Unusual Attitudes: Almost Back Home in Indiana

The early days as an FAA inspector.

Unusual Attitudes DC-3
The author became the field office's "DC-3 specialist" in Indianapolis.Martha Lunken

In what must have been a desperate attempt to meet gender quotas, the FAA hired me as an inspector in the Chicago O’Hare Air Carrier District Office in 1980. Six months later, somebody realized I knew absolutely nothing about jets or air carrier operations and farmed me out to the DuPage General Aviation District Office (GADOs then, FSDOs now). It would take four painful years to get somebody’s attention with my requests for a transfer. And while it could have been my badgering, it’s more likely the DuPage manager was also nagging the director to get me the hell out of there. Whatever, now a GS-13 operations inspector (who still knew next to nothing), I went to the Indianapolis office.

It wasn’t Cincinnati as I’d hoped, but close enough. DuPage had been flat-out toxic, and I was relieved to be working with people in the agency who were reasonably happy. The customers were solid Midwestern pilots and operators at airports in central and southern Indiana, and most people in the office had enough real-world aviation experience to use good sense in “gaining compliance” (FAA speak for enforcing regulations). They liked and cared about each other — even me, which was a sea change from the corrosive miasma of West Chicago.

I remember the morning in Indy when an ops inspector, a likable guy from Minnesota named Hal Jorgenson, didn’t show up for work. Instead of censure, it rang alarm bells, and, after a few unanswered calls to Hal’s house, the office chief, Al McCormick, and the ops supervisor, Jay Peterson, jumped in a car and drove over. Hal lived alone, but Mary Lou Janz, the secretary (OK, administrative whatever), had a house key; she lived nearby and tended to his cats and plants when he was out of town.

When Al and Jay finally let themselves in, they found Hal dressed for work but lying on the bed, confused and mumbling incoherently. The life squad took him to Indy’s Methodist Hospital where the devastating and incredibly sad diagnosis would be an inoperable, malignant brain tumor. Hal was a helicopter specialist as well as a fixed-wing airplane driver who loved to fly, but he was also notorious for ignoring paperwork. Jay would periodically threaten to lock him in his office to finish it up. Naturally, I saw Hal as a hero and a role model. We’d flown together a few days before, and I hadn’t noticed anything odd, but in his paperwork there would be telltale signs — sporadic, unreadable scribbles or lines that dribbled off the page. And he’d recently sworn off coffee because he said it suddenly didn’t agree with him.

Hal’s only family were distant relatives in Minneapolis, so, when he elected to stay in Indianapolis for radiation treatments, an airworthiness inspector named Joe Franz and his wife Ellie insisted that Hal come and live with them. Joe brought him to the office to work when he was able, and everybody did his or her damndest to make his life as normal and comfortable as possible. We had a St. Patrick’s Day party with a hat and goodies from Shapiro’s deli, which Hal loved as much as I did. When he died six months later, Jay, Al and an inspector named Willis Zeiss rented a Cessna 310 and flew to Minneapolis for his funeral.

This may not seem extraordinary, but from my experience in Chicago and later in Cincinnati, it was far different from the culture in most FAA field offices. Like any big corporation (and the government is the biggest), there’s a lot of talk about the “FAA family,” but that’s for public consumption, and it’s largely BS.

Maybe Indianapolis was also special for me because it’s where I became the “DC-3 specialist.” The office needed a type-rated inspector for oversight of a freight company in Columbus, Indiana, which operated DC-3s and Convairs. The regional training specialist, a guy named Leo Wonderly, tagged me for DC-3 initial at Tursair in Opa-locka, Florida. Leo’s gone now, but he will, of course, remain forever in my memory and prayers.

I’d known Leo before I worked for the FAA when he was an inspector in Cincinnati. A big man with a gruff manner and massive, tattooed arms, he was a little scary — especially when I faced him for my flight instructor practical test. But he was a nice guy and made the DC-3 thing happen because he knew I had a Lodestar type and some round-engine experience. Now, the reason he was in the regional office in Chicago is a whole ’nother story.

Way back when the Cincinnati GADO had seven or eight inspectors and a couple of secretaries (whoops, administrative whatevers), the entire office numbered about a dozen people. A spicy affaire du coeur developed between a married inspector and another inspector’s wife, and in that small office it wasn’t long before the clandestine phone calls and meetings became common knowledge … well, to everybody except the wronged party. This guy put in for any training that might enhance his chances for promotion, so Leo, his supervisor, obligingly scheduled him for courses at the FAA Academy. While he was off in Oklahoma City and other spots, the fires on the home front raged on.

Eventually, the whole thing exploded or imploded, and there was a discreet (I guess) investigation by the regional office. Leo was promoted and transferred to the regional office in Chicago; the philanderer got a lateral move at the same paygrade to an office several states away (his wife still firmly attached); the wronged, now divorced, inspector elected to stay in the local office until he retired years later.

Back in Indianapolis, while not an ideal FAA employee and certainly not management material, I got along fine and immensely enjoyed working with people like the Darlingtons in Anderson, Cuff and John Marlott in New Castle, Jim Mills and Steve and Herman Brown in Terre Haute, Chuck Scales in Huntingburg, and especially Ray Clark in Washington, Indiana. When I’d schedule a visit to check his air-taxi operation (a single Cessna 172 on the certificate and an Aztec he claimed was strictly for personal use), and he was out flying, Ray would hang a sign on the office door that read “FAA lady Martha’s coming, but she’s OK.”

My apartment was on the south side of Indianapolis, close to I-74 and a two-hour drive home to Cincinnati on weekends. Nearly every morning, I’d go to early Mass at Sacred Heart, a church in an old, rundown neighborhood, and then stop for lox and bagels up the street at Shapiro’s, the best Jewish deli in town. By 7:30 a.m., I’d be parked in an airport observation lot near the FAA office where I could needlepoint and wait for a wonderful Zantop DC-6 freighter and still get to the office by 8 a.m.

One morning I was surprised to see a pickup truck parked in the normally empty lot. I ignored the seedy-looking guy who kept glancing over my way, but when the driver’s side door of the pickup opened, I prepared to evacuate. But he didn’t get out, so I kept stitching and waiting on the roar of the Zantop freighter.

Then I saw some movement and glanced over at the now wide-open door on the pickup. It took a minute to realize the driver was in dishabille, as in partially undressed, and doing something definitely not acceptable in polite society. Zantop or not, I got the hell out of there. At the office, I ruminated for a few minutes and then went to Mary Lou.

“Do you think I should call the airport police?”

She was already dialing.

The cops checked the now empty lot and then came by the office to get my statement.

“Stay away until we tell you it’s OK to go back. We’re going to put a plainclothes female officer in the lot for a few mornings and see if we can flush this guy out.”

They were back a few days later to say they’d apprehended the guy — up to his same old tricks. And when they hauled him in, they found he was on the lam from a murder charge in Texas.

I still wanted to go home. Finally, a transfer came through for an opening in the CVG GADO at Cincinnati Municipal Lunken Airport as an accident prevention specialist. It wasn’t a prestigious position, but it was a job I would love and do well. Jay was reluctant to see me go. He warned me the Cincinnati manager was known as “difficult,” but my mom and dad were elderly, and I missed Cincinnati. When I accepted the transfer, they threw a big party, and the airworthiness unit at Indy hauled all my worldly possessions down I-74 on a snowy February day in a convoy of pickup trucks. Well, it wasn’t much of a convoy; after 14 moves in the previous 12 years, I was pretty well pared down to the essentials.