Flying and Forever Friends

A tale of two pilots, their escapades and the friendship forged along the way.

Martha Lunken and Skip

Martha Lunken and Skip

"Skip," Martha and their Cubs

__Not too long ago, Skip called to see if I wanted to pull the 180 out and join a gaggle of RV-8s flying to Columbus, Indiana, for Sunday breakfast, but I had a test to give that morning. He said he had texted me earlier, but I don’t “do” texting, at least not yet. With everybody’s nose buried in a BlackBerry, iPhone or other electronic device, we’re in danger of forgetting how to communicate face to face. Sometimes, just to enjoy the deliciousness of being unconnected, I turn my basic, bare-bones cell phone off ... for days.

I guess it was 25 years ago when Cub Stewart’s wife, Cathy, introduced me to this guy whose real name isn’t Skip (but then you can’t rat out your friends like you can yourself). He was hanging out at Red Stewart Field (40I) in Waynesville, Ohio, but his Super Cub lived at Lunken. Waynesville, about 30 miles northeast, is taildragger heaven — students making touch-and-goes in Cubs and Champs, aerobatics happening in Citabrias and Stearmans, a bunch of jumpers leaping out of a Beech 18 and gliders listing on their wingtips waiting for a tow. There’s no end of interesting characters and people bringing airplanes from all over to a shop that really knows wood, wire and fabric. On any flyable weekend, the place looks like a Norman Rockwell painting.

Skip had recently emerged from hot air balloon world, embraced real airplanes and bought the Super Cub. He’s one of a kind — a wisecracking, chain-smoking, alternately curmudgeonly and lighthearted guy with probably a genius IQ and, at that time, on the rebound from wife number three or four. That meant he wasn’t exactly rolling in money, but he rarely took life’s ups and downs too seriously. Cathy thought we’d be the perfect pair, but then she’s better at recovering airplanes (boy, is she ever) than at matchmaking. But we soon found that we share addictive and anti-authority personalities, skewed views of the world and a passion for Japanese food as well as all things that fly; we became fast and forever friends.

Along with the Super Cub he acquired a banner tow business with clients hawking everything from cars to cell phones to pleas like “Betty, would you marry me?” In those days there were few security restrictions, and with two large sports stadiums in Cincinnati, several racetracks and the nearby Kings Island park, banner towing was a going enterprise.

I should have realized just how left of center Skip was when something called a Wilga appeared in his hangar. The mists of time and a highly selective memory blur details, but this thing was built in Poland and resembled a giant grasshopper. It had a funny little radial engine with cooling vanes that looked like recycled Venetian blinds. The knobs and levers in the cockpit, obviously not “American,” worked in weird directions, and the instruments were calibrated in things like hectopascals. Since the POH and the placards were literal translations from Polish (or maybe Chinese), they were, well, inscrutable. Besides, the Wilga was innately, incredibly and irredeemably ugly.

More critical, however, was its disconcerting habit of suddenly quitting from “unscheduled” fuel starvation. I don’t know if it was something lost in translation in the POH or in the fuel system design or if Skip just wasn’t good at arithmetic, but the damn thing kept running out of fuel. Even though, or maybe because, we were friends (plus I was a fed), I usually got these stories in highly sanitized form, secondhand or thirdhand and long after they happened.

Early in his Wilga career he loaded the airplane with a crew from Waynesville and headed south for Sun ’n Fun. Skip doesn’t give up too easily on weather, but a meteorological event of some magnitude forced him to turn tail over the mountains of southern Kentucky and make an unscheduled and extended stop at London.

Finally en route again, they flew several hours until a totally unexpected engine failure occasioned a successful dead-stick landing at some airport in southern Georgia. The tanks were dry. Undaunted, Skip topped her off and found Lakeland, Florida, without further incident. Several days later his passengers — quite bravely, I thought — boarded for the flight back to Ohio. But after another unplanned, out-of-fuel landing at an airport in northern Florida, everybody mutinied, jumped ship and drove back to Ohio in a rental car, wishing Skip best of luck on his solo journey.

As a dealer (I think maybe anybody who bought a Wilga was a dealer), Skip went to California to ferry a Wilga back East with its new but inexperienced pilot/owner. Somewhere in the middle of some desert — yeah, you guessed it — they ran out of fuel. Fortunately Skip is an extraordinary pilot if not a reader of manuals and fuel consumption charts and was able to dodge sagebrush and prairie dogs to land uneventfully on the scrubby surface.

The terrified owner/passenger had (understandably) peed in the pants of his green, macho, military-style jumpsuit. Skip opted to stay with the airplane and pointed his copilot in the direction of a nearby highway to hitch a ride for help; they’d passed an airport just a few miles back. After an uncommonly long time Skip started wondering if he’d maybe flagged down a Greyhound, not unlike the Florida passengers. But eventually he appeared with the sheriff, cans of avgas and an explanation. Nobody would stop on the highway, which he attributed to his unkempt appearance and/or strategically wet jumpsuit until he saw the road signs that warned, “Prison in Vicinity ... Do Not Pick Up Passengers.” A number of alarmed motorists had notified the locals who, after apprehending this escaped desperado at gunpoint, drove him to the airport for gas and then back to the Wilga and Skip, sitting forlornly in the desert.

I think it was after that trip that he unloaded the Wilga.

I was on official business — well, sort of — at Waynesville Airport on an autumn afternoon, observing two or three guys Skip wanted to add to his banner tow authorization. Some years earlier, before FAA authorizations were necessary, a friend, Frank Wood, had rigged his Super Cub with a hitch and I had towed for his hard rock radio station, WEBN. I don’t think you were supposed to have a passenger even then, but my sister Mary doesn’t weigh much and circling for hours over Riverfront Stadium was a crashing bore. So she’d sit in the back and fly circles while I sat up front and needlepointed. Yeah, I know, talk about left of center ...

Anyhow, after I’d signed off on these guys who’d all made successful pickups and drops at Waynesville that afternoon, Skip said, “Guess you’d like a turn, huh?”

“You bet.”

Now, this falls into the category of things you most definitely are not supposed to do when acting in an official capacity as an FAA inspector. Besides, it wasn’t even Skip’s Cub; this was a loaner from a really nice, local AME (aviation medical examiner), Dr. Ted Garland. The idea is to snag a line between two poles with a hook you throw out of the airplane after takeoff. You get really low, aim between the poles and, just before passing, add full power and pull up in a really steep climb, hoping to snag the banner and snatch it into the air without it dragging. Those poles looked like they came from somebody’s clothesline and the pickup was right into a setting sun, but I was determined ... and I got it, crowing, “Hey, whaddya think of that?” to Skip, who was watching with a hand-held transceiver.

“Yeah, great, you got it. Only it’s hooked around the tailwheel instead of the banner hitch.” Well, you can tow all day like that, but things get dicey on landing because it’s impossible to first jettison the banner. Landing with it still attached can be hard on the propeller, or, worst case, the airplane can nose over.

Fortunately, as with most mistakes in my life, I’d made this one before when flying Frank’s airplane. Only that time was marginally easier because I’d landed on a hard surface, with less drag from the banner than on the grass.

Resigned to ruining Skip’s banner, Dr. Garland’s airplane and my FAA career, I made a really steep approach, flared abruptly and, when the wheels touched, held the stick hard back while adding full power. The tail lifted momentarily when the banner came down and put my heart in my mouth, but then it dropped. The only damage was to my ego ... a self-taught, self-proclaimed ace banner tower!

We’ve had other adventures and escapades, Skip and I; it’s just that I need to wait until we’re both dead to tell them. But in writing this I’ve come to realize how important friendships like this one are, how they enrich our lives and how much they add to our love of airplanes and flying.