Unusual Attitudes: A Saga of Me and the Salvagers

The inside scoop on "Martha's latest crash."

Unusual Attitudes Martha's Latest Crash

Unusual Attitudes Martha's Latest Crash

Well, I did it again. No, not crash, just piss somebody off. An old flatbed trailer parked behind a fence and piled with remnants of a pranged flying machine caught my eye as I drove down Airport Road to pull '72B out of the hangar and go flying. I'd seen the trailer before and assumed the brothers who I'm told own it were in the salvage business; after stashing the crunched parts and pieces in a ­T-hangar they'd been parking the trailer in a field near my T-hangar. So the trailer wasn't new, but I did a double take at the two bent wings mounted upright on it with large black letters reading "Martha's Latest Crash."

I burst out laughing, amused and flattered that somebody would go to all that trouble. Near my hangar a friend was working upside down inside the cockpit of his RV-8, and I pestered him until he brought his cellphone camera — no small feat because Dave, an airline pilot, had filled it with pictures of a gorgeous girl in an incredibly brief bikini. After considerable anguish about which pictures he could bear to delete, he finally made space for "my wings."

Last winter a horoscope in the paper predicted that my day would involve "a perplexing entanglement and ridiculous disagreement." Sure enough, that day saw the onset of a ridiculous situation involving me, the salvage brothers and a mechanic who leases airport property adjacent to my hangar. The mechanic had never objected to my parking on the edge of his property since the car was well clear of his T-hangars and tie-downs. And even after the salvagers moved in with their equipment life went on peacefully. But another pilot started parking there and then claimed that the trailer, truck or an airplane had kicked up debris and damaged the finish on the new Mercedes he uses for house calls. (Yes, he's a doctor, and, yes, my tongue is firmly in my cheek.) There were demands that somebody pay for repairs, words like lawyer and lawsuit flew, and the parking issue suddenly became a "perplexing entanglement and ridiculous disagreement."

I moved my car next to my hangar where it belonged in the first place; after all, the mechanic who leased the property had every right to throw us off. But then a bunch of signs from "Billy Bob's Kentucky Towing Service" appeared, threatening that any parked vehicles would be towed to an obscure "holler" across the river and the miscreant's wife and kids held hostage (I'm just kidding — I think). And, worse, the salvage brothers announced they'd installed surveillance cameras (one allegedly trained on my hangar) and that they regularly reviewed the footage. Holy T-hangars, Batman — guys lounging around, beers in hand, monitoring the constant stream of men visiting my hangar at all hours, for all sorts of reasons — like helping me change an oil filter or discussing a fine point of aerodynamics or, you know, lots of stuff. …

So I had a low-key, friendly discussion with Fred, the airport manager. No, that's not true at all. I stormed up to his office and demanded that he do something about privately installed surveillance cameras monitoring (my) city-owned T-­hangar. If he didn't I'd go to the police, complain to city council, the mayor and my congressman, and involve the FAA, the Ninety-Nines, Women in Aviation and the Cincinnati Warbirds.

Fred's a good guy — a politician but a pilot and talented at "handling" difficult people like me. By the next day "Martha's Latest Crash" was painted over, and I learned the camera story was just that — a story — so I backed off my "Hattie the Witch" act.

This teapot tempest was kind of fun, and it reminded me of past squabbles and tricks and the outrageous characters you encounter at almost every airport. At a venerable 'drome like Lunken with lots of GA airplanes, Part 135 operators, a popular restaurant and bar, FBOs, flying schools and corporate operations, you find you've stepped through the looking glass and are surrounded by eccentric, talented, straight-laced, unscrupulous, amoral, introspective, friendly people with an occasional sociopath and whacko in the mix.

Aviation always has and, hopefully, always will attract people from wildly different circumstances and backgrounds. I took my first flying lesson 53 years ago, near where my airplane is hangared, at the long-gone Aero Services, which consisted of a tiny shack, an 80-octane fuel pump, some hard surface and grass tie-downs and those same old (even then) T-hangars that these days belong to the mechanic. The owners — a used car dealer, a mortician, a lawyer and a spooky, quiet rich guy — hired a very young Hal Shevers (Sporty) to manage the place. "Skipper Ryle" and "Uncle Al," local TV kids-show personalities, hung out and flew there along with three judges, a high-iron worker, two young priests, assorted truckers, doctors, racetrack jockeys, lawyers and mobsters and a couple of ex-felons — oh, and an exotic lady with a bouffant hairdo and purple Capri pants who drove a purple Cadillac and flew a purple Ercoupe with "La Pourpre Bebe" painted on the sides. It simply didn't matter if you were an Indian Hill socialite, a bourgeois west-sider or a river rat from a shanty on the nearby Ohio; everybody was on the same "plane" with flying the great leveler.

I grew up with two sisters and attended all-girl schools, so I came from a pretty sheltered, feminine environment and had little experience with men — which was about to change. Within 15 minutes of arriving on the airport I was hopelessly, forever in love with airplanes and convinced that those magnificent creatures who flew them were all manly, brave, talented, handsome, intelligent, fun and honest.

Of course I would learn that airplane world has its dark side, its share of small, weird, mean-spirited, unscrupulous people. Hard to believe, I know, but even I have a dark side — well, medium gray. My father called me a "schtickler," his pidgin German expression for a mischief-maker, somebody who enjoys stirring the pot and causing trouble. (Just ask Fred!)

The hands-down most colorful airport personality I encountered was a character who is long deceased and whose shenanigans date back far enough to be safely told. He was a big man with a booming voice, in business as Tom's TV Aircraft from the late '40s. Also known as "Noodles" (among less printable epithets) he operated a creative, pre-Part 135 charter business from a house trailer with a bunch of lease-back airplanes and a seemingly unlimited cadre of pilots. They carried mail in Beech 18s, took wealthy Cincinnatians to their northern Michigan "cottages" in a Grumman Goose and brought well-heeled but dead retirees back from Florida for burial at home. When the smaller airplanes were busy or down for (desperately) needed maintenance, Tom would occasionally fire up his T-28 and haul the deceased in the rear seat. There were apocryphal but persistent stories about using the block and tackle in the big hangar to extract a passenger with signs of rigor mortis.

But it was "BL," his faithful girl Friday, who kept Tom afloat (and out of jail) for nearly 40 years with her genius for creative bookkeeping and uncanny ability to round up airplane drivers at any hour of the day or night. In those pre-cellphone days she knew numbers for every pilot's domicile, girlfriend(s), watering hole(s) and mother's house. There was a rather unpleasant period when relations between Tom and "BL" hit the rocks; she made a few phone calls and a number of tax agencies scheduled audits of the company books. Fortunately they patched things up before the guys in suits arrived, and — even more fortunately — the house trailer with all the books and records went up in smoke. I wish I could end this on a happy note, but after the "real" Mrs. TV Tom suddenly died, his sidekick and best friend of 40 years was naturally contemplating their marriage. But Tom found a wealthy widow instead. BL disappeared from the airport and died within a year.

I'd always looked on Tom's antics with amusement, but I could never forgive him that treachery. When the minister spoke in the chapel at his funeral service a thunderstorm blew up, and I wouldn't have been too surprised if a lightning bolt … well, you get the idea.

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