A Tale of Two Hangars

** Hangar 6 and an adjacent Army barracks
(no longer there) when occupied by “TV Tom”
Noonan and his “colorful” Aviation Center in
the ’50s.**

(October 2011) Signature Engines president Bill Schmidt and the company's chief security officer, Boo Radley, strolled across the ramp to my hangar last week as I was debugging the 180. Boo is actually a spoiled but lovable mutt rescued by Bill and named for the lonely character in To Kill a Mockingbird. Summer flying in the Midwest involves the minor inconvenience of dodging thunderstorms and the major pain-in-the-ass job of cleaning bugs off the airplane ... unless you got close enough to heavy precipitation to scour them off in flight. But wiping the bugs off beats the heck out of whimpering because you got yourself into something you wish you hadn't. I'm no neat freak, but I just can't let 72B sit in the hangar without sponging down the wing's leading edges and getting those gross, juicy splats off the windshield. (Pledge furniture polish spray is superb.)

Signature is pretty highly thought of in the engine overhaul business, and, since its inception in 1998, Bill’s done magic with the business as well as with the place it calls home: Hangars 6 and 7, the two oldest and most historic buildings on the ’drome, sit directly across the south line ramp from my hangar. Ebby Lunken concocted the tale that the hangars originated in Chadun, an Allied airfield in France, during World War I, to be shipped home and reassembled two or three times in the States after the war. They are, however, clearly visible in early photos of Dayton’s McCook Field. When that site was replaced by the Army Air Corps’ Wright-Patterson Field, the 359th Observation Squadron moved them to Cincinnati — first to Grisard Field (later Blue Ash Airport) and then to their permanent home at Lunken Field around 1925. The hangars remained military property through the end of World War II, when Cincinnati was headquarters of the Air Corps Ferrying Command.

Old-fashioned and kind of homely, they’re sound enough to stand another 100 years. “Seven” is especially close to my heart because it was base to Midwest Airways’ Lockheed 10s and 12s back in the ’60s when I first knew Ebby Lunken and he was creating his beloved Midwest Airways, one of the original commuter or third-level airlines. When the airline finally sank slowly in the west, Ebby kept the lease and rented — more likely gave — me space for a flying school I called Midwest Flight Center — mostly because “Midwest” was already painted over the hangar doors. Here’s how what came to be known as “Miss Martha’s Flying School” happened. ...

The summer I graduated from a small college in Cincinnati (which no longer exists — the college, I mean, not the city ... well, at least not yet), I went to my first and only corporate job interview downtown at a chemical company, which also no longer exists. Is it a coincidence that every school I attended or company I worked for has disappeared ... except the Federal Aviation Administration, which wreaks bureaucratic mayhem despite my 28 years of devoted efforts to screw it up?

Now, everybody knows a liberal arts degree (English lit and history) doesn’t exactly prepare you for a useful occupation, and I’d made sure to avoid anything that would remotely qualify me to teach. Same logic as in refusing to learn to type: Don’t, and you won’t be tempted to take a job doing it. Oh, if only somebody had told me about computers and the Internet.

Anyway, with the ink on my diploma still wet, I presented myself at the corporate offices of this chemical behemoth for a job writing advertising copy. Most vivid in my memory was the utter absence of “vividness.” See, everything was gray. Two or three people dressed in gray suits sat at a large gray table in a room with soft gray walls. The air had a gray cast, and breathing left an unpleasant, metallic gray taste in my mouth. I needed a job and I loved the language, but I knew this wasn’t going to “fly.” The chief interviewer touched his wavy gray hair, showed slightly gray teeth when he smiled and said they would “be in touch.” I smiled back and shook his hand, intrigued that even his fingernails were gray. The interview had gone well and I was pretty sure I had the job, but as I walked down a gray stairwell and out of the gray building to a bright June morning on Sycamore Street, tears were rolling down my cheeks. This was a major fork in the life-road; it demanded time and serious thought. I sat on the curb, ignoring the grime on my gray suit skirt, to think, but that same guardian angel who’s always on my wingtip was whispering something. And 30 seconds later I sprinted to retrieve my green Volkswagen bug and drove at warp speed — for a VW — out Columbia Parkway to Lunken Airport.

I never looked back.

I was 23, having taken a two-year “sabbatical” after my junior year in college to get married and help Ebby at the airline. But circumstances had changed: The airline was nearly defunct and our engagement was on indefinite hold; Ebby’s “grada” (holder of the family purse strings), not to mention an ultrahigh-society ex-wife and a hugely pissed off ex-girlfriend, were pressuring him to wait. My dismayed family (“marry a man 30 years your senior and from a totally different class”) had ejected me from the house. A nun who ran the English department at Villa Madonna College (it is no more too) kept urging me to finish the last year and maybe go on to grad school. But when I finally talked to the dean at Villa, he surprised me by demanding an end to “your notorious and scandalous affair with that playboy” before he’d allow me to return. So it was kind of a hard time; but, then, at 23 nothing’s very serious for very long. I borrowed enough money from Mary to get an instructor’s rating, returned Ebby’s big diamond, told Father Brinker to go to hell and finished college for $200 a semester at my sister’s alma mater, Our Lady of Cincinnati College (yeah, that really was the name and, of course, it’s out of existence).

Then, on a glorious June morning, with the clear and certain knowledge that, degree or no degree, I wasn’t meant for corporate America, I wheedled a job flight instructing from Bill Walker at Cincinnati Aircraft. Ebby and I would remain close and finally marry 10 years later, and I was still working for the remnants of the now all-charter airline. And suddenly life was good again. If I could make $100 a week ($5 an hour instructing), pay $100 a month for an apartment, instruct, fly illegal charter and play the field with lots of friends, it was a hand-to-mouth existence but a joyful one.

Somebody talked me into teaching weekly aviation ground school in a local technical college’s adult education program. The pay was peanuts, and at first I was terrified to face a classroom, but it worked — the course was popular and suddenly I had more flying students than I could handle. Since it was just dumb to send them off to other schools, my dad loaned me $6,000 for a 1966 Cessna 150, Ebby gave me hangar space, and Miss Martha’s Flying School was born. I needed a Part 141 certificate so we’d be able to get lucrative Veterans Administration business as well as our own examining authority. So an inspector in the Cincinnati general aviation district office, Leo Wonderley (bless him, he’s the guy who, years later, sent me to get type rated in the DC-3), “loaned” me the approved manuals from the 141 courses at Miami University in nearby Oxford, Ohio.

“Just change names, locations, dimensions and N-numbers ... the stuff that’s unique to Miami U’s course. Send it back, and an inspector will review it and demand a bunch of changes and corrections. After two or three trips back and forth, it’ll be approved and you’ll be in business.”

“But, Leo, it’s already been approved. If I make the identity-specific changes, why ... ?”

“Just do what I’m telling you. It’s how the system works.”

How well I would learn that lesson in another life as an FAA inspector!

With lease-backs, freelance instructors and examining authority, the school was pretty successful for nearly 10 years, but, as time went on, I was getting tired of instructing; 6,000 hours of dual given is about 5,000 too many, and I was nodding off to sleep on final approach with pre-solo students. Ebby was back in marriage mode (we applied for three marriage licenses before actually doing the deed), and I decided it was the obvious ticket to a life of high society, travel and prestige.

Great reasons, huh? Truth is, I lost my way somewhere between the airport south line and the terrace at the upscale Camargo Club in Cincinnati’s Indian Hill. But we do what seems best at the time ... and some of it was very good!

Those old hangars were home to a rogues’ gallery of characters in the 50 years between World War II and Signature Engines. I’ve been tempted to ask my friend Bishop Joe about an exorcism. Sure, I’ll tell you the stories, but meanwhile, thanks to Bill Schmidt and Boo for rescuing the old ladies from their lives of sin.

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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