Can A DC-3 Girl Find Happiness in a VLJ?

These opportunities and challenges are what fuel our fascination with airplanes and flying.

A full page ad in the morning paper invited readers to a showing and reception for one of the new small jets (VLJs) at Million Air Cincinnati on the following Tuesday evening. It sounded like fun so I called the 800 number for an invitation. The young salesman was cordial but seemed intent on establishing my qualifications. Maybe he was worried about his entertainment budget,sensitive about squandering cheese and wine on a freeloader. Who was I? Why was I interested? Was I seriously considering the purchase of an airplane like this? When? Well, of course not, so forget that idea, I thought. But taking a cue from Huck Finn, I decided to risk the truth. "I'm not a prospect. Just a curious, retiring (as in 'I'm outta here,' not 'quiet and reserved') FAA inspector, typed in some prehistoric, round-engine airplanes. Well, yes, actually I am an aircraft owner … uh, a 1956 Cessna 180 and half of a J-3 Cub." The guy was gracious, amused or bored enough to add my name to the list. And I for sure needed to be on the list. When I arrived at Million Air alone that Tuesday evening, I had to first pass muster with a semi-exotic hostess in the lobby who eyed me suspiciously then leaned over to check her list. Leaning over seemed kind of dangerous given her low-cut, tight, black sweater. My jeans and bright red Yakutat, Alaska, sweatshirt might have been a tip-off that I wasn't an important customer. But my name was on her list so, instead of being cast out to gnash my teeth in the darkness, I was escorted into the hangar … semi-graciously. Well, the hangar was full of genuine prospects … about 200 of them, including a few millionaires, some wannabe's with trophy wives or girlfriends, a gaggle of hungry looking pilots, airplane salesmen and more semi-exotic hostesses serving beer, wine and hors d'oeuvres. The airplane was nicely displayed and the food looked a lot more interesting than the chips and pretzels you get at Columbia and Cirrus. Maybe not on a G5-BBJ level, but then I haven't been invited to or crashed any Gulfstream and Boeing affairs … yet. Lunken is "home," so I was surprised to see very few familiar faces. I tried to blend in with all the suits (not easy in a red Yakutat, Alaska, hoodie) and joined the end of a line that snaked through the hangar. Way up ahead a salesman was sitting in the cockpit while three or four guests took the tour. But the line was achingly slow and the food was disappearing at an alarming rate. I slipped out to fill a plate with brie, croissants and fruit (the pilots eyed the spread suspiciously, searching for chicken wings) and this time I rather brashly cut back in midline. I'd finally spied a millionaire friend, a very cool guy who once flew me below the top of the "Eiffel Tower" at an amusement park he owned. Way back, when Aerostars were new and I wasn't a fed charged with enforcing whatever FAR outlaws flying under things. We chatted for a while but I never did make it to the front of the line. When "my" millionaire's eyes started wandering in the direction of the semi-exotic hostesses I decided to split. Heck, I married one once (a millionaire) and, after the Lodestar type rating and a valiant but unsuccessful effort, it just wouldn't fly … the marriage, not the Lodestar. I can hear the wheels turning, "Her name's Lunken … as in airport? Who is this person anyway?" Ebby Lunken is gone now but he was the grandson of a Cincinnati valve manufacturer, Frederick Lunken(heimer). In 1928, old man Lunken bought land along the Ohio River and deeded it to the city of Cincinnati for a municipal airport. The only provision was that it be called "The Lunken Airport." I was kind of pretty and 20 years old, a convent bred, 200-hour flight instructor. Ebby was a charming, dashing, divorced, Bendix Air Race pilot and Ferrari Team car driver. Besides, he looked like Howard Hughes and had this magnificent blue and white P-51. What else could happen? Despite the 30-year age gap, we fell madly in love and were eventually married after a whirlwind romance and a 10-year cooling off period. OK? Anyway, fast-forward back to the 21st century and the VLJ reception line, I buss'd my millionaire on the cheek, mumbled "ladies' room," and did a quick end run on the line until I could edge up behind the airplane. Well, the little jet was major, major cool. Small, for sure, but amazingly roomy inside with a tastefully outfitted cabin and comfortable leather upholstery. A cockpit like all bizjet cockpits … takes a shoehorn to get into but it fits like a glove once you've inserted yourself. The panel is simple and elegant with those nifty glass screens that display everything eight different ways. It's a little anemic on range and this demo model sported sort of an early rock star exterior. But they're working on the endurance issue and the psychedelics didn't seem to bother anybody else. Most non-aviator buyers are interested in speed and leather, not fuel and range. That's what you hire a pilot for, right? When I'd seen as much as I could through the windows and was heading for the door, somebody grabbed me. It was an old friend, a retired airline pilot, who's on the short list of my all-time favorite people in the world. One of those deep-voiced, southern drawled, laid back guys, complete with sky blue eyes and a weathered face with the right creases in the right places. As an airman, Bob Strunk's as close to a "natural" as you can get; as a friend, they don't come any better. And he's still in love with airplanes. At various times, during and after the airline years, he built houseboats on Lake Cumberland, then converted the space into a hillbilly flea market that morphed into a wildly popular country dance hall. An entrepreneur and certainly successful, but a VLJ owner? It isn't big enough, old enough, deep-throated enough and it doesn't drip the right kind of oil.

Turns out that an old airline buddy had brought a group to Cincinnati to see the airplane. These were pretty astute guys who were interested in the VLJ concept and Roger was their aviation expert. He called Bob, who drove over to Million Air and they visited while the suits talked to salesmen. I'm a hopeless hero worshipper ("hero" being anybody who can fly better than I can). So it was pure delight when these two old Skygods insisted I join them at a table in the hangar. Their stories go back 50 years, when Lake Central Airlines operated DC-3 routes through the Midwest. Bob came to Cincinnati from Hazard, in the southeastern Kentucky coal country, after a stint with the army in Germany. He learned to fly on the GI Bill and instructed for a while until talent, tenacity and a healthy dose of luck put him in the right seat of a Lake Central DC-3. I love the description of his pre-employment DC-3 check ride at the airline when the chief pilot finally suggested, "Find yourself a number you like, son, and try to hold onto it." It probably wasn't unusual for the time, but within three years he was in the left seat. I guess my big sister introduced us about 40 years ago. Mary and I learned to fly in the early '60s at Lunken. To the horror of our parents, who still hadn't recovered from the flying lesson experience, Mary then left teaching and joined Lake Central as a stewardess. I quit a small Catholic college to become a TWA hostess. Mary stayed for several years but I came home after eight months, claiming I missed flying and wanted to finish college. The real reason was I was 19, homesick and missed the airport. I did finish school, got the necessary certificates and ratings, and started instructing. I remember the kick of flying Mary over to CVG in our Ercoupe for her DC-3 flights with "Leaky Central." I remember her pulling on long undies and fur-lined boots for winter flights in the 'Goon'. And I remember that, like every gal he's ever met, she was just a little bit in love with Captain Strunk. A couple years later, I was running a struggling flying school. Bob was nagging at me to get an ATP because the airlines were serious about hiring women. Well, I got the rating (anybody remember K. T. Boyd?) but then ignored his advice and got married. My husband, a socially prominent, dashing, longtime boyfriend (and hero), dangled that promise of a rating in his Lockheed Lodestar. What else would any girl do? Old memories, the events that weave the fabric of our lives, are always there, I guess, playing below the surface. But on this night at Million Air I was just happy to be in the moment. Comfortable with treasured friends, laughing with them and watching their faces as they told stories. Somebody kept the wine flowing and the stories kept coming, mostly about Lake Central when Bob was captain, Roger his copilot and, occasionally, my sister the stewardess. I've spent 25 years messing around with DC-3s, mostly doing FAA check rides, but I'll never know the old gal the way they do. Both men went on to major airlines and turboprops and then jets, but the best stories, the ones they tell when they're mellow, are about the 'Goon.' "Remember the chicken? Oh, my God, yeah. How could I forget?" OK, here's the chicken story: These two had a DC-3 trip to Evansville, originating in Cincinnati. The stewardess, Judy, was a pretty, very young gal with a soft southern drawl and a sweet personality. Judy was a favorite with all the crews. And knowing how much Captain Strunk liked fried chicken, she usually showed up with a sack of the warm, deliciously greasy, southern fried variety. Of course the bag had to be stashed in the cockpit immediately and the door closed. Lake Central passengers, if they were lucky, got a paper cup of Tang and a pack of crackers. Off the ground and Bob, in one fluid motion, signaled "gear up" and retrieved a drumstick from the sack. "Help yourself," he said to Roger who dove in as they climbed out for Evansville. Roger, a rookie copilot, found himself reading the checklist, closing the cowl flaps, adjusting the mixtures, recording the times and making the radio calls with greasy fingers clutching chicken bones. Bob gestured to the copilot's side window, which Roger gratefully slid back and, sure enough, the bones were sucked out. Somewhere beyond Louisville, they'd munched through most of the chicken. At which point Miss Judy came forward to say there was a strong smell of chicken in the cabin and some of the passengers were asking when the food would be served. The three of them had a good laugh about that and Judy returned to the cabin. But she was back very shortly. The smell was stronger. A lot stronger. It smelled like burning chicken and everybody's eyes were watering. What was going on? Do something! Roger was dispatched to the cabin and returned to report that it sure did smell awful but there was no indication of fire. In the cockpit the instruments were fine, engines were purring, no fire bells or lights, no smoke inside or out. Could it be from something on the ground? Lake Central crews and passengers, flying low over Indiana, were well familiar with l'eau de manure and pig farm aromas. Within a few minutes they were on the ground at Evansville. The passengers scattered and the crew huddled with the mechanics. Well, there's an intake just aft of the copilot's side window in the '3. It's an air scoop for the Janitrol heater which, when it works, keeps the cabin much warmer than the original muff heater (which doesn't keep it warm at all … ergo my sister's long underwear). The chicken bones with shreds of skin and fat had been sucked out the window and right into the heater intake where they were refried to a crisp. The passengers were breathing the fumes of cremated chicken. Note: Freight dogs and anybody else who's spent a lot of time around DC-3s will likely have a similar story. There were other tales that night - some raunchy, some chilling, some hilarious, some sad. But the stories and the way they were told conveyed a genuine love for the airplanes and the airlines. Beyond the nostalgia, the wine and the comedy there ran a deep sense of pride. These were pros - skillful, capable, disciplined (well, at least when they were flying) and with an almost sacred sense of personal responsibility. They loved to fly and worked at being the best they could be. Flying airplanes was, to them, as much of an art as a science. Bob reminded Roger of a check airman who taught him a lot and who demanded perfection. "I hated the little bastard," he said, "and I owe him so much."

Most of the visitors were leaving by now. Roger declined Bob's offer to bunk at their house and said he had to hit the road back to Nashville. I hugged and kissed everybody goodnight … one of the perks of being a gal in what's still largely a man's world … and headed home. But it was a long time before I slept that night. What was bothering me … the new stuff? I don't think so. This industry has to be about newer, faster, higher, better. These opportunities and challenges are what fuel our fascination with airplanes and flying. And it wasn't the millionaires. If the industry relied on customers like me, we'd still be wearing silk scarves and ground-looping airplanes. Was it the sleek little jet? Was I just plain green with envy over people who can afford them and pilots who fly them? Ouch, but yes, I think that was a part of it. But I also worried that night about ideals, goals, vision, motivation and self-reliance. I worried about the young guys and gals who struggle through rigid curricula at the Delta Connection Academies and the FlightSafetys and the Embry-Riddles. At 600 to 1,000 hours, much of it in simulators, with almost no time truly "alone" in an airplane and no sense of "the fun of it," they graduate to instructing and then into the right seat of a commuter. And I worried about people who buy and learn to fly technically advanced personal airplanes solely for their utility. The vice-president of a major TAA builder told me, "This airplane isn't for the aviation enthusiast. It's for somebody who, with brief but intensive training, will be able to get from Point A to Point B in almost any weather. You take off, engage the autopilot, disengage it at the other end and flare. And if anything disastrous happens or threatens to happen in between, well, that's why we installed a parachute." I worried that we're headed to a time in general aviation where you're either a second-class "sport pilot" with minimal skills and severely restricted privileges, or the product of a simulator-intensive Part 141 school that slides you into the right seat in an RJ before you've truly learned to fly. FAA and TSI accident investigation courses-I've been through them all-are focused on human factors (read "pilot error") as the primary cause of accidents. Too many of the instructors are ex-pilots who lost their medicals, their nerve, their interest or all three. The mantra is: If only we could eliminate the human factor (read "pilot"). I worried because the FAA and aircraft insurers demand ever more automation in aircraft systems and fewer decisions that can be made from the flight deck. And probably 999 times out of a 1,000 that works. But I can't help but think of United 232 and the magnificent command presence of Captain Al Haines. And I can't help but wonder if some of the recent air carrier tragedies would have had different endings if a Wynn Baker, an Aubrey Sweezey, a Bob Strunk or a Verne Jobst had been in the left seat. Men who know and love airplanes and who fully respect the dangers. Men who not only accept but demand responsibility, authority, accountability. Captains who are captains, airmen in the most complete sense of the word. Maybe I couldn't sleep because I'm too much of a worrier or too much of a romantic. After all, my generation of GA pilots hasn't exactly distinguished themselves with a great safety record. And, in fairness, I rode air carrier jumpseats for years (traveling somewhere for DC-3 or Lodestar check rides) and saw only professionalism and skill in the cockpit. Maybe automation and simulation and, eventually, robotics is the future of aviation. Maybe … but I sure hope not. Oh, heck, maybe I just couldn't sleep because I'd skipped dinner and snacked on too much of that wonderful, oozy cheese.