Unusual Attitudes: Once I Built an Airline (Part I)

The story behind Martha and Ebby Lunken's makeshift airline and its fleet of Lockheed Electras.

Midwest Airways

Midwest Airways

** Midwest Airways fleet on the ramp at
Cincinnati Lunken Airport, 1963**

Whenever I think about Midwest Airways I’m reminded of Bob Newhart’s skit “The Grace L. Ferguson Airline and Storm Door Co.” But I think too of the title of a Pete Seeger and The Weavers album, “Wasn’t That a Time!”

From the late ’50s into the ’60s, Ebby Lunken operated a seasonal, weekend air service for Carriage Trade clientele — wealthy people with summer homes in northern Michigan — who were devastated when longtime scheduled train service from Cincinnati ended. While the enterprise wasn’t exactly profitable, it gave Ebby a reason to fly the Lockheed without losing much money. Then, after the summer flights of 1963, when he’d hired me as a stewardess and proposed, Ebby expanded the operation (the airline, not the marriage proposal) to a year-round commuter airline with weekday service between Cincinnati’s Lunken Field and downtown airports in Detroit and Cleveland. The “valve works” (The Lunkenheimer Co.) had been sold, and a partner bought out his share in Queen City Flying Service. My husband, or E.P. as I called him, wanted to build an airline; he idolized C.R. Smith, Eddie Rickenbacker, Bob Six, Juan Trippe, Pat Patterson and Bud Maytag, head honchos of airlines in their glory days. And he looked enough like the handsome but eccentric TWA mogul that he was known as “the ‘Poor’ Man’s Howard Hughes.”

There were formidable obstacles. For-hire interstate air carriage required a Civil Aeronautics Board certificate of public convenience and necessity, which was expensive, time-consuming and politically difficult to obtain. So we were restricted to airplanes under 12,500 pounds gross takeoff weight. Midwest flew the early Michigan runs with a high-gross (10,200 pounds) Conrad Conversion Beech 18 until Ebby found a Lockheed 10 Electra. This mid-’30s vintage airplane was larger and sleeker and carried more people and payload than the high-gross Beech, but, with those same R985 engines, it suffered some in performance. But E.P. used to say he was “just queer for Lockheeds.” (Yes, I know that’s politically incorrect, but it’s what he said.) Now, with expanded service, the challenge was to find at least two more Electras, and, even in 1963, flushing out a covey of Lockheed 10s took some doing.

He found one sitting in the desert, someplace called Mercury, Nevada, and mechanic Jim Sievers went out to “stiff-leg” it and get a ferry permit. Jim made sure the 10 got safely to Tulsa, Oklahoma, where Spartan hung two new engines, and then home to Lunken Field for more work and the installation of an Ebby Lunken “De Rollo” interior. Curiously, for a “Silver Spoon Yalie,” he was far more adept and happy at flying and this kind of work than at reading a balance sheet. It was common to see him crouched inside the airplane installing a headliner. And he was infamous for going to town with “dikes” (diagonal cutters) on airplanes he bought, indiscriminately severing everything behind the instrument panel to make certain it was replaced with new wiring.

The time and cost to get our eventual fleet of three L-10As airborne was bad enough, but Ebby wanted airframe ice protection. So a wiry little guy named Ace Corben arrived from Miami and single-handedly installed wing and tail de-ice boots on all three airplanes in less than a week. Ebby’s full-closing wheel-well door project was an even bigger can of worms. But, many thousands of dollars and months later, we had an STC, the Electras were fitted with the doors, and cruise speed was about 8 knots slower.

Finally, we were in business with an office and ticket counter at Lunken. Ebby was CEO, chief pilot, decision-maker and sometime mechanic. I was secretary, reservationist, ticket counter person, sometime stewardess, ramp agent, baggage handler and occasional illegal copilot.

When Ebby was off to Europe or seeing an old girlfriend (whom I wasn’t supposed to know about), I became acting decision-maker, which was rather ambitious.

We had about six pilots by now, and I flew a little green Cessna 120 (N72197) to interview, hire and train people for our ticket counters at Detroit City and Cleveland Lakefront airports. Ebby was 51 and I was 21 ... madly in love with him, with airplanes and with Midwest Airways.

Wasn’t that a time ...

Adding a stop at Port Columbus Airport (KCMH) in Ohio was meant to bolster revenue, but it had the opposite effect since it played havoc with the commuter concept — the convenience of doing business in Cleveland or Detroit and being back home that night. On the first flight with this stop, we hadn’t yet hired anybody for the ticket counter and phone at CMH. I checked in 10 passengers at Cincinnati, helped load baggage, saw the flight off and jumped in a Bonanza.

The Lockheed wasn’t a speed queen so I was on the ground at Columbus, parked on the ramp and behind our new ticket counter when it arrived. The Cincinnati passengers who deplaned and stopped at the counter to confirm their return flights did double takes and stammered, “Hey, aren’t you the girl who ... ?”

Attracting passengers wasn’t a problem; keeping them was the challenge. When an interested customer would call and ask about our equipment, I’d tell them we flew Lockheed Electras. Most didn’t have a clue what kind of airplane it was and the others, of course, assumed it was the big Lockheed turboprop. Then they’d walk to the gate behind the terminal building and see the airplane Amelia Earhart made famous. I don’t remember anybody actually refusing to board, but sometimes it took a little encouragement.

Well, most of the flights were unremarkable, if there’s such a thing as an unremarkable flight. When we got down to one operational airplane because of a rash of disasters — gear-up landings, blown engines and crunched wingtips — Jim the mechanic would ride along to do routine maintenance on a ramp at the other end of the line. I’m not sure if having this mechanic in white coveralls with a Midwest logo, carrying his tool kit, inspired confidence or fueled suspicions about reliability.

Most vividly I remember a die-hard passenger named Mr. Schott who loved the service because he lived just minutes from Lunken Airport and made frequent business trips to all three cities. It wasn’t intentional or exactly any one person’s fault. ... He was just unlucky, and the harder we tried the unluckier he got. His baggage got lost and we oversold his flights. A couple of times we just took off without him or forgot his favorite brand of bourbon. He endured cancellations from mechanicals, weather and incarcerated pilots.

But Mr. Schott refused to give up on us. I’d hired and trained Norma, a nice, reliable Columbus agent, but she wasn’t at the ticket counter when Mr. Schott checked in for his return flight one evening to Cincinnati. Norma’s car had been broken into in the employee parking lot, and she was at the police station filling out a report. Mr. Schott’s inquiries to the TWA agents at the next counter were met with blank stares and shrugged shoulders.

Scheduled flight time came and passed with no sign of an agent or an airplane. Then the teletype machine behind our counter started chattering away, and Mr. Schott decided to see if he could glean any useful information about the whereabouts of Midwest 104.

It was Barbara, the Cleveland agent, telling Norma all about the previous evening’s frolics with Bill, the captain of Midwest 104. After a few minutes of this Mr. Schott hit the “stop” key, but Barbara soon took up where she’d left off. Mr. Schott hit “stop” again (you can imagine his frustration).

Barbara: “What’s the matter with this machine?”

Mr. Schott: “Whe86$#%re is fli(&$g*$! flit 104?”

(The teletype keyboard would transmit numbers, symbols and rubbish if you didn’t know how to take it out of upper case.)

Barbara: “Who is this? Norma, is that you?”

Mr. Schott: "This &% is A @*passé*%nger."

Barbara: “Sir, passengers are not allowed behind the ticket counter.”

And whenever I think about Midwest Airways I remember Ebby, glass of gin in hand, crooning his version of the old Depression song:
_
Once I built an airline; I made it run, made it race against time.
Once I built an airline; now it's done. Brother, can you spare a dime?_