Unusual Attitudes: Are We Really “The Bad Guys”?

** Illustration by Chris Gall** Chris Gall

Hearing about John and Martha King's encounter with law enforcement and reading about similar horror stories, I adjusted my eye patch and was about to swing through the rigging, knife in teeth, in defense of pilots' rights. Like Clark Kent, I would use my journalistic skills to battle the forces of evil — menacing cops stopping innocent pilots on taxiways and tossing them, cuffed and cowed, into the back of patrol cars while their airplanes are sniffed and slobbered over by dogs in search of ... whatever.

Then I thought, “Wait a minute.” While these mostly third-hand tales of outrageous actions by law enforcement are pretty scary, I haven’t actually experienced or heard of anything like this happening in my part of airplane world. The cops I worked with for years as an FAA inspector and those involved in my own scrapes and screw-ups have been professional, polite, reasonable and friendly. I still welcome a patrol car cruising the remote south line ramp at Cincinnati’s Lunken Airport when I’m alone, wrestling the 180 into the hangar on a dark night. And you have to admire the state police who respond to airplane accidents. These guys can secure a site, chase off the media, assemble witnesses and document the scene of an accident more precisely and professionally than any FAA or NTSB investigator I’ve seen. (Please note: I have no experience with major accidents.)

There’s the occasional, overzealous or downright nasty cop who flexes his muscles and inserts himself into a purely regulatory investigation, like the deputy who confiscated a young pilot’s certificate after he expertly landed a Super Cub in a bean field when the engine quit. Trying to retrieve it, I was told, “That smartass kid can just cool his heels for a couple weeks until the officer gets back from vacation.” I reminded him, politely, that they had no authority to confiscate a federally issued certificate. Getting nowhere, I suggested, impolitely, that he was acting like a wiener-head. His reaction was interesting, and I declined an invitation to come to the post and pick it up. In fact, for several months I paid careful attention to my speed on I-75 when driving through Butler County, Ohio.

Then there was the saga of Walter, a freshly minted private pilot who wreaked mild havoc with air traffic control and cops in two states. Flying his newly acquired Cessna 150 from southern Georgia to Portsmouth, Ohio, with a sick electrical system and poor visibility over the hills of Tennessee and Kentucky, he landed no-radio at an airport with a very long runway: Lexington, Kentucky’s Blue Grass Airport. I’d known Walter from some safety seminars in southeastern Ohio; he was a “fooler” — unusually intelligent and well-educated but shy. His halting, curious way of speaking in a unique back country dialect explained why the controller, talking to him on the phone, was concerned he was drunk or impaired. Airport security responded and when they were satisfied he was OK, Walter bought a new generator and departed on the next leg. Alas, even with a full complement of electrons, he didn’t understand ground control and surprised everybody (well, sort of) by taking off in the opposite direction on the active runway.

Neither was Walter exactly Magellan when it came to navigating, and he wandered north into Cincinnati’s Class B airspace at the height of the Friday afternoon “push.” Although he was talking to a controller at the then-busy Delta hub, Walter wasn’t complying with heading and altitude assignments. ATC gets touchy when they have to divert airline traffic, so things were rather chaotic until they got him on the ground.

My cohort, an airworthiness (maintenance) inspector, and I found Walter sitting forlornly in a back room of the FBO, surrounded by men wearing a variety of uniforms and equipped with an impressive array of firearms. As in Lexington, these guys weren’t sure if he was a terrorist, a druggie or, simply, a confused and lost novice pilot. I smiled and burst into the room with, “Walter, what in the hell’s going on?” which had the desired effect; the uniforms relaxed a little since an FAA inspector obviously knew this guy. But in a quiet aside to my partner, I suggested we “find a reason to hang a condition notice on that airplane.” Hearing the whole story, the cops said they’d be satisfied if Walter would just get the hell out of there. But I knew if we extricated him from the clutches of the law and he launched again in that 150, there’d be another interstellar incident. So we hustled him into the G-car, assuring the uniforms that the FAA would fully investigate and impose appropriately severe sanctions (i.e., remedial training).

My partner was nervous about giving Walter a ride in a government car, which is strictly verboten, but I hadn’t broken a rule yet that day and figured we had to get him out of there while the getting was good. So we dropped him down the street from the Flight Standards District Office (FSDO), where he called his son for a ride home, and I flew his airplane back the next day on a ferry permit.

Oddly, a similar drama was unfolding across the street that same afternoon. Another female inspector from our office met a Bonanza flown into Lunken from Charleston, West Virginia, by an elderly pilot. The flight originated that morning in Florida and the no-radio landing in West Virginia was a “mistake.” When a Charleston FSDO inspector discovered he had no medical, he started a violation procedure and warned him against continuing the flight. But instead of taxiing to an FBO across the field, he wheeled onto the nearest runway and took off into the wild blue, radar tracking the flight to Lunken.

This obviously impaired man wanted to get to Cincinnati for a “serious” medical consultation. When he finally found the right airport and landed, he was in such distress that somebody had to half-carry him out of the airplane and into a restroom. Then, while the line crew “attended to” the interior of the Bonanza, the gutsy old guy escaped in a cab. Why the incensed — and insensitive — Inspector Crackett called the cops I have no idea. But she convinced Cincinnati police, the Hamilton County Sheriff and the Ohio State Highway Patrol that he was a threat to western civilization, and they were hot on the trail of the aerial desperado.

After his doctor’s appointment, the pilot called from the Greyhound bus station to arrange long-term storage for his airplane. He’d given up on flying it and was about to board a Grey Dog for the long ride back to Florida. The FBO called the cops, who descended on the bus station, arrested the old man and threw him in jail for the weekend. When I heard what had happened that Friday night, I called on my boss to do something. This arrest business was unnecessary and inhumane; the man needed medical attention and a ticket home — not jail. He ordered me to “stay out of it,” and the old guy spent the weekend in jail until the charges (whatever they were) were dismissed on Monday morning. He died in Florida a few weeks later. But this wasn’t an overreaction by the cops; it was the whacko action of a not very nice FAA inspector.

The only time bells went off about law enforcement muscling into purely FAA regulatory matters happened a few weeks later when a local CFI reported that sheriff’s deputies conducting ramp checks had cited his student for doing solo touch-and-goes without a private pilot certificate! It seems a group of deputies had attended an “Ohio Transportation Homeland Security” seminar where an FAA inspector had briefed them on how to conduct FAA ramp checks. My next call was to Hal Shevers, aka “Sporty,” and thank heavens for an old friend, a true general aviation advocate and somebody with enough horsepower to arrange a meeting with the Hamilton County Sheriff’s Office. Then-Sheriff Simon Leis claimed he was unaware of this initiative, which may or may not have been true. But to my knowledge, since that meeting there have been no deputies “ramp checking” pilots at airports.

Bottom line, if you’re stopped, questioned, harassed, searched or just pissed off by law enforcement, cooperate. After-ward, make loud noises to every state and federal congressman, representative and aviation advocacy group, such as AOPA. Tell me, and I will adjust my eye patch, swing through the rigging, knife in hand, and write about it.

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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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