Unusual Attitudes: The Beeper and I

Illustration by Chris Gall

Flight Standards inspectors in FAA field offices take "accident standby" duty on a rotating schedule. During the 28 years I was in four Great Lakes region offices, the inspector on duty carried an electronic beeper activated by a phone number or a signal from the regional office. There's a duty officer in each of the eight FAA regional offices who receives notifications of accidents, incidents or "occurrences" from FAA facilities like flight service stations, control towers and centers, and from law enforcement agencies. Outside regular office hours he "beeps" the designated inspector in the district involved as well as the National Transportation Safety Board, other government entities and people who "need to know."

Planning these standby schedules caused considerable angst, and FSDO managers spent untold hours devising lists that factored in inspectors' seniority and scheduled training but with care not to assign the duty on holidays to somebody who'd been "in the barrel" the previous year. Woe betide the inspector who didn't submit his vacation leave request before the cutoff date. A faction demanded pay for all off-duty time they were on standby and eventually voted in a union. Finally, management compromised by continuing to assign the duty but agreeing that inspectors didn't have to be accessible or even answer a page. The regional duty officer would go down his list until he found somebody — eventually the manager — who would respond.

Living near the airport with no family obligations and knowing (and being known by) nearly everybody in the district who flew, I didn't mind carrying the beeper and often took it on holidays or when somebody wanted to trade. Technically, after moving into the safety program, I wasn't supposed to investigate accidents because a violation might be involved and I was supposed to "wear a white hat" (a ridiculous concept and phrase I despised). But in practice nobody seemed to care, so even when it wasn't my turn to take the duty I'd often go along; I'd been through so many FAA and TSA training courses and was useful at keeping "the media" at bay. Translated, that means I'd mastered the art of being accessible to reporters, taking questions and providing explanations without actually saying anything — like a politician. Anyway, over the years I saw more than my share of bent airplanes, injuries and fatalities.

I also disliked that ridiculous expression "Well, he died doing what he loved." An airplane accident is a dreadful thing, whatever the cause, which, as we all know, is usually because somebody screwed up. But whatever the cause, if there were fatalities still at the scene I'd whisper a prayer, covertly sprinkle holy water from a tiny bottle in my accident kit and go to work. If I knew the people involved my mind would somehow erect a "wall" so that I did the job knowing the grieving would follow. Maybe it's my stoic German genes or an effort to live as a woman of faith (albeit sometimes weak), but I have little use for professional trauma and grief counselors — and even less for balloons, plastic flowers and teddy bears.

It was a Thanksgiving weekend and I was a brand-new hire in the Chicago Air Carrier District Office when I first had standby. To this day I find it incredible that somebody activated the beeper because an inspector doing ramp checks at O'Hare found an MD-80 without a compass correction card in the cockpit. I hadn't the foggiest idea what to do about it, so I made a note and reported the catastrophe on Monday morning.

But the beeper had other uses. …

Some months later my sister drove her VW "Bug" from Cincinnati to visit me in my new job at the DuPage (then) GADO in West Chicago, Illinois. Some guys in the office had raved about a restaurant west of town, so we decided to treat ourselves to dinner. With a reservation at this popular spot and the beeper in my purse (I had the duty), we headed off for dinner. Well, yeah, it was nice, but when we were presented with menus I realized it was too nice — way beyond our budget. Mary and I covertly discussed options: Stick with appetizers, split an entrée, maybe feign sickness? Sickness, yes! I activated the test button on the beeper and it responded with an important, loud beeping noise. I told the maître d' I needed to use a telephone to answer my page, and when he said, "Certainly, doctor," I didn't correct him.

"Gosh, sure enough, it's the hospital. I'm on call and unfortunately we'll have to leave immediately, but thank you so much."

Mary and I were out of there "stat" and cruised around to find a pizza joint and take food home to the funeral-home apartment I rented on Fourth Street in St. Charles.

Some years later I was back home in Cincinnati, in a decidedly better emotional and physical place despite having inherited a rather "challenging" manager. Three intervening years with a bunch of truly good people in the Indianapolis FSDO had worked wonders for somebody badly bruised from that grim stint at DuPage. But, in truth, I was still kind of a mess. I'd quit smoking "cold turkey" — from three packs a day to zero — when I left Chicago, but my fingernails were still bitten to the quick and I hadn't totally worked my way out of debt. So I had a small apartment near the airport, drove a Subaru Justy and had a wardrobe limited to slacks and a couple of jackets for work and jeans and T-shirts for everything else.

A rather iconic man named Otto Pobanz had long managed the flight department at Federated Department Stores at Lunken Airport and was a founding member and president of the National Business Aircraft Association. It was the late '80s and Otto was hosting some kind of NBAA board meeting with an impressive collection of chief pilots and flight department managers. When he heard by the grapevine that I was back in Cincinnati, he invited me to dinner with this (to me) awesome group of corporate aviators. Otto had reserved a private dining room at a restaurant east of Cincinnati called The Heritage.

Well, I was surprised and flattered and excited — and full-blown terrified. See, I hadn't been on a real date since Ebby and I divorced eight years before and I didn't remember much about how "it" worked. But I accepted the invitation and launched on a program to remake myself — for one night, at least. Now, I'm blessed with fairly good looks (purely genes), but the fingernails and wardrobe definitely needed work. I bought one of those subliminal tapes you listen to while sleeping, which was guaranteed to stop the fingernail biting. Believe it or not, it worked — but then I wanted to stop, and I have awesome willpower when I can harness it, so maybe that's what really stopped it. Meanwhile I found a false fingernail emporium and headed downtown to the Federated department store for an appropriate dress.

I'm also blessed with great taste in airplanes and clothes (if not always in men), and the dress was perfect — simple and elegant and expensive. I carefully tacked the tags inside and sternly reminded myself to eat and drink carefully; this "frock" had to go back to Federated the next day. Yeah, I know it was dishonest and downright tacky, but sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do.

Meanwhile, I was still scared about, you know, how to act and whether things would work. After confiding in an inspector friend named Phil Lehrum, we devised a plan. Phil had the accident standby that week, but he said he'd give me the beeper. Then he'd call the phone number to activate it at 8 o'clock so I could excuse myself and get to a telephone. If the dinner was a disaster, I'd apologize profusely and bail — Phil would pick me up at the restaurant. If I had my groove on, I'd tell him things were fine and we'd both hope for a quiet, eventless evening on the beeper.

Well, it was great — I was having a wonderful time as the only female pilot engrossed in conversation with a covey of interesting, attractive male aviators. I had totally forgotten about the beeper when it went off at 8 o'clock sharp and I excused myself to go downstairs and call Phil.

"Everything's fine, Phil. Thanks, you're a peach."

"Peach," hell! Every 30 minutes for the rest of the evening, Phil diabolically beeped the damned thing. I was up and down the stairs, concocting stories about groundloops, flattened nosewheel tires and false alarms!

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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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