The Great Flour Bombing Campaign of 1989

While Martha is giving tips on the art of flying her Cub to a pal, they stumble upon a mysterious airport.

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Illustrated by Chris Gall

It was the summer of 1989, and the Midwest was sweating through an endless stretch of hot and humid days, cloudless but wrapped in a thick layer of haze. Weather forecasts were so boringly predictable that calling for a VFR briefing was pointless; the vis would come up to three miles by midmorning and anything beyond "hot and humid with no chance of precipitation" would have been front page news. Remember those good old, pre-9/11 days when the only place you saw a TFR was on an FAA written test?

I was coaching a friend named Bruce in the art of flying Cub '906 (the beloved 85 hp J-3 that I never should have sold and that Steven Koontz won't sell back to me). After shooting takeoffs and landings on the smooth, wide grass of Mad River Airport we were meandering the 60 miles home without much thought to the fine points of navigation. But I knew we were close to Clinton Field at Wilmington, and I was peering down through the haze when a runway suddenly materialized beneath us. More than just a runway ... a real live paved airport with lights and a taxiway, a ramp and a good-sized hangar. Not Clinton Field, but what ... a mirage? An aeronautical Brigadoon that appears out of the summer haze every 100 years?

The runway, obviously new, was only about as wide as a highway lane. Pretty good approaches except for a stand of trees on the north end. On final-well, of course we had to land-I saw the VASI that would provide a welcome glideslope over those trees at night. We landed south in the dead calm and taxied back to the hangar where a figure stood in front of the open door. He was a burly, bearded man and he was squinting in the hazy sun ... or was that squint a scowl? Here we go again. Last time I dropped into a private field in Cub '906 the owner threatened to call the FAA. I told him I couldn't help myself ... his strip was an attractive nuisance. Then I gave him the FSDO manager's (my boss') name and phone number. "Oh, hell, I should have known," he sputtered. "You're that Martha ... ."

Anyhow, I leaped out of the Cub, grinning and chattering about what a neat place this was, and what was it called, and wasn't it hot, and where were we anyhow? But it was obvious the Pollyanna performance wasn't going to work. This guy was a lot younger than I first thought and not bad looking if he'd quit frowning and get rid of that wad of tobacco in his cheek. I introduced myself and he grudgingly mumbled that his name was Dave and that this was his father, John Schweller's, private (as in very) airport. They "didn't have visitors." I was peering around him and edging toward the big hangar until I could make out what was inside. Wow! Like airplane heaven. An A36 Beech and an Aviat Husky flanked by S-1 and S-2 Pittses, each one gleaming like brand new. And the airplanes were surrounded by a world-class inventory of tools and equipment.

After a few more futile attempts at conversation with this Dave person we declared defeat, saddled up and pointed '906 toward home. Anyway, Bruce was useless when it came to small talk, much less sweet-talk. He was an engineer, with all that connotes, and owned a consulting firm that operated a Cheyenne II. I met him, in fact, when he applied for a 135 certificate and I was assigned to do his flight checks. Once he got over the "unsat" I gave him on the first try we became great friends. I suggested that, with his personality, he'd make more money if he stuck to hauling bodies instead of live people.

Before we left Lumberton, I'd noticed an FAA Repair Station number on the hangar and, yeah, the airworthiness guys in our office knew all about it. John Schweller seemed to be a pretty good guy, they said. Kind of a loner and maybe a little eccentric. A toolmaker and a really talented mechanic. He owned some kind of plant in Dayton but seemed to have plenty of spare time and plenty of money. Said he was a widower and had turned most of the business over to his two sons. Dave, the one I'd met, was also a pilot. "Lumberton Airport" had happened because Mr. Schweller was frustrated with airport politics at Greene County. So he pulled up stakes, "borrowed" an idle highway construction crew and built a hard-surfaced runway on property he owned in nearby Clinton County.

They'd also heard that there was a neighbor problem right off the bat. It looked like the airport might be shut down as quickly as it appeared. Mr. Schweller liked to play with one or both of his Pittses on Sunday mornings and the snarling noise didn't win him any friends at the neighboring Methodist church. Christian charity prevailed and the airport was saved when he modified his aerobatic practice schedule and the congregation suddenly found the resources to buy much needed new hymnals and build a handicap access ramp.

Fascinating ... an airport ... all those airplanes ... and a widower...

I was in the midst of plans for an ambitious helicopter seminar that fall at Sporty's and had to put Mr. Schweller and Lumberton on a back burner (still, fascinating ... all those airplanes ... and a widower) until I stopped by Don Fairbanks' helicopter school at Lunken. The only thing I know about helicopters is there are an incredible number of moving parts, so Don was a critical part of the planned event. That afternoon he had a visitor, a former helicopter student, a solid- looking man in his late fifties with an unexpectedly boyish smile and the brightest, twinkling eyes. His name was John Schweller. And we both were fascinated.

We talked airplanes and helicopters into the afternoon and then, just before I left, he invited me to Lumberton. "I'm there most afternoons," he said. "There's a little restaurant down the road just past that little white church. Great homemade pie. Especially the butterscotch."

Sure enough, the next Saturday I had a terrible craving for butterscotch pie. And he was right. The Route 68 Family Restaurant made the best "real" butterscotch pie on the planet ... still does. He proudly showed me around the hangar and the surrounding gently rolling farmland edged with woods and even a picturesque, gurgling creek. What a beautiful place and what a shame he didn't share it. Actually, he didn't seem put off by the idea of visitors, but when I mentioned it over at Waynesville, the word was, "You mean that rich guy with the new strip? Nah, he doesn't want visitors. Stays to himself. No, we haven't stopped in but, you know, the word gets around."

I decided I needed to fix that.

It was a chilly but clear Sunday morning in October, and I passed out the brown paper sacks filled with flour. Then I briefed "The Schweller Raiders" on our mission: to show this rich guy what we thought of his fancy-pants airport. We'd launch from Red Stewart Airfield in Waynesville and, after the drop, rendezvous at Clinton Field for their annual fall pancake breakfast. We were off by 9 a.m., Cub '906 in the lead with eleven other Cubs, Champs, Taylorcrafts and a lone Ercoupe in trail. Across Caesars Creek Lake and there's the runway. I dropped down below the trees, flew up the runway and deposited my flour sack directly in front of the hangar. Splat! Then, pulling the Cub up to 500 feet and circling overhead, I laughed out loud as the others made their runs, most right on target (well, OK, it's hard to miss from 10 feet). The frosting on the cake was to see the "formidable" Mr. Schweller out in front of his hangar with another man, staring in bewilderment at the squadron of little airplanes and the white mess on his runway.

We all met up at Clinton Field as planned and tore into the pancakes and hot coffee, chattering gleefully about the success of the mission. Then somebody nudged me and pointed. Ernie Walker, the old guy who ran the airport, was heading in our direction with the world's tallest Ohio State Trooper. "Hi, Martha, uh, Trooper Wilson wants to have a word with you."

"Ma'am, are you responsible for vandalizing John Schweller's property this morning? Mr. Schweller is an important man in this area and he had guests at his airport this morning. Our information is that you were the leader of a gaggle of airplanes that trashed his runway with sacks of some kind of white powder."

If the FAA had taught me nothing else, I learned (so listen up) that the closer your back is to the wall the more tightly shut you keep your mouth. Besides, I couldn't work up enough spit to talk. I just peered up (way up) at the trooper's face and made kind of a croaking noise. There goes my job, my pilot license, hell, probably my freedom. I saw them handcuff me and, with a hand on my head, firmly push me into the back seat of the police car. There were no door handles and, through the heavy screen, I heard them in the front seat on the radio, "Says she works for the FAA ... ." Then the finger-printing and mug shots and the too-big orange jumpsuit. Finally, there I was in a cell full of prostitutes, druggies, welfare moms gone bad and low-flying pilots. Too embarrassed to call a lawyer or my family, I'd just hope for the best with a public defender. With luck and no previous record maybe I'd get community service ... like scrubbing the runway at Lumberton with a toothbrush.

After about an hour and a half of this, I thought I saw a twitch at one corner of the trooper's mouth. Then it spread to the other corner and his face creased into a smile. A moment passed and then we were both laughing, mine a little bit hysterical. It seems that John was a deputy sheriff in the county and a friend, the big state trooper, had stopped by the airport that morning. They'd cooked up the idea of scaring my pants off and it worked! A half-hour later John arrived in the two-hole Pitts and there was more laughter and lots of introductions. Some of the "raiders" eagerly took him up on his offer of a ride in the Pitts and I knew the raid had worked its magic.

The story spread fast and people began flying in to Lumberton. And John Schweller loved it. He was having the time of his life. He'd devoted almost every minute to building the business and keeping the family together after his wife died. And he just naturally had a sort of gruff demeanor. Heck, I don't know why, but social graces just weren't John's forte. How sweet it was to watch that change. We planned safety seminars and fly-ins, people dropped by to walk over to the restaurant or to discuss a mechanical problem with John or just to see the place. We flew each other's airplanes and I found that landing a Pitts on a 34-foot wide concrete runway was a guaranteed adrenaline rush. If the wind was cross and strong (like more than 5 knots) I'd land on the "normal" runway at Clinton Field and call. "Hey, John, drive over here and get your airplane."

There was a four-wheeler to drive all over and I hunted morels and wildflowers in the spring, picked blackberries and elderberries in the summer and shot squirrels in the fall. In spite of John's observation that, "machinery doesn't love you," he was delighted that, holding my ankles, he could feed me into the tail of the A36 to lubricate the control cables. We were wildly different in personality and background but pretty close in values and certainly in our fascination with each other. And, of course, we were both airplane crazy. It was very good. Those two and a half years were so very full.

I'd often jump in the Cub after work for the 30-minute flight to Lumberton. As soon as we cleared Lunken's airspace, I'd close up '906's window and door, pull off the David Clarks and fire up my portable butane hair curler. Flying with the stick between my knees, I could curl my hair and check my face in a mirror clamped to the front seat.

And sometimes, if the weather was good and I'd remembered the toilet paper, I'd climb to about four thousand feet upwind of his hangar. Clear the area while unwinding a couple of feet of paper (Scott works best) in my right hand. Close the throttle, pull up almost to a stall and, right before the break, hurl the roll out and downward. If you hold your mouth just right it unrolls in a long white stream. Recover in a kind of diving turn and search madly for the streamer, trying to cut it as many times as possible on the way down. My personal best is 11.

[Note: Toilet paper cutting is perfectly legal (would I do it otherwise?), but be sure you clear the area really well, don't get so wrapped up in the maneuvering that you overstress the airplane and always, always set a hard floor to stop.]

John was a neat freak and these antics were guaranteed to get a reaction. Ideally, if my windage was right, the spent roll would land on or near the ramp. Then I'd make a wheel landing, keep the tail up all the way to the hangar and, magically (I see letters to the editor) the paper stayed glued to the airplane's struts, wings, nose and engine. Let the tail down gently, turn off the mags and all the bits and pieces would flutter off the airplane and around the spotless ramp. It was wonderful.

He was an unusually talented mechanic. And a natural "good stick." Even though he hadn't learned to fly until middle age, John did helicopters, flew a Beech 18 and performed credible aerobatics (self-taught) in the Pitts. But for all that, his flying experience was limited. I think he liked working on and around the airplanes as much as flying them. He was horrified by my mantra that, if you can't fix it from the cockpit in flight, I don't want to know about it.

My friend Wynn Baker flew for Delta then and we took Cub '906 to Lumberton one day while he was on a layover. Wynn knows as much about airplanes as anybody alive. When John proudly showed him the full IFR panels in both Pittses, Wynn was polite but obviously baffled. "Amazing, but why would you do that?" he asked. Even the A36 was loaded with so much equipment there wasn't much left for people and fuel. It was stuffed with the latest and greatest King equipment (Loran and RNAV then), full dual instrumentation, radar, standby electrical system, extra battery and vacuum pump, wing deice and more.

Here's where the story gets hard for me.

Getting full use out of a spirited, high-performance airplane with sophisticated equipment and flying single pilot demands training, currency and experience. John was intelligent, proficient and safety conscious. But I wonder if he really understood the importance of experience, or the limitations of a lack of experience. It's about the vast difference between having three thousand hours and having one hour three thousand times. Oh, he talked about trips he'd made, but he didn't make any while I knew him. I could see he wasn't "at home" with flight planning, filing, analyzing weather or even communicating with ATC. Like many of us he flew instruments beautifully but only under simulated conditions. I often rode safety pilot while he practiced approaches under the hood and we'd always finish with his homemade Loran approach to Runway 18 at Lumberton. He was so proud of the precise and official-looking (but very illegal) approach plate he'd had drawn by a draftsman at his plant. In truth, John rarely left southern Ohio, and I doubt he'd ever dealt with critical weather issues or the need to take alternate actions "in anger."

"Are you sitting down?"

The phone was ringing as I walked in the door. It was Christmas night and, driving home across the levee past Lunken, I'd pulled over to look at the red, white and green lights on the airport. Fog was forming rapidly but they glowed in the mist and the "rabbit" was flashing on the approach for 21L. It was beautiful ... it was my Christmas tree.

"Am I what? Yeah, go ahead."

The rest of that night will always be a nightmarish collage of images: splashing through an icy creek and into a muddy field surrounded by tall trees; the twisted wreckage of the A36 garishly illuminated by spotlights from fire trucks and news vans; crouching down at the shattered cockpit and cradling the back of John's head in my hands, whispering a prayer and telling him it was OK, I was there, I'd make sure everything would be done the right way.

John and his son, Dave, in the left seat, were dead on impact. Dave's wife, badly hurt, had wandered through woods and fields for over an hour before she found help. The infant, Nikki, in her arms on impact, was gone. And little five-year-old Leah, who'd become my special friend, walked away relatively unscathed from a rear-facing seat.

Of course I shouldn't have been there. But a mutual friend, a state trooper I'd taught to fly, told the dispatcher to make the call. He himself was devastated and he knew I would want and need to be there. That John and I were close wasn't widely known, so when I called the acting FSDO manager, he OK'd the trip and thanked me for being willing to respond so late on this Christmas night. I called Stan Faske, an airworthiness inspector who actually had the duty that night and who also knew John. We met at the office, collected our gear and started the slow 60-mile trip through the now very dense fog in his truck, not knowing for sure who the victims were, both of us hoping it wasn't John.

One look at the accident scene and our worst fears were confirmed. I've always been blessed with a protective mental wall that lets me function well, even at pretty horrific scenes. I knew, at some level, the wall would eventually come crashing down and the grieving would be intense. But not now. We did what we were trained to do. The terrain was so rough and muddy that the EMS team carefully put the bodies in Stan's all-wheel-drive truck and we drove them across the creek to where the ambulance waited.

NTSB arrived the next day and other inspectors were assigned when I explained about my relationship with the family. But the investigator asked me to help because I knew the pilots well and because the two hospitalized survivors, Leah and her mother, refused to talk to anyone else.

At first I was certain there was some "logical" explanation for the crash. Engine trouble, structural failure, carbon monoxide or other physical incapacitation, instrument failure ... . But the investigation was painstakingly thorough and there simply was no "good" reason. The airplane had impacted trees less than a mile from the runway and heading in a northwest direction, nowhere near any part of the "charted approach." Impact occurred at cruise power with flaps and gear up. The passengers had no warning, not even any sense of unease, until, incredibly, trees came through the side of the airplane.

John had been taking all the kids and grandkids up on that Christmas night to see the lights at a nearby mall. This was the last flight because the fog was forming fast. In fact, other family members at the airport remembered seeing the airplane disappear into a fog bank on that last takeoff. Dave's wife, riding in the back seat, told me they only made one turn around the mall on the south side of Dayton when she heard John tell Dave they'd better get back before the fog closed in. It was already too late; when they arrived there was only blackness.

I can see John in the right seat, leaning forward and squinting at the Loran receiver, his half-glasses perched on his nose, telling Dave to fly the airplane while he pulled up his approach. At least that's what the box indicated when the experts pulled it apart. And I can see Dave, who was current only in the legal sense, become increasingly concerned, apprehensive and distracted. Why was he hand flying this thoroughbred, "slippery" airplane in the unfamiliar, murky blackness? Why not use the autopilot? Could he have assumed the autopilot was already engaged? The only thing we know for sure is that nobody was flying. The airplane was slowly descending, so slowly it was unnoticeable until they hit the trees.

I guess by now you're shaking your head and asking why. Don't. I'm supposed to be an expert and I've asked that question every day for 15 years. John was instrument rated and current and the A36 full of equipment, so why didn't he call approach for vectors to the ILS at Dayton just 20 miles away? Or, if not that, why not cheat and use one of the ILS approaches at Wilmington Airborne only 8 miles away? Illegal, wrong and certainly less than ideal, but there was no other traffic and the tower was closed. It's a pretty safe bet they would have gotten safely on the ground.

NTSB called it "lack of situational awareness/controlled flight into terrain." I call it the deadly result of emotions overriding self-discipline, paralyzing the normally rational decision making processes, a reaction often bred by inexperience.

The funeral home, ironically, was one that had often loaned us chairs for seminars at the hangar. I spent a fitful, sleepless night in the old hotel downtown because the funeral Mass was across the street at St. Patrick's in the morning. Besides family and friends, the church was full of local, county and state police. John had been active in and was widely respected by the law enforcement community. Afterward, making my way down the steps, a very tall man in the wide hat of a state trooper took me by the arm and guided me to a patrol car for the ride to the cemetery. I peered up (way up) through tears at the face under the hat. I hadn't seen him since that October day and this time, instead of the smile, there was grief, concern and sadness in his eyes.

I wish that were the last chapter of this story. But 10 years later, driving back to the office in the early morning after a seminar north of Dayton, my cell phone rang. It was Hartzell Propeller chairman, Jim Brown, saying that a King Air had just crashed on an approach to Piqua Airport. I called the office, turned the G-car around and headed to Piqua. When I arrived, what was left of the King Air 200 was smoldering in a farmyard after impacting trees on the north side and short of Runway 26. The only occupant, the pilot, was an unrecognizable, charred figure in the cockpit. But I knew that King Air. It was a single pilot 135 operator and the pilot was Bruce Menkel, who was with me in Cub '906 that summer day we found Lumberton. Trying to pick up passengers, he'd made two passes at the runway in fog and crashed on the third attempt, probably descending below minimums when he mistook a farmyard light for a runway end light.

I'm not sure why I want or need to tell these stories. Maybe because sometimes this all seems too surreal. Here I am, passionate about accident prevention and pretty confident that my friends are skilled pilots who understand their limits. And here I am, first on the scene, deeply involved in the fatal accidents of two of my closest friends. There's no "lesson" you or I don't already know that we can take from either one of these tragedies. The official causes, the errors, the poor judgment, the bad luck, the deadly chain of circumstances are in the databases. The most I can hope for is they have and will be used to prevent similar accidents.

I know and accept that mistakes are inevitable as long as human beings fly airplanes. And, ultimately, for me, it really doesn't matter why these accidents happened. What matters is they did, that I loved these people and that they're gone. I have to confess there's a sizeable chunk of fatalism in my makeup. You know, "When it's your time, it's your time."

The grief was intense and long lasting when my "wall" collapsed. And I finally talked to a close friend, a priest, about how long it would be until I'd get over this or at least start to forget. He said, "You won't ever 'get over it,' Martha, and you certainly won't 'forget.' But the raw hurt will fade, the memories will soften and, in time, they'll be woven into the fabric of love in your life."

I like that. And he was right. Time has softened the blow. I value these memories and now can be lighthearted, maybe just flippant, with remarks like, "Well, it's better than pureed peas drooling down your chin in the old people's home." Or, tongue firmly in cheek, I'll say I retired from the FAA "because I got tired of scraping up old boyfriends from cornfields in southern Ohio."

But sometimes, on a lazy summer afternoon, I'll take Cub '313 ('906's successor) to Lumberton. The airport's still there and, except for the lonely air and the weeds in the gravel parking lot, it's in pretty good shape. I'll walk down the road for a cup of coffee and a piece of pie ... butterscotch if it isn't sold out. When I come back, I'll sit on the warm concrete, my back against the hangar door, and pull out my beads. I'll finger through the decades, not exactly praying, but remembering John, and Bruce, and every other flying friend who's gone now. Trying to remember, honor and bless all those pilots I didn't know in life but who I saw in death, doing something we all so love to do that went so very wrong.