd just passed the perfect spot, threw the Beemer in reverse and backed up ... into a police car occupied by one irate cop. Surely he just pulled out of the Justice Center garage ... probably without looking. Some time later, clutching my $104 ticket for a moving violation (no, I didn't even try "but you pulled out without look- ..."), I got to the jail, still, thankfully, as a visitor.

A few nights later I was snug at home in my Captain Hook jammies with a new thriller and a jar of peanut butter when my Cub partner called. "I can't get out of Piqua to the lake tonight because of the weather ... a bunch of bad-looking lines. There's nothing to do and I'm bored. Meet me in Dayton and I'll buy dinner."

Soulfully eyeing my jar of crunchy-style Peter Pan and Smales pretzels, I managed a "sure." That's what friends are for, right? If I begged off he might decide to fly and get caught in the weather or, worse, end up in Youngstown or Erie. I couldn't live with the guilt, the sorrow, not to mention the SNJ. Would his widow let me fly it anymore? Especially when she noticed her name was no longer painted under the rear cockpit? Well, I got tired of people asking me if I was "Connie Co-Pilot." It only took 10 minutes and a little Stoddard solvent.

Okay, another aviation-related mercy mission and at least a chance to wear my new swishy linen pants. The traffic in heavy rain on I-75 was brutal but finally accelerated to warp speed around Middletown. What's that rumble? Probably a truck or maybe the audiobook in the CD player? Well, it wasn't a semi and it wasn't Moses parting the Red Sea in The Book of (and more than you ever wanted to know about) Genesis, by Gary Rendsburg. It was me hydroplaning on three tires. The right rear had self-destructed.

Who would think you need new tires at only 65,000 miles? My old VW Bugs (Mary's cast-offs) rolled along well over 100,000 and weren't Beemers German cars, too? I warned you I can fly but I'm not very mechanical. I got to the side and before I could call AAA, a nice guy stopped and offered to change the tire. Then a state highway patrol trooper arrived with a heftier jack and the welcome protection of his flashing lights in the heavy rain and low visibility. I was trying to keep my umbrella over the guy on the ground and keep the 7-foot cop away from the car. See, we'd unloaded everything out of the trunk onto the back seat including Bernie Einspanier's air rifle. He's my 88-year-old neighbor who loves to shoot the squirrels in his backyard but the air rifle jammed. I took it to get it fixed or buy another.

As I chattered away the cop kept peering over me and the umbrella and a strange look came over his face when he spied the stock peeking out from under a bunch of charts and books on the back seat. I'd solemnly promised myself after visiting jail that they'd never take me alive. But, okay, I'd start out being calm and reasonable. It's my neighbor's ... only an air rifle ... and I have a concealed carry permit (which, interestingly, he already knew). He was cool and I was hugely relieved that I didn't have to shoot my way out with the air rifle. Anyway, it would have been a miserable night to fly the 180 to Mexico. My full linen pants were sodden, and I didn't have a cent in my purse so I threw my arms around the Good Samaritan and planted a kiss on his cheek.

I think hurting myself in an airplane is highly unlikely unless I strangle in the tangle of headset and handheld cords or I ignore that basic rule about staying in the middle of the air, away from the edges. But playing angel of mercy to your airplane friends is downright dangerous.

I'd asked the officer if he knew my friend Bruce the Trooper (I can't tell you his last name until he dies). Bruce was best friends with John Schweller and me at the Lumberton strip and we decided I would teach him to fly in John's Christen Husky. Eventually he became a "Bear in the Air" with the Ohio Highway Patrol. Bruce was quick, a great student, and in the third hour I talked him through the takeoff on John's 32-foot-wide strip of concrete. The 180 hp Husky is pretty frisky and I either said "raise the tail" too soon or "I've got it" too late. Whatever, we gyroscopically precessed vigorously to the left which he countered with massive right rudder. I'm yelling, "I've got it, let go ..." but now we're off the right side of the concrete and headed for a low fence. Well, maybe you've been there. Instead of admitting defeat, pulling the power and accepting the inevitable, I was determined to rewrite the laws of aerodynamics. "Fly, dammit, fly, c'mon, fly." Holding it on until the last possible moment I yanked, "wishing" it over the fence ... which it almost but not quite cleared. We nosed over into the mid-July corn and, when the dust settled, I was way up in the air and Bruce was somewhere down in front covered with cornstalks.

"You okay?"

"Then turn off the mags and the fuel. Stop whining and get the hell out of here."

We had the airplane in the hangar within a half hour. Then I made Bruce climb in the Cub and fly with me before he could even think about it. We'd ripped some belly skin, got the prop and the engine would need a teardown. But there was no firewall or structural damage so I declared it an incident and we all swore a blood oath to keep quiet. It would have been a relatively easy repair (easy for me to say) but John insisted we take the wings off, shrink wrap the fuselage and trailer it to Afton, Wyoming, behind his little two-seater Mercedes. And then, five weeks later, we drove back out and retrieved it. Actually the drive between Wilmington, Ohio, and Afton, Wyoming, wouldn't be too bad if it weren't for Nebraska.

Expensive, yeah. But John had more money than he'd ever spend. Two long trips, you bet, but we had such fun. We visited Cub 906's first owners, Springer and Donna Jones, in Wheatland, Wyoming. We sat in the Union Pacific yards at North Platte most of one night watching the trains. We met nice people at Aviat, saw Jackson Hole and the Tetons and drove through the magnificent Wind River Valley. We left I-80 and stayed on local highways through dusty old towns across the endless expanse of Nebraska. John died that winter and I'll always be thankful that I broke his airplane and we had that time.

In between, Bruce soloed a "Traumahawk" at nearby Clinton Field. You're pretty well aligned with a straight stretch of I-71 when you turn final for the southwest runway at that field. Just north of there the highway curves, a favorite spot for troopers with radar. If I'd see a trooper sitting there when we were shooting landings I'd reach over and flip the landing lights off as we turned final.

"What are you doing?"

"I'm warning those guys in the northbound lanes about your buddy down there with the radar."

Before much longer Bruce got another instructor ... he said my time was too valuable, it was a long way for me to travel and I wouldn't charge him anything. John said Bruce was probably worried that he was hooked up with a combination of Calamity Jane and Lucrezia Borgia.

Thursday morning I cancelled a flight to Oshkosh, and Amelia Earhart's words about courage being the price of peace have weighed heavily on me ever since. Flying across Indiana and up the Chicago lakefront to Oshkosh isn't exactly crossing the Atlantic, or launching out over trackless wastes of the Pacific in search of a tiny island. Or is it? Canceling that trip forces me to admit (not for the first or last time) that I'm not totally that devil-may-care aviator with boundless self-confidence that I like to project.

Oh, there was plenty of reason to delay the flight. When the three of us met at the 180 hangar at 7 a.m. the entire state of Indiana, as well as southern Ohio, was socked in with ground fog ... you know the "100VV," or "1/4 mile, 200 overcast" stuff. We had an IFR on file to Gary, Indiana, and the forecast indicated the fog should be lifting by the time we got there.

"So let's go."

"No," I said, "let's wait until it starts to lift a little. I don't like single engine over widespread areas of fog and low ceilings. There's nowhere to go, no 'ace card' in your back pocket." I'm probably more sensitized to "fog" accidents than most people.

So we went down the street for breakfast but an hour later the fog was just as bad ... thicker even in some spots. One of us, a retired airline pilot, was impatient. "Let's go. It'll start coming up. If we wait until 10 or 11, and add a fuel stop, we'll barely get there before the field closes for the airshow. And we have to leave at noon tomorrow so it's hardly worth going at all if we wait."

After more talk and one more weather check at Million Air I shrugged and suggested we scrub it and they agreed. So we unpacked the airplane and each drove home, one indifferent, one hugely disappointed and one demoralized pilot (me).

The fog did lift, of course, and we could have shot the approach at Gary. It was still pretty marginal and we'd probably have been forced into the long way around Chicago, to go VFR into Oshkosh. So, even with the promise of two beds and a floor at the Holiday Inn Express, would it really have been worth it? The short time ... the expense?

Yes, it would have and I'm disappointed in myself because, damn it, I didn't try. I hate that and I haven't slept very well for the four nights since. I acted like, well, like a girl! (Uh oh, Mac, here it comes).

Kevin Uppstrom, my best friend and DC-3 pilot extraordinaire (now hauling freight around the world in a 747) wouldn't hire a guy I'd sent to him to fly freight even though he had lots of Beech 18 time. "I know him, flown with him. He'll cancel on a forecast. We don't do that." Okay, this was different. I wasn't basing the decision on a forecast but on actual conditions. My airplane has three-and-a-half hours range and Gary was 1:45 with the winds, but maybe I could have searched harder for an alternate in case it didn't lift. Or just go ahead and shoot the approach. What's a WAAS-enabled 430 for?

This morning I talked to Bud Newhouse about it. Bud built and flies an RV-8 and was one of the 22-man formation at Oshkosh this year. He tows banners and is brave enough to have owned and operated a Wilga. Bud doesn't fly "in" weather -- he thinks IFR is for crazy people. He flies despite weather. And I think he does it wisely and skillfully, recognizing his and his airplane's limitations. Anyway, Bud and I talked a long time about the need to be "comfortable" about making a flight. But we also agreed that you always need to challenge yourself a little, bite off just a little more than you're comfortable chewing, the "if you're not living on the edge you're taking up too much room" theory of flying and of life. We talked about egos and the need for, well, an ego on steroids that most good pilots have.

So I'm no more comfortable than I was when I made the decision to scrub the flight. Was it a reasonable decision or cowardice? If I'd been on the other end of the line, anxious to get home, would I have rationalized a takeoff into the wild gray pea soup? There's no answer and I'm really trying to let it go. As lyrical as I usually am about my love affair with airplanes, sometimes it's more like a love/hate affair.

I am very pleased that Martha will be writing her Unusual Attitudes column on a regular basis. Reader reaction to her stories has been overwhelming. Initially the column may not appear every month, but at least bimonthly as Martha draws on her vast store of flying tales to tell. -- Ed.

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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