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

Martha's airline encounters resistance from one passenger's four-legged companion.

Midwest Airlines

Midwest Airlines

** Midwest Airlines served its passengers,
human and otherwise, well.**

Every summer weekend through most of the ’60s, Midwest Airways flew its original northern Michigan route from Cincinnati to Traverse City and Harbor Springs as well as the weekday Cleveland and Detroit schedule. So on Friday evenings from June through August at least one Lockheed 10 came to roost on the grass runway at Harbor Springs — unless the weather was so rotten we needed the ILS at Pellston, Michigan.

After the passengers left, Capt. Ebby Lunken and I would clean up the cabin while the copilot was dispatched with the honey bucket. We assumed he disposed of its contents in the terminal building restroom until an irate neighbor stormed over one night with a dreadful tale about his garden. I can’t remember if it was a flower garden or a vegetable garden, but I think I’d better move on somewhere else with this story....

We’d take the liquor with us to the Harbor Inn, where the staff — a bunch of college kids — entertained the mostly geriatric clientele in the lounge after dinner. What fun it was to swagger into the lobby of that old resort hotel, hot and disheveled, strolling between the assembled guests and the cellos and violins with an assortment of liquor bottles hanging from our pockets and bags. Ebby always frosted the cake by setting his “50-mission-crush” cap at a disreputably rakish angle.

Saturdays we just messed around or worked on the airplane, and on Sundays after Mass at the 1828 vintage Church of the Holy Childhood, Ebby would take me to brunch out on Harbor Point. How casually elegant it all was; 50 years later Marty Leyman is still to me the quintessentially attractive, perfectly groomed, gracious hostess. Since you couldn’t drive on Harbor Point we’d leave early enough to walk back to town and pick up sandwich trays at Juilleret’s for Flight 101, leaving MGN at 6:30 p.m.

This particular Sunday would be a dark and stormy night. Yeah, I know, “There she goes again,” but it really was — or at least it was going to be. We knew there was weather down the line, but it was classic northern Michigan clear when we departed Harbor Springs Airport on time with eight passengers. An hour later, still daylight but with a high overcast, we climbed out of Traverse City with 2½ more “SOBs.” Capt. Lunken may have looked calm and cool in his pressed khakis with wings (his own design) on the lapel, a sleeve full of gold stripes and the aforementioned crushed hat, but he was pissed.

The Electra was now packed with 10½ passengers plus a crew of three: Ebby, a new copilot named Larry McLeod and moi in back, keeping everybody in the cabin happily well oiled. Sunday night passengers were mostly men going back to the city after a weekend with the family, so the hooch flowed freely, unlike on Fridays, when they were expected to arrive at least somewhat sober.

Tonight’s “half” passenger was an elderly raccoon carried on board in its cage by a Traverse City passenger. After much glowering and muttering, Ebby finally acquiesced; I reminded him that otherwise we’d lose a fare, which was critical with only 10 revenue seats. So we jammed the cage in the rear aisle, blocking the “blue room” as well as the cabin door, which wouldn’t pass muster on today’s airlines.

Well, everything went pretty smoothly until a “perfect storm” near Grand ­Rapids. In those days without radar you stayed low and punched through, aiming for the light spots, and weather around here was nothing new; there seemed to be a permanent front lurking across the middle of Michigan every Sunday evening. But tonight’s lightning show and rain were pretty spectacular, plus you could hear, even feel, claps of thunder over the drone of the R-985s. My solution to most of life’s problems at the time was to dispense libations more freely, but the strategy backfired when a too well-served passenger announced he needed to use the potty. That damned raccoon cage — its occupant blithely riding out the storm — was blocking the door, and no attempt to pry it open met with any success. As minutes passed the passenger agonizingly reminded me he really, really needed to go.

I should have just handed him a sick sack and told everybody to avert their eyes, but instead I crawled forward over the spar and ducked into the cockpit. Ebby had his hands full keeping the Lockheed 10 level and Larry was staring glazy-eyed out the window, mesmerized by the lightning. I can’t repeat what Ebby said when I described the dilemma in back, but he roused Larry from his semicatatonic state and told him to hold the attitude as steady as possible. Then he fished out his leather roll of tools and we lurched to the back end. The only option was to remove the hinges from the potty door and try working it sideways just enough.

The picture from my perch on the forward wing spar will forever be etched in memory: the elegant, debonair Capt. Lunken sweating and cursing as he straddled and contorted himself over and around the raccoon cage; the raccoon, thinking this was some fun new game, grasping through the bars with both paws to play with his ankles and pant legs as he unscrewed the door hinges; the airplane bucking like a bronco while First Officer McLeod struggled to keep the greasy side down.

Finally, we wrenched the door off and our by-now-desperate passenger made it, followed by everybody else except the raccoon, which didn’t require special “amenities” but just peed in the cage. Ebby retreated to the relative sanity of the cockpit and, as usual, things smoothed out south of Fort Wayne, Indiana.

Of course, it wasn’t always husbands and fathers (or raccoons) riding in the cabin. Kids, wives and gra­ndmothers, houseguests and even “the help” flew with us, and I was always amused at their utter confidence in “our pilot, Ebby.” But occasionally somebody else would fly the trip; if it was Capt. Carl Hilker you could pretty much count on, well, “Katie bar the door.”

Ebby fired Carl regularly but always hired him back. You couldn’t accuse him of being undependable — exactly — but you were never sure he’d actually be there at flight time. It could be a nail-biter, but everybody knew Carl would get the airplane to the destination without fail — just not without drama.

I was along one weekend with Capt. Hilker and FO Kenny Weber when we boarded 10 passengers in Harbor Springs to depart the (as I recall) about 3,100-foot sod runway — not today’s 4,700 feet of concrete. It was hot and we were full of fuel, and Carl wisely decided we needed every foot of runway. Unwisely, he shut both engines down on the runway and herded everybody — including a couple of elderly dowagers — outside to push the Lockheed as far back as possible. Then, amazingly, everybody climbed back inside and we roared off to Cincinnati.

Carl was a staunch proponent of pilotage and dead reckoning in place of new-fangled, sophisticated innovations like radios, ATC and instrument charts. So when Kenny unfolded a chart in the cockpit Capt. Bligh-Hilker snatched it from his hands, opened the side cockpit window and flung it out into the night.

Recently, somebody cleaning out an old hangar gave me a cardboard box of Midwest Airways files. Among thick files of petitions to the Civil Aeronautics Board for an exemption to use DC-3s (which we won...too late) and hundreds of canceled checks (most signed by me with "Ebby's" signature), there were manifests from several years of northern Michigan flights. I sat in the basement and, yeah, cried. All those guys, especially the "youngsters" Ebby hired as first officers: Bill Anderson, who finished law school and became corporate counsel at Sporty's; Kurt Fromme, who Ebby and I feared threw himself in Little Traverse Bay one night when he disappeared — despondent over a girlfriend (he didn't); Larry McLeod, a very young, tall and gawky kid we called "Orange Grove" because of his family's business in Florida; Kenny Weber, who would retire after many years as a captain for the Proctor and Gamble Co.; Dave Cory, a small guy with a deeply resonant voice who went on to retire from Delta Airlines; Bob Clutter — where are you, Bob?; and Ed Foss, still here in Cincinnati, in the photography business.

Probably my favorite of all was Dave Smith, a tall, handsome young guy with a huge sense of humor, especially when describing his former job selling vacuum cleaners door to door. Dave flew for Midwest until he was picked up by Delta Airlines, and very occasionally over the years we’d talk or run into a common friend.

Writing this, I’ve been thinking of these guys a lot. Today there was a message that Dave lost his son, Aaron, in May. Aaron was only 48, a pilot for Atlantic Southeast Airlines and then for American Airlines. He looked so much like his dad.

Damn.