In a Pickle ( … with a few names changed to protect me)

(July 2011) "Hey, Tom, ride up the road with me, would you?"

Beer in hand, Tom looked up from the picnic table in surprise. I explained that I wanted to talk to the pilot of a Sundowner that had just landed and was parked on the ramp at Hangar Two.

"This is, well, a little odd, but I want to know if the guy was by himself or had a passenger and I need a witness." What I really meant was a bodyguard.

“Chances are it’s too late, but if the pilot’s still around I’ll talk to him while you just sort of stand around in the background.”

Tom, who’s about 6 feet 4 inches and built like a linebacker, still looked puzzled but folded himself into the front seat of my car. It was about 10 o’clock on a balmy Wednesday night, and the Flying Knights were gathered at their clubhouse on the south line at Lunken, across the ramp from my hangar. I had just taxied in, back from a seminar, when the ground controller said, “You just missed that Sundowner you wanted us to watch for. He landed about 10 minutes ago and taxied up ‘Charlie’ to Hangar Two.”

Tom and I sped up the road, I swiped my gate card, and we drove onto the big, dark, deserted ramp. The little Beech was tied down, but when I felt the cowling it was still warm. Then I noticed a car parked on the corner of the ramp in the shadow of the big brick hangar. We drove over, I rolled down my window, and, assuming my best Pollyanna persona, I beamed at the two people in the front seat.

“Hi! Sure is a beautiful night to go flying. That was probably you guys I heard inbound ahead of me. ... I landed a few minutes later. And that moon, wow! Is that a spectacular sight or what?”

“Yeah,” the driver answered.

“Joe Babis told me the other day that he’d sold the Sundowner. Nice airplane; I guess you’re the proud new owner?”


Then the sweet young thing cuddled close in the right seat chirped, “Nick and I flew to Portsmouth for dinner. It was totally awesome. Joe’s my uncle ... well, my granduncle ... and, like, I’m working for him this summer at the hangar. That’s how I met Nick, who’s a totally awesome pilot. (And totally, awesomely married, I knew.) So, like, don’t I know you?”

By now I was out of the car, hoping Tom was in position as I approached the driver’s side of the sedan.

“Yeah, we’ve probably met. I work up the road at the FAA office. Here’s my ID. Gee, I’m sorry to bother you guys with this stuff, but I need to see a pilot certificate and medical.”

“I told you, Nick. I told you. I told you that was Martha Lunken ... ”

Ninety-nine percent of the violations processed in FSDOs are paperwork exercises — dry, benign, boring stuff: An inspector sees some guy removing the propeller on his 172 and stops to check on his (nonexistent) A&P certificate; a 135 operator’s competitor turns him in for using an airplane not on his certificate; or a VFR pilot wanders into Class C airspace. The FAA’s not called a “paper tiger” for nothing.

As a safety program person I wasn’t supposed to be involved in enforcement actions, but my flight instructor friends were relaying some interesting stories about this guy Nick, who was taking flying lessons — with some interesting caveats. He insisted they skip the airwork and get right to takeoffs and landings. When at least one instructor balked, Nick showed him the trunk of his car, which contained an arsenal of handguns, rifles, shotguns and ammunition.

At various times he’d flashed a “CIA” badge, claimed to be a medical doctor (with printed prescription pads) and said he was involved in military covert operations at various hot spots around the world. In the phone book he was listed as a tree trimmer. Anyway, the instructors didn’t know whether to laugh him off or be concerned.

When two or three flight schools turned him away, Nick — actually his wife — bought the Sundowner from Avionics Inc. and helped unearth a freelance instructor. Joe said they’d made a number of flights to Canada for prescription medicines and swore Nick had flashed credentials to free another grandniece from an Atlanta jail, where she was being held on a domestic violence charge.

So, curious, concerned and not too worried about the wording in my job description, I started some serious poking around. Joe was firmly convinced this guy was a genuine government agent; I was firmly convinced he was a genuine imposter, or worse.

Back to that night on the ramp ...

Nick rummaged around and produced a little black logbook containing a medical certificate and a letter from FAA Airman Certification Branch authorizing the holder to exercise privileges of a private pilot with an instrument rating “in lieu of a standard certificate.” Well, I’d been all over the United States and parts of Kentucky but never saw anything like this before ... and it looked real.

“Gee, Nick, this thing is pretty unique.”

When I suggested I give him a receipt and take it with me, the atmos-phere became suddenly, well, charged — and not in a good way. I was glad that big Tom was standing behind me.

“Hey, no problem. Just stop by the office tomorrow with it and we’ll straighten everything out in no time.”


Of course he didn’t show, and of course Airman Cert had no idea what we were talking about. Incredibly, nobody seemed too concerned, but the locals did report Nick had a record ... some felony arrests but convictions limited to a string of misdemeanor charges. I requested FAA Medical to check the information on his application for omissions or fraudulent information, but again got nowhere.

Suddenly Megan popped into my mind. Megan was an agent for the Department of Transportation Attorney General’s Office and was currently attached to the FBI office in Cincinnati. She was savvy, sophisticated, talented, experienced, and, as a federal officer with the authority to make arrests, Megan packed. We’d met when she was working the criminal side of an investigation involving an engine overhaul facility in our district (where the engine on my 180 came from ... but that’s another story). This potentially fraudulent pilot certificate business was right down her alley, and with one phone call to Megan it was “game on.”

The funny thing was that Nick would talk to me on the phone like we were old friends — sometimes. Megan said we needed to get him into the office for an interview, so I “courted” him until he finally agreed to a meeting. That morning she briefed me. She rearranged the chairs in the office foyer so Nick would have free access to the nearby exit door. Then she herded everybody else in back and assumed the role of receptionist, wearing frosted blue mascara and a low-cut camisole with a loose overblouse concealing her shoulder holster.

Nick was friendly and cooperative as, under Megan’s gaze, we talked about airplanes and performance. Then I suggested he “come clean” and we’d “get these issues cleared up and behind him.” Suddenly, like the night on the ramp, Doctor Jekyll became Mr. Hyde, and I understood the importance of the unobstructed exit path. It was weird. ... I thought Megan and I were magnificent, but he must have smelled a rat because, suddenly and violently, Nick was “outta” there.

Long story (several months) short, Megan got her man and Nick got a felony conviction for falsification of government documents and heaven knows what else. Then, while he was in the slammer, Mrs. Nick decided to take flying lessons in her Sundowner, using the same freelancer, whose instructional skills weren’t much better than his judgment. She crashed on her first solo, escaping unscathed, which was more than you could say for the Sundowner (fortunately, I thought).

Anyway, with Nick still on ice, the airplane in baskets and Megan promoted to a different office, I was happy that our friend was permanently out of the sky — or so I thought. After a felony conviction you have to wait a year before you can apply for an FAA medical. And if there were forgery issues or false statements about psychiatric issues or the use of recreational or prescription drugs, the file is flagged. Getting another medical was, I assumed, impossible.

Just before I retired, Nick, now out of jail, called me wanting to know the procedure for regaining his medical and student certificates. Somewhere between outrage, disbelief and a sense of the ridiculous, I transferred the call to my manager, who forwarded it to an FAA lawyer, who consulted with “Medical,” who could find no flags on the file. So, if he went through the prescribed application process ...

I should say that struck me as something less than “in the best interests of safety,” but the truth is it struck me as unbelievable, and, boy, was I pissed.

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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