Unusual Attitudes: Was That an Airplane?

Martha's quest to find low flyers.

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Like all born-again aviators, I consider low flying ("flat-hatting," "dusting off," "buzzing") illegal, immoral, immature and possibly fattening, but, gee whiz, it's still kind of sad that creative contour flying has gone the way of venturi tubes and ashtrays in the instrument panel. Maybe the daredevils who didn't prang themselves all went west. Or maybe the current crop of pilots is too spooked by cell towers, wind generators, citizens paranoid about flight patterns and the growing alphabet of regulatory agencies that create and enforce regulations.

Among the oldest and most sacred rules of the air is the one about staying in the middle of it. As you would expect, I obey these commandments as religiously as the ones Moses came up with and avoid the edges, especially the upper one that borders interstellar space. But if it's a day when I haven't broken a rule and some attractive nuisance beckons, like a perfect bridge or Walt Davis driving his tractor when I'm flying the T-6, I hear Clarence Wilson's voice echoing out of the past: "If you have to do it, then do it once and get the hell out of there — nobody gets a number or even an accurate description on one pass." Now Clarence was chief of the Cincinnati FAA office for many years, back in the days when … and after my 28-year stint investigating low-flying complaints, I can tell you he was right.

When alphabet airspace was new and the amoeba-like "Bs" (the handiwork of ground-pounding bureaucrats) appeared on VFR charts, the Flight Standards District Offices were flooded with unintentional altitude violations. Some approach controls were more draconian than others about turning in violators to Flight Standards — Cleveland being one of the worst — and getting caught usually meant a six-month suspension. Creative contour flying actually saved a person who, mesmerized by the sight of the Cleveland lakefront, realized with horror she was at 2,200 feet where the Class B floor was at 1,900. I heard that this person flipped the transponder off and on several times to indicate an equipment problem and then, back on the 1200 squawk, flew law-abidingly around the edge of the airspace to a small airport and landed … well, almost. It was a good bet that Cleveland had tagged and tracked the target, then called the FBO where she landed to weasel out the airplane's N-number. So, on close final, this scofflaw turned off the squawk machine and "contour flew" southwest at a couple hundred feet all the way to Columbus, where it was safe to turn the box back on, climb to a civilized altitude and proceed home, safe in the arms of ATC. Please understand I relate this story (which I overheard from somebody) only rhetorically as a sort of philosophical exploration of the potential effects of overregulation. The art of contour flying is a heinous, abhorrent, sinful practice (I went to confession) that too often puts amateur and hotshot airpersons in the trees or the dirt or — worse — underneath.

Low-fly complaints generally come from people who buy houses next to old airports or from city slickers with horse, llama, ostrich or chinchilla farms. Then a large "hell hath no fury" category of pissed-off women commonly rat out ex-husbands or cheating boyfriends, and an amazing number of complaints come from an alarmingly large group of people who are truly loony-tunes. In my role as an investigator, I learned these complainants were convinced that machines flown by aliens or government agents (often the same thing) were tracking them with lights and beam signals through their windows and TV screens, and I employed the "tin foil fix" I had learned from a Chicago cop. Give the poor soul careful instructions about wrapping himself or herself in foil paper, proven to deflect alien or government rays. Do not waste time on logic, humor or sympathy; remember that pros have already had a go with these poor souls to no avail. Just offer the antidote. Tin foil.

It was a morning in early July, just after the Fourth holiday, and I was driving a government car west on Route 31 from DuPage Airport in West Chicago to the village of Walnut, near Dixon on the Illinois prairie. This low-flying investigation was a wild goose chase, but it was my first solo mission, and I was as thrilled to be out of the office as the office was to be rid of me. Now, certainly there are textbooks and courses on witness interrogation techniques, but all I had was a little common sense — oh, and one on-the-job training experience with a young inspector named Dennis in the Chicago FSDO.

The young, slightly built and rather officious Dennis took me along to investigate a complaint that somebody had "dusted off" an upscale subdivision in the northwest Chicago suburbs. We canvassed the neighborhood, Jehovah's Witness style, to unearth witnesses to an event reported oddly by only one resident — unfortunately he was the FAA's Flight Standards Division regional manager. I rang lots of doorbells, but it was slim pickin's, an awakening for me that moms didn't stay at home anymore. Intent on bringing this sociopath to justice, Dennis changed tactics and we slowly cruised the neighborhood in search of a real person. And then, I kid you not, from his briefcase he extracted a leather-bound FAA ID case and a pair of handcuffs. He was pretty little and, even at my 100 pounds, I figured I could take him. But would I lose my job if I hurt him? I relaxed a little when he explained his brother was a Milwaukee cop and he carried them "just in case" — of what I'm not sure.

We eventually found a man, probably in his late 40s, on a riding mower. Dennis pulled over to the curb, rolled down the window and, just like Billy the Kid drawing his six-shooter, flipped open the ID thing. It was beautiful and must have taken lots of practice. The guy's age and build, the time of day and the neighborhood shouted "airline pilot." And sure enough, when Sgt. Friday announced, "We're from the FAA and have some questions about a low-flying aircraft," he gave Dennis a withering look and said, "Son, I've flown airplanes most of my life, and I'm the last guy to turn in another pilot to the FAA. So maybe you should go on your way and quit wasting my time."

From over on the right seat of the G-car I risked a broad, delighted grin and gave him a hearty thumbs-up!

But now, with "Conduct an FAR 91.119 Investigation" checked off on my OJT form and armed with a complaint file (but no handcuffs), I was dispatched to the village of Walnut to investigate a resident's complaint. A truly concerned village official had suggested we meet when I got to town, so I pulled up at a storefront on Jackson Street with "Village Office" painted on the window. Mayor Keith Yonk, a tall, gracious retired man with gallant, almost courtly, manners, was waiting and led me to the neighborhood where the complainant lived.

"Take as long as you need," he said. "Then you can follow me back into town and I'll introduce you to the complainant. He works down at the bank."

I rang lots of doorbells again and this time talked to a bunch of people, but nobody had noticed any low-flying airplanes on that Sunday before the July Fourth holiday. In fact, it was unanimous that, in living memory, no one had seen an airplane flying low over or near the village.

So statement-less but happy that moms and grandmas still stayed at home in places like Walnut, I followed Keith to the Citizens First State Bank on North Main Street. Inside he introduced me to the bank cashier, a nervous, balding man who had called the Illinois State Police with the complaint. We went into a private office for the interview.

"Uh, I should let you know that I suffer from severe myopia," he began. "I was upset about other things, and my glasses were broken, and what I thought was an airplane was pretty far away … through a window and some trees … and I can't really be sure … I mean, I couldn't swear that I actually saw the airplane … if there was an airplane."

"Hmmm. Well, can you tell me why you were concerned?" I asked. "Were you frightened by a noise, or what?"

"Uh, well, I guess I must have thought I heard something, but now I'm not sure it was an airplane at all. … It could have been a truck or a tractor. See, I just can't remember the details and, well, I moved here recently from Chicago to take this job at the bank so the area is very unfamiliar. … "

It was clear that even the best "Dennis" interrogation technique wasn't going to get anything usable from this guy, so I offered the option of "reassessing" his complaint — stating that, in fact, he was not able to be sure it had actually occurred. Since there were no other witnesses, this would effectively close the investigation. He eagerly seized a pen to write the statement while I tried to stifle my amusement at smelling a very obvious rat — the charming and solicitous mayor, the clueless neighbors and this very nervous, very new resident of Walnut who'd raised a firestorm with his complaint to the state police and the FAA.

I loved Walnut and came to love Keith and Marguerite Yonk, who'd lived there all their lives. Marguerite was a longtime Latin teacher at the local high school. Keith was an avid outdoorsman, and, over lunch at the Green River Country Club (a violation of civil service ethics since they bought my hamburger), we talked pheasant and quail hunting. We became fast friends, and Keith invited me out to Walnut every season. We hunted pheasant and we fished, and I picked berries and searched for mushrooms. They're both gone now, but I treasure the beautiful mallard his son carved; it sits on my desk as I write. I miss them.

Oh, yeah, the low flyer. Well, it was Joe Cady, a crop-duster from nearby Deer Grove. Every summer the village of Walnut hired Joe to spray the creek for mosquitoes a few days before its annual Fourth of July picnic.

As for the bank cashier? I really don't know if he stayed in Walnut or maybe moved on.