A Sucker for Southern Hospitality

Martha Lunken's run-in with a true southern gentleman.

It was late March, when Midwestern flatlanders flying over the Appalachians to Florida for spring breaks or a week at Sun 'n Fun have so often found that Old Man Winter is still very much around. A kind of permanent "front" that hangs around London, Kentucky, especially after a cold frontal passage, has scared the pants off more than one intrepid aviator with unexpected ice and turbulence.

Like most everybody I've always been envious and in awe of Richard Collins' grasp of the weather. Do you remember when there was somebody in your local FSS who was actually interested in the weather and you could get a pretty good briefing? But then the stations were consolidated and automated and briefers rattled off information from computer screens while you desperately tried to translate and copy their rapid-fire "24-hour clock/zulu" numbers into meaningful local time. And admit it, you were embarrassed to say, "Hey, slow down, and translate that into local time for me." Plus, if you believed all the "occasionallys" and "possibility ofs" you'd probably never have gone flying.

OK, Flight Watch is great and ATC gets better and better but it took those wonderful, underpaid, clean cut, genius, humanitarian, patriotic guys at Garmin (who deserve canonization) to change the whole game with their little boxes that glow with actual weather images in greens and yellows, oranges and reds. I LOVE THEM. The weather displays on those 396/496 portable boxes are the best thing that's happened to aviation since dual ignition.

So, on this March afternoon 72B and I were off to Griffin, Georgia, for annual DC-3 recurrent training at Bob McSwiggan's Academy Airlines. The Atlanta weather was deteriorating but the forecast looked OK until well after I'd arrive in Griffin. And it was still pretty good when 72B and I crossed the mountains south of Knoxville. I was on top and could see some nasty looking stuff to the southwest and would learn it was moving faster than forecast. By the time I reached northern Georgia, Atlanta was reporting moderate to heavy rain, thunderstorms were popping to the south and west and some of the big guys were reporting moderate to scary turbulence. The prospect of approach control running me around the terminal area to a VOR/DME procedure for an airport 40 miles south was losing its appeal. So I tucked my tail firmly between my legs and asked for vectors to the ILS 20L at DeKalb Peachtree (PDK).

Sure enough, it was rainin' and blowin' and the 180 was buckin' something fierce … well it probably wasn't all that bad; why does turbulence always seem worse when you're in the clag? Then a flash of lightning off the right wing confirmed that getting on the ground expeditiously was probably a great idea. No GPS in those days but my nifty new Stormscope was proving it could keep me from getting killed but not from getting very, very scared. Actually, the approach and landing were the easy part but 72B can act like a jerk on the ground in gusty crosswinds, so taxiing to the Epps' hangar was something of a challenge. I blessed the line guys who came out and walked my wings into the hangar.

Later, making arrangements at the desk for 72B to sleep over in the hangar and for a rental car to get me to Griffin, this rather courtly older man approached the counter and said he really liked my airplane. He seemed to work there, probably a salesman, and we chatted about the 180 and the weather. I admitted I worked for the FAA and was on my way to Griffin to fly the DC-3s with Bob McSwiggan. He knew Bob and then, in his soft Georgia drawl, said, "Now look, honey, there's no need for you to rent a car. My goodness, we have plenty of them around here." And he told the lady at the desk to cancel the rental and give me one of their crew cars. "Just bring it back whenever and don't worry, we'll take good care of your pretty airplane." I thanked him and said I'd have it back the next day since the weather was forecast to improve.

Now I've driven some pretty raunchy airport cars but this little beast from Epps' scored a new low. It was some mysterious Asian manufacture and obviously built for economy travel in the Gobi Desert. There actually were windshield wipers but they were a lot more "inter" than "mittent" and left an ugly smear on the occasional swipes. The windows and the windshield itself leaked badly and something was ominously wrong with the steering. It felt like the 1956 Pontiac I bought for $200 and drove for a week until the tie rod broke on a winding hill down to the airport.

Sure, I knew a rental would have been the "approved procedure" in this situation but the Epps man's offer was so generous and well meaning. So I stopped at a 7-11 for plastic garbage bags and a box of supersize Kotex. I cut a hole for my head in one bag, wrapped my head babushka-style with another and then stuffed the pads around the windshield and doors … a really effective old DC-3 trick.

Hydroplaning my way through Atlanta and then south to Griffin, the weather worsened and I thanked the weather angel for getting me on the ground; I'd never seen hail piled like gravel along the sides of the road before.

Next day the Atlanta weather was marginal but benign so I returned the car, deciding it would be bad manners to comment on what they ought to do with that little piece of crap. I filed for Griffin and was munching peanut butter crackers and a Coke from the vending machine when my friend appeared, waving his hand dismissively when I thanked him. He said he had something for me and ceremoniously placed a coffee table-sized book in my hands. Titled The Lost Squadron, it was beautiful, full of great pictures and the story of recovering Glacier Girl, the P-38, from the Greenland icecap. He told me he'd been involved with the project and had flown to the Greenland site several times in a DC-3 hauling supplies and equipment.

"I want you to have it," he smiled. Gosh, what an interesting and attractive Southern gentleman, I thought. I was paging through the book, glowing and wondering how to adequately say thank you when he continued, "… and you can see it's a real bargain for only $65."

Oh, great! Should I even try to wiggle out of spending more than the price of a rental car (which the government would have covered) on this book? Sure, I love Glacier Girl and had been to Middlesboro, Kentucky, several times to see the restoration. (Which always begged the question, why do people build and restore airplanes in places like Middlesboro, Kentucky, and Afton, Wyoming?)

I was weighing my options when he said, "Open it," and there, on the title page, was a handwritten inscription, "To Martha Lunken, with best wishes from your friend, Pat Epps." A salesman, indeed! A sweet Southern gentleman, indeed! What a wily, charming and utterly irresistible old thing he was.

So, of course I bought the book and of course I treasure it for that wonderful memory of the iconic Mr. Epps.