My Life of Crime

The long rap sheet only tells part of the tale.

The year ended in a somewhat challenging manner and—while nowhere near the previous one when my wings were clipped—convoluted enough to keep me from getting bored. Weather, a lengthy annual inspection, and crunched tail feathers kept me on the ground but I passed the demonic IFR written and was back to some serious practical test preparation by August.

“Piece of cake,” I thought. I’d been rated since the late ’60s and logged plenty of time “cloud flying.” But, like some of you, I wasn’t brought up on the new generation of avionics and sophisticated nav equipment. And my 180 has no autopilot or even so much as a heading bug on the directional gyro. Its avionics consist of an elderly BendixKing KX-155 and a Garmin 430. Yeah, I use ForeFlight but it can be a struggle. There were times I was tempted to placard the 430 “inop,” leave the iPad at home, and stick to ILS, localizer, and VOR approaches.


I lost my examiner designation several years ago for propping a Piper J-3 unattended when the tiedown broke—and then got totally busted for flying under a bridge in 2021. So, with all the delays this year, I wondered if somebody was trying to tell me something. I’ve always wanted to learn to weld, play pool, and ride a motorcycle…but, no. I won’t stop flying while I can still crawl into the cockpit.

I did, however, expect life to get easier after retirement. 

Maybe we all tend to look back on even difficult times through rose-colored glasses, but recently, I unearthed a file of “disciplinary actions” taken by the FAA during my 28 years as an aviation safety inspector. I can giggle at the absurdity of most of it now but, at the time, it took a toll and I even considered a medical retirement from the stress. But, I prayed furiously, hung in there,and while I still think of myself as a nice, mostly law abiding Catholic girl, evidently I’m one tough broad (sorry, ladies).

My “rap sheet” began with a written admonition as a brand-new inspector at the DuPage (KDPA) FSDO in 1981, for “not updating activities on your supervisor’s planning chart…although your work is quite satisfactory and completed positively and efficiently.”

The next year, I got a three-day suspension for “reading FLYING Magazine while on phone duty at the front desk…not a job-related activity.” Well, hell, at least it wasn’t Cosmopolitan.

I was trying hard to get a transfer from that toxic West Chicago office—truthfully, to be nearer to my aged and infirm parents in Cincinnati. So I finally wrote to my congressman (not something that makes you popular in the FAA). The flight standards director answered the dreaded “congressional” he received by saying, “Mrs. Lunken is something of a discipline problem.”

They did, however, transfer me to Indianapolis, where the office and the people were flat-out wonderful. They sent me to Opa-Locka Airport (KOPF) for a Douglas DC-3 type rating since they had a large freight operator at Columbus, Indiana, and I was already rated in a Lockheed 18 (Lodestar). Life was good.

After three years, I bid for a slot as safety program manager in Cincinnati, and my supervisor, a wonderful guy named Jay Peterson, asked if I really wanted to do that. “We love you and the manager over there can be, uh…” Well, I did it anyway, knowing the manager was a little odd, but sure that I could handle it gracefully.

Wrong…very wrong.

The job was great—planning and putting on safety seminars plus lots of flying, since nobody else seemed thrilled about the Part 135, medical, and re-exam flight checks…plus loaning me out for DC-3 work all over the country. The problem was that manager—the aviation equivalent of Captain Queeg, a questionable character in The Caine Mutiny, a novel by Herman Wouk. Doing a job well wasn’t nearly so important as paperwork, computer entries, and unbelievably complicated work schedules because of travel and evening meetings. The reprimands started coming fast and furious.

“You are officially reprimanded for occupying a pilot’s seat during the conduct of a DC-3 flight check.” (I still wouldn’t sit helpless on a jump seat while somebody else pulled engines on a Goon…period.)

“You submitted a travel voucher with the grievous error—an improper authorization number and funding code…”

“This is a reprimand for renting an aircraft with my verbal approval but without having a signed form 4040.”

“This is a warning for taking a government car home even though there was an arrest being made in our parking lot when you arrived here from Gallipolis at 11:30 p.m.”

“I am suspending you from your position as an Aviation Safety Inspector for two days for using the office fax machine to subscribe to the Tri-State Pilot News and discussing your sister’s Ercoupe on a government phone.” (I appealed, and the examiner found the disciplinary action unfair.)

“This letter of reprimand involves your effort to have more windsocks installed at Lunken Airport. You did not coordinate your action with me—an embarrassment to this office and a disregard of official policy.”

“…continuous problems correctly documenting your activities in a timely manner…PTRS, T&A, LDR, 4040 EBC, and vouchers. Your seminar activities may need to be curtailed to allow for submission of paperwork.”

And the funniest…“You submitted six letters for review prior to sending them to supporters of your ‘Wings Weekend’ event. While it was a great jester (sic) on your part, you have the wrong return address.” (It was a one-digit error—we’d recently moved from an adjacent building.)

“I am charging you with 15 minutes AWOL for making a touch-and-go landing when returning from a job activity.”

“I am charging you with 10 minutes AWOL for returning from your half-hour lunch break 13 minutes late.”

OK, some were justified, like taking a civilian speaker along in a government rental airplane to a safety seminar. And some “crimes” went undetected, like filling a government van full of cases of beer and wine I bought in Kentucky (illegal to bring across the Ohio River) for an event celebrating the flight instructor of the year with Neil Armstrong as speaker. I probably could have gone to state prison as well as Leavenworth for that one. Or carrying a helium tank strapped in my Cub to fill balloons for a Wings Weekend banquet. I have to admit, if I were a manager, I wouldn’t want me as an employee. But I was very good at my job and beloved by so many pilots and mechanics in our area. Retiring was a difficult decision but the old safety program was being replaced by something called FAAST. It was definitely time to go.

This column was originally published in the December 2022/January 2023 Issue 933 of FLYING.


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