Unusual Attitudes: Rules for Living and Flying

Martha recounts some strange low-fly stories.

Rudy, Paul and little sister Fran Siegel. Good
"camo" but evidently not good enough!

Maybe I'm hung up on stories about flying ridiculously close to the bottom edge of the air (aka "the ground") but some are just too improbable and too whacko to be lost in the FAA's big computer in Plano, Texas. Most complaints to the feds involve real or imaginary low-flying objects — airplanes, lawn chairs, helicopters and UFOs, followed by calls from indignant Part 135 operators ratting out somebody else's "134½" activities. If you're the inspector unlucky enough to get the low-fly variety, you try to sound appropriately concerned and deeply sympathetic with the trauma inflicted on this irate citizen — even if the low-flying object is saucer-shaped and contains little green men. In the case of a real flying machine, unless the offender is stupid enough to come back on a regular basis or the caller was able to get an N-number (or something close), it rarely goes any further than your desk.

Alas, some unlucky offenders can be identified, and as out of character as it may seem, I was particularly adept at sweet-talking confessions out of suspect pilots: "Gee whiz, this isn't serial murder, and since there are witnesses, do yourself a favor and just come clean. It's your first offense … no big deal; we'll handle it as painlessly as possible and you can get on with your life." Note: Do not fall for this line. Remember — better, memorize — my Rules for Living and Flying formulated (mostly) from experience: Deny all accusations; fly old airplanes with really little N-numbers (or ones with weird paint schemes that make them unreadable); put nothing in writing that involves your signature; drive beige cars (or date guys who drive beige cars); stay low and aim for the light spots; and practice saying, "I don't remember anything after I left 3,000 feet."

I once chased a kid whose student-pilot certificate was revoked, which is kind of like being expelled from kindergarten. Shortly after his first solo, he used the PA-28 to chase a newly married ex-girlfriend down the main drag in Connersville, Indiana. The new husband had collected her after work at Kroger's, and city employees on the fourth floor of the county courthouse were startled to see an airplane whiz by, below eye level, in hot pursuit of the pickup truck. Then there was a pipeline patroller I actually stalked and finally nailed for busting his 200-foot waiver near Indianapolis' Geist Reservoir, but this one had a sad ending. While the investigation was in progress, I moved to the Cincinnati district. A few weeks later a pipeline patroller hit a fence near Wilmington, Ohio. It was a fatal, and my boss handed me the crumpled, stained letter of investigation with my signature that they found on the body — the letter I'd sent to him in Louisiana from the Indianapolis FSDO.

On the lighter side, enough time has passed to tell about the Brothers Siegel — Paul and Rudy. Their dad bought a 7AC Champ in several baskets as a project for these accomplished teenage RC modelers. When it was finished, he taught the boys to fly, and both earned their private pilot certificates in the Champ. That summer a big recreational lake east of Cincinnati was completed and filled with speedboats and water skiers, too tempting a target for a teenager in a Champ. But teenagers don't have much sense (like getting the hell out of there after one pass), so an irate boater called the GADO with all the exquisite details including an N-number. My boss — then a plain vanilla operations inspector — contacted the registered owner (their dad) demanding to know who was flying the airplane, but he couldn't come up with the information. Ultimately he took the rap, paying the $1,000 fine and accepting the violation on his own record.

This is not to say the offender was off the hook. The Siegels were a Cheaper by the Dozen type of family; Paul and Mary raised their bevy of kids with much grace, love and very high standards. Some years later the Siegel brothers (now grown professional men with families) were at my annual Christmas party, and so was my boss, the guy who'd fined their dad years before. Rather inappropriately he brought up the subject of that long-ago Champ incident and wondered if Paul Jr. would finally tell who was actually at the controls that day.

Paul looked mildly puzzled and thought for a bit. Finally he smiled back warmly and said he really couldn't remember but thought that might have been the summer Rudy didn't go to northern Michigan with the family. He'd stayed home to paint the house.

My all-time strangest low-fly story, though, happened in Monticello, a farming community in northern Indiana with a sleepy local airport that comes alive during crop-dusting season; this is corn and soybean country, flat and fertile and fried-egg-on-the-pavement hot in midsummer. Since the aerial applicator was the airport's only certificated entity — no repair stations, approved (Part 141) flight schools or air taxi (Part 135) operators — the FAA rarely made an appearance.

I can't remember if the first call to the Indianapolis FSDO was the White County sheriff or an irate farmer, but by the end of the week they were coming fast and furious. A small, high-wing, red airplane was terrorizing the neighborhood, stampeding horses and turkeys, drying up the milk on dairy cows and scaring widows and orphans. This guy sounded like an aerial Charles Manson at the controls of a Cessna 150. Somebody had an N-number, which, for an investigator, is hitting the jackpot.

The registered owner was a student pilot in the Monticello area whose most recent medical had been denied. So I called the airport and talked to an instructor who knew the airplane and the student pilot who kept it on his nearby farm strip.

"Could somebody else be flying it?"

"Don't think so. There was a partner but he's not around anymore. Jack hasn't flown lately, but we talked last week and he said he'd be here Sunday for our fly-in breakfast and open house.

"Flying or driving?"

"Don't know."

I told the instructor I'd be there, too, and why, which surprised him, because serious buzzing just didn't seem to fit with this guy. But, OK, he'd point him out and promise not to blow my cover.

When I arrived around 8 a.m., the red 150 was sitting in a line of airplanes out in the grass. So I chatted, ate pancakes, drank enough coffee to float a battleship and wondered when in the hell this guy was going to leave. Finally, at about 4 in the afternoon, he walked out in the grass and climbed into the 150, now the only airplane left.

I waited until he fired up and then wiggled an aileron, signaling him to shut it down. When he opened the door I approached, "tin" in hand, introduced myself and asked to see his pilot certificate and medical. Now, for evidence you really need to "put the pilot in the airplane" in flight. But he didn't know that and you don't read Miranda rights to FAA violators, so I was pretty sure I could extract a confession from what had transpired. (Re-read Rules for Living and Flying.) I was right, and he readily owned up to flying the airplane from his strip to the airport that morning. And, OK, he'd flown it one other time over the farm to see if everything worked. But he vehemently denied any other flights and said he was selling the 150 because he'd lost his medical. A buyer had called, agreed on the price and arranged to meet him today at Monticello. It was a done deal; the guy really wanted the airplane and had the cash. He couldn't imagine what happened.

Something was fishy. The guy seemed honest and I wanted to believe him. When I mentioned all the complaints, he was adamant that he'd flown the airplane only one time over his farm and then to the airport that morning. In fact, he'd sign a statement swearing those were the facts. (Re-read Rules for Living and Flying.)

Next day I began assembling the file. I called the first complainant on the list for a statement, but the woman who answered seemed puzzled. Her husband came on the line and assured me they hadn't seen any low-flying airplanes and certainly hadn't made any calls to the FAA. So I went on to number two and, ditto, got the same answer — no airplane, no calls. OK, I called the White County sheriff's number and asked for Deputy Mayfield only to learn there was no Deputy Mayfield and they had no record of recent complaints about low-flying airplanes. What was going on?

Here's "the rest of the story."

The violator owned half of a used car business, but there'd been a long and nasty squabble over money and his partner finally had moved out of town. I guess the guy knew everybody in the area and took time to plot an exquisite revenge. Knowing his ex-partner wanted to sell the airplane, he made calls to the FSDO under the guise of various farmers in the area and even as a "Deputy Mayfield." When he was sure we had enough information to investigate, he called the ex-partner, now in the guise of a buyer. He'd pay the asking price; just fly the airplane to Monticello on Sunday and he'd be there with the money. He baited the trap and his ex-friend swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

I kind of wish I could say we abandoned the violation, but there was the matter of those two illegal flights. I didn't like the violation end of the business … well, except for the really bad dudes who were pure joy to catch. But I'd remind myself that I'd have met with an early end — or hurt somebody else — on Interstate 75 if it hadn't been for the threat of the highway patrol lying in wait.