Unusual Attitudes: Show Planes and Shotguns

Martha's smooth-talk ensures the air show goes on.

Show Planes and Shotguns

Show Planes and Shotguns

(June 2011) I jumped down from Don's red Ford 350 pickup and, with what I hoped was a disarming grin, sauntered up a gravel lane toward two men standing stolidly, feet apart, holding shotguns.

Don Harner wasn’t a pilot but was one of those people who have a lifelong love affair with airplanes. And there was a soft heart hidden under that crusty exterior. After retiring from the military, Don (to Mrs. Harner’s huge relief) spent a lot of time at Ohio’s Portsmouth Airport (PMH), devoting himself to airport gossip, critiquing landings and working on plans for the annual airshow. He deserved an “A” for effort but didn’t always score high in the “plays well with others” category. Like every other ex-Marine I’ve known, he was innately and irrevocably programmed to think and act like a Marine until his dying day.

For that year’s show this usually sleepy airport northeast of Portsmouth in Minford, Ohio, had snagged a jet aerobatic team that required a 1,500-foot clear zone on either side of the aerobatic show line, an area devoid of all humans except approved, “waivered” airshow people. This was no problem for the spectator area on the terminal ramp west of the runway, but a road and a handful of houses on the east side of the field fell within the restricted area. Don had assured the FSDO that “airshow personnel have addressed the problem.” (How can I even write that drivel?) The sheriff had agreed to close the road, and Don himself had met with the homeowners, who would vacate their properties during the show on Saturday and Sunday afternoon. It was, after all, the biggest event of the summer — heck, of the year — in Scioto County. Well, right behind Roy Rogers Days.

Except that Don hadn’t exactly consulted the homeowners; he’d told the local cops that FAA wanted the road closed and those houses vacated. So the sheriff dispatched a couple of deputies to inform the owners that the federals wanted them off their properties during the show. The neighbors were happy with free tickets for VIP seats at the airport, except one, a lawyer from Columbus who was well versed on the law and homeowner rights. And he wasn’t going to be ejected from his weekend country retreat by some cockamamie edict from the county sheriff, the highway patrol, the FAA, the U.N. or the United Federation of Planets.

I was assigned to monitor the show, probably because nobody else wanted to work the weekend, so I arrived late Friday afternoon in a rented A36. But the real reason I worked that weekend was because the guys at Portsmouth were my friends and I didn’t want to miss the wonderful party Everett and Sonja Sharp would throw in their hangar on airshow eve.

There was — still is — a nice little restaurant in the retro terminal, built when Lake Central Airlines DC-3s served Portsmouth in the ’50s. Although the airline days were long gone, there was a quirky little boutique in the lobby selling perfumes and frilly gifts owned by a glam gal named Becky who’d been a Miss West Virginia (just across the Ohio River). She and her mom were at the party, of course, Becky in short shorts and expansively filling one of the shop’s best-sellers, a T-shirt printed with the PMH airport diagram. The airport runway and taxiway had flashing multicolored lights powered by a battery pack mysteriously hidden somewhere on Becky.

Well, a heck of a thunderstorm blew up after dark that evening, and midway through the wind, rain and lightning all the power failed. So everybody in the hangar was milling around in what would have been total blackness except for blinking lights on Becky’s bosom. It caused a near riot. It was magnificent. Yeah, I know, I had far too much fun in the FAA.

The next morning a couple of deputies were discussing some homeowner on the road east of the airport who’d stoutly refused to leave his property. In fact, this guy had invited family and friends to see the show “up front and personal.” As dysfunctional an FAA inspector as I was, this was clearly unacceptable, so I cornered Don, who balefully admitted that one guy wouldn’t budge despite pleas, commands and threats of bodily violence. And the sheriff, after checking into it, had confirmed the guy was within his rights.

It was only a couple of hours before showtime on this beautiful, hot Saturday in mid-July. Traffic on the road to the airport was heavy, and the parking lots were filling up; just about every soul in Scioto and surrounding counties was coming out for the airshow. Like I said, next to Roy Rogers Days ...

“Drive me over there, Don.”

I’d already been counseled, admonished and reprimanded for finessing last-minute modifications to waivers at airshows and buying off on changes or additions if I felt they were safe and practical. So I was acutely aware that “addressing the show-line issue,” fixing the problem, was not in my job description. I was there to close down the show if the waiver holder wasn’t in compliance ... period! But, oh, hell, I hadn’t broken a rule yet that day. Somebody needed to do something, and sending Gen. Harner on a suicide mission to the lawyer’s house was definitely not an option.

“Hi, I’m Martha Lunken from the FAA office over in Cincinnati. I want to apologize, sir, for the way this airshow thing’s been handled ... you know, the miscommunication about vacating your house. Good thing you’re an attorney and were able to set these people straight about homeowner rights.”

The tight eyes and set mouths softened a little and the shotgun barrels lowered ever so slightly.

“Yeah, well, thanks, lady, but just keep that guy in the truck off my property.”

“Yes, sir, I understand the way you feel. Don means well but he’s a Marine veteran and he comes on a little strong. There’s probably some psychological impact after a career like his ... 30 years of service, two wars and a bunch of decorations. That limp is from one of several combat injuries.”

I was wildly making all this up but, who knows, it might have been true. Anyway the story was having a positive effect on the angle of the shotgun barrels and the hostility quotient.

“Mr. Stubbornass [not, I confess, his real name], do you think we could talk about this a little further?”

So we walked around the back of the house to a patio with picnic tables, tubs of iced drinks, a couple of smoking grills and a bunch of people. I was desperately hoping Don would stay put and not deep-six the deal I hoped to make with my new best friends.

“You know, it’s interesting that we all appreciate military guys like old Don out there. Sure, they’re the reason we can enjoy exactly the kind of stuff you’re doing here today. But, darn it, I think we owe as much to informed, concerned people like you ... good citizens who know their rights and are willing to stand up for them. It’s just a shame about the show ... all those people at the airport, especially the kids. You know how depressed the economy is in this part of the state, the joblessness and the poverty. I guess this airshow was the one bright spot (I didn’t mention Roy Rogers Days) and now they’ll lose out on that.”

“Whaddya mean, ‘lose out’?”

“Well, sir, you understand that I have to cancel the airshow. We can’t have your family and guests in harm’s way, in a danger zone right under an aerobatic demonstration. Oh, it isn’t likely anything would go wrong, but you never know. Anyway, it’s the law and I don’t have any choice.”

There ensued an extended whispered discussion between the shotgun-holding persons.

“Well, what if I’d agree to sign a waiver or a hold harmless agreement?”

“Unfortunately there’s no such animal, but it’s really thoughtful of you to be that concerned.”

I gazed sadly across the field behind the house.

“Wait a minute. How far out there does your property run ... do those woods on the other side of this field belong to you?”

The line of tall trees was clearly visible on the aerial photos submitted with the waiver request, and I remembered they were roughly parallel to the show line, about 1,500 feet distant — or close enough.

“Look, I know this is a lot to ask and it’s your call, but if the picnic could be moved back into that wooded area ... or if you’d just hang out over there today and tomorrow afternoon during the show, it would solve the whole problem. And you’d make a bunch of people really happy ... especially all those kids.”

And so it came to pass that the Portsmouth airshow happened that year ... that Eric Priebe rolled his P-51 to the crowd’s delight, that Louis Manyak in a striped prisoner suit stole a Champ and eluded the cops, that Don Harner happily barked orders and that Becky’s boutique sold out of Portsmouth Airport T-shirts.