Unusual Attitudes: Throwing Paint and Flying Airplanes

The dangers of over-extending yourself.

Martha Lunken

Martha Lunken

Chris Gall

"Life is a great big canvas; throw all the paint on it you can.” This is from a colorful, abstract picture on my wall, a gift from a friend who knows I passionately believe that’s the way to live. And for me — since I’m not good at anything else — that usually involves airplanes and airplane people. But periodically life sends a clear message: “Hey, slow down a little. You’re making a helluva mess flinging all these colors around, and the picture is starting to look pretty weird.”

Sometime during the late '60s I created Miss Martha's Flying School, and as chief and only flight instructor I was aviating my buns off. It's arguable that having 6,000-plus hours of instructing in Citabrias and Cessna 150s is something anybody would admit, much less brag about. Anyway, driving to the airport early on a summer morning for another full day of flying, I found my lovable but unreliable green Volkswagen bug was acting "funny" (that's a girl term), but it took some time to realize I was trying to move into the left lane of traffic by applying pressure to the steering wheel (ailerons) and depressing the clutch pedal (rudder). This and an increasing propensity to nod off on final approach with pre-solo pattern students were wake-up calls that I needed help at the flying school.

Later on, while working at the FAA, I successfully avoided the office by filling every working hour (and then some) with flight checks and safety seminars. It was a helluva job, and I loved it ... until I found myself working for “Capt. Queeg’s” doppelgänger, an entrenched civil servant with an unhealthy addiction to procedures and paperwork. You know the type — maybe you work for one; if your job is fun, you’re not doing it right. Literally quivering with rage, he’d summon me into his office, where the normally sterile desk would be littered with my “comp time” and “leave” slips. The first couple of times, as I watched his complexion turn from its normal pasty gray to quite remarkable shades of red and then ghostly white, I was truly concerned — not about my time and attendance records but because he might be having a heart attack, and even though I knew where the defibrillator was located, I wasn’t sure I’d actually use it.

The problem, as I saw it, was his insistence that I somehow fit an inherently unconventional work schedule into the framework of a traditional five-day workweek. Because Queeg refused to authorize an "alternate work schedule," by the end of a two-week pay period my "T&A" file looked like a telephone book. I'm proud to say paperwork isn't my forte so, of course, the piles of requests and copious amendments were out of order and full of errors. Maybe I was biting off too much, but I just couldn't cancel a check ride or a seminar because somebody wasn't available to sign an amended "comp time" or leave request slip. By the end of my FAA career, my personnel file was so full of disciplinary actions that it too looked like a telephone book.

Sporty’s Hal Shevers once told this guy, “She’s your best employee and she’s your worst,” but I’m sure Queeg didn’t agree with the first half of that assessment. I did a lot of work, “I did it my way,” and I was every bureaucrat’s worst nightmare employee.

Things actually haven't changed much since I retired except I don't get many letters of reprimand, and I haven't been sent home in disgrace lately. Life has morphed into: "This guy needs a check ride (today, next Tuesday, etc.) because (the club airplane goes in for its annual, his written runs out, he's being deployed to Afghanistan, he's scheduled for a knee replacement, he's going on vacation)"; "If you don't bring that SNJ to the airshow next Sunday, there'll be a bunch of really disappointed people"; "We just have to squeeze the RAM (Remote Area Medical) DC-3 checks in early next week between the Pikeville clinic and Stan's trip to Guyana"; "Just fly the 180 to Atlanta tomorrow so we can take the DC-3 to Knoxville and throw out jumpers (a D-Day memorial), and then take it back to Atlanta and fly the 180 back home"; "Would you speak at our (flying physicians, deaf pilots, wheelchair pilots, flying farmers, aviation attorneys, EAA, Rotary, museum center, Otterbein Retirement Home) event in (Sandusky, Ohio; Decatur, Illinois; Rochester, New York; Charlotte, North Carolina; Portland, Maine) next month?"

Please understand this is not about being “important” or a great pilot (well, actually, I am a great pilot); it’s because I’m a sucker for a sad story and too easily talked into doing stuff. Like that gal in Oklahoma, “I’m jist a girl who cain’t say no” (and, yes, in life that’s gotten me into all kinds of delicious trouble). But then something usually brings me back down to earth — like a rather interesting “wake-up call” last week.

I'd been giving lots of check rides in various flying machines and flying the 180, the DC-3, a couple of Cubs and the "J." Up at the crack of dawn on Saturday morning, I was fretting about how to fit in everything scheduled for the day. There was an early-morning breakfast fly-out to Columbus, Indiana; an instrument practical test at Middletown, Ohio; a Sporty's fly-in at Clermont County Airport; Louis "Moose" Glos' retirement party at Blue Ash Airport; and a big surprise 50th birthday party that evening for my niece ... and I was hoping to fit Saturday Mass in between somewhere.

After breakfast and chatting with some old DC-3 buddies at Rhoades Aviation, it was on to Middletown for the instrument oral and check ride. Then to Clermont County Airport, where the Sporty’s fly-in had pretty much wound down, and, anyway, I hadn’t won the giveaway airplane. I decided to take the 180 back to Lunken, clean off the major smashed bugs and go home to clean myself up before Blue Ash.

Actually, I was thinking about scrubbing it all. I’d flown a lot and was really tired. They’d never miss me. But I wanted to see Moose, and Andrea’s husband had gone to all kinds of trouble to make this surprise 50th birthday a big deal. I could drop off Moose’s gift at his house; heck, my niece and her family lived just down the street.

So I quickly showered, donned a summery dress, jumped in the car and was racing out Interstate 71 when I saw a big, ugly runner in my pantyhose — with no spares and no time to stop anyplace. I pulled into Moose’s driveway and ran up to the front porch to drop the gift. All was quiet, so back in the car I stripped off the pantyhose, rendering me, um, “bare-bottom” underneath a rather short-skirted dress.

I parked way up the street from the Rosenthals and raced into the house, noting how Jim and Andrea had fixed up the yard and porch with new landscaping and flowers. A big group of people was assembled in the living room, and while I didn’t actually know anybody, some faces were vaguely familiar. Jim must have been in the kitchen, but everybody else was laughing and chatting when I breathlessly, loudly and unnecessarily broke in with my pantyhose story. “ ... Be right back after I go upstairs and find some underpants.”

I vaulted up the stairs and down the hall until I found the bedroom and pawed through sock and underwear drawers until I found something that would fit and pulled ’em on. Time was short, so I ran back down the hall and took the stairs quickly but paused at the bottom step and looked more closely around the room. Slowly a terrible realization dawned on me ... this was not the Rosenthal house, and these people were all looking at me with very odd expressions.

My face went beet red as I realized what had happened. So I blurted out the story — who I was, the problem with the snaggly pantyhose, my desperate need for underpants and how I’d blundered into the house next door by mistake.

“Our bedroom? Underpants from my bureau drawer? But it’s a mess; I didn’t even make the bed.”

This from the lady of the house who, fortunately, was a friend of Andrea’s.

There was a heartbeat moment of total silence, and then the room full of people erupted in laughter. We laughed until the tears ran down our faces and kept laughing as everybody ran next door to be in place for the birthday girl. Andrea was genuinely surprised, and the party was a huge success ... with oft-repeated accounts of the purloined underpants and Andrea’s, well, “eccentric” aunt.

So watch out if you start overextending yourself. ... Nah, I don’t really mean that. Just go ahead and throw paint all over the canvas. Life’s much more fun, and the pictures you paint are wonderful.