Unusual Attitudes: I Shouldn’t Have, But…

I think it was the summer of 1983 when a nasty line of thunderstorms moved across DuPage Airport west of Chicago, upending a number of airplanes and damaging even more. I was not having a good time as a novice FAA operations safety inspector in the DuPage FSDO. Taking any initiative — doing something — usually landed me on somebody’s carpet, and doing nothing but reading manuals and shuffling paperwork put me to sleep in total boredom. A bright spot was that I sat next to Theo Moore in the bullpen; Theo was the accident prevention specialist (APS), and I was picking up tips about how — and how not — to run a successful safety program.

Back home in Cincinnati a friend, Ted Schneider, owned an aircraft salvage and repair business, and I thought he’d like the chance to bid on some crunched flying machines. Yeah, it was probably illegal and immoral if not fattening, but I slipped across the hall on the second floor of DuPage Beechcraft to the airport manager’s office.

“Gee, it’s a shame about all the damage. Theo might want to do a safety seminar on high winds and safe tie-down procedures, especially for the owners of those airplanes. But how in the world would he get a list of names and N-numbers?”

(Well, c’mon, a safety program would have been a good idea — a little after the fact, but ... )

“That sounds wonderful,” said the airport manager’s secretary. “If you can stop back over this afternoon I’ll have a list for you.”

So later that day, when everybody else had escaped “into the field,” were drinking coffee in the break room or were closeted in another of the endless meetings, I went back and the lady handed me a neatly typed list. I slipped down the stairs to a pay phone in the lobby and called Ted.

“Hey, get ready to copy, Ted. Here’s a list of bent flying machines from that storm that went through West Chicago yesterday.”

Ted’s gone now, and I never knew if he got any business or if he was even interested. And I’m not really sure why I did it except that it made me feel good to help somebody in the flying business. I was genuinely worried about losing my soul in this place; pilots and mechanics were seen as incompetent, lazy, stupid or willfully lawless, looking for any shortcut to make money with no regard for safety.

To salve my conscience I did pitch the safety seminar idea to Theo, but he wasn’t much interested. Theo’s shtick was an obsession with left-turning tendencies — primarily P-factor — in airplanes with normal, clockwise rotating propellers. In fact, he conducted so many safety seminars on this topic that when he finally retired the local pilots gave him a propeller with one blade painted “Ass-Ending Blade.”

I did feel better after this foray into what would become a long career of involving myself in campaigns and causes and finding myself in places I wasn’t supposed to be. The stakes got higher when I went back to Cincinnati as a safety program manager (Theo’s old APS job with a fancier title). There were far more opportunities to work with pilots and operators with the added challenge of staying “undercover.” See, my boss, the office manager, considered me incorrigible, a “loose cannon” who might derail his career, and was openly out for my ass. The truth, I suppose, is that I was a problem employee, always seduced by that “if you aren’t living on the edge you’re taking up too much room” thing.

Clyde Mullins operated the airport at New Lebanon, Ohio, and was worried about a cell phone tower slated for construction right next to the airport, on base to final for the southwest runway. Would I come to New Lebanon for the township trustees’ meeting just to lend moral support to the airport group? Of course, I would come and could semihonestly call it a safety meeting. If my boss knew I was sticking my nose in local politics, he’d tell me to stay out of it.

“But, Clyde,” I said, “the FAA has already signed off on this thing; since ‘Airports’ has no objection to the tower, there’s not a whole lot I can do.”

“Yeah, I know, but it just might help if you’re there.”

So we assembled on a rainy night in the New Lebanon council chambers. Our ragtag airport bunch in jeans, leather jackets and baseball caps sat on the right and a group of serious “suits” with briefcases on the left. The trustees, who resembled versions of the Wizard of Oz, were enthroned in front on kind of a dais.

After tedious discussions about water rates and street repairs, the cell tower issue came up and the trustees recognized Clyde as spokesman for the airport group. Clyde got to his feet and said, “FAA inspector Martha Lunken is here to explain why this tower is unsafe. She’s a safety expert and will explain the negative effect it would have on the airport and the surrounding community.” (I guess I was supposed to describe airplane parts raining down on nearby houses, not to mention disruption in cell phone service).

The suits looked at me in surprise and I looked at Clyde with daggers. I could just hear the cellular guys calling their home office about this FAA lady — and see things “hit the fan” in the regional office tomorrow morning with my manager salivating at the prospect of another reprimand in my growing file.

“You already know, Wiz, uh, gentlemen, that officially there’s no objection from the FAA to the placement of this tower. As a local FAA safety person I’m concerned only about the possible negative psychological impact on people in your community who use the airport.”

The suits relaxed and the Wizards decided to “take it under advisement.”

To this day, every time I fly past Dahio Airport and look down at that damned cell tower, I eat another serving of crow.

Airborne Air Park (ILN) is a huge and very private airfreight facility reborn from a former Ohio Air Guard base in Wilmington, Ohio. Until recently, it was an international hub — a “sort center” — busy through the night with airfreight traffic.

Adjacent to the massive hangars and sort buildings is the Laurel Oaks aircraft maintenance school. You can’t land at ILN without prior permission, but that was no problem. The guys in ops knew I often had business at the school, and a phone call with any N-number and arrival time always did the trick.

The day I flew in to discuss a coming maintenance seminar I had the necessary permission, but either ops forgot to notify airport security or I forgot to tell the school when I was coming. The gate to the school was locked and the fence was too high to climb. I had no cell phone so I just wandered up the ramp into a cavernous sort building full of conveyers and lifts. It was open on the airport side but empty — not a living soul around in the middle of the day.

When I say it was big, I mean big, but eventually I found a way out to the street side and spied a guard shack near the road. As I got closer I saw a big, and I mean big, uniformed female person inside, her head nodding in a midday nap. When a few discreet noises didn’t rouse her, I rapped on the window.

She came awake with a start, assembled her wits and demanded to know my business.

“Well, ma’am, I landed and then wandered through that building until I found a way out.”

“You did what ... you landed what ... you were unescorted in that building?” her voice had risen several octaves and her face was bright red.

She wasn’t armed so I thought I’d have a little fun.

“Gee whiz, don’t get so upset. I’m just trying to, like, get out of here.”

“Don’t move. Stand still and don’t try anything while I call for backup.” (Obviously she’d been watching too much LAPD).

A few minutes later a white car sped up to the guardhouse and, instead of the expected SWAT team, a lone woman, albeit armed, arrived. I told her the story, showed my FAA ID and flashed my impressive-looking golden badge, and she took me over to the school in the car. When I finished the story about my encounter with Brunhilde we were both laughing.

Yes, I promised to get out through the school gate or call Security when it was time to leave. And, no, she wouldn’t be making any report to the Airborne people or the FAA.

Saved again, this time!

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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