Unusual Attitudes: Another Screw-up

Martha’s bad luck got worse after an incident left a dent in her Cub’s propeller and damaged the wingtip of a Cessna 150. Martha Lunken

In the 10 years I've been writing for Flying, I've told the stories of heroic, ridiculous, amusing, embarrassing, illegal, skilled, humanitarian, negligent and wonderful things we pilots do — stories about me, as well as people I've known as instructors, FAA inspectors and examiners, or simply as fellow pilots. In short, I've tried to be brutally honest about the wins and losses, heroics and screw-ups — those of others and my own.

But, my friends, this one is really hard.

After clipping the left wingtip of Dave Thurston's Cessna 150 while taxiing earlier this year, the dust finally settled. Dave got another wingtip, my prop was dressed out, and I took a 709 re-exam ride with FAA inspector Gary Middleton.

A couple of months later, my partner and lifelong friend Bobby Strunk died, and the mechanic who maintained the Cub and my Cessna 180 went to work for the FAA. I wondered if I could or should try to keep both airplanes running; I was doing so many practical tests as a DPE, there was hardly time to fly. So one afternoon, I stopped at Signature Engines and talked to owner and friend Bill Schmidt, who assured me that they could “keep me flying.”

The 180 was OK, but I was using a modified garden tractor to get the Cub out of an ancient T hangar with rusty, warped doors. And I anguished about propping it; the thing would only start if the throttle was cracked open farther than I liked, so securing it was a real issue. Another friend dug a deep hole and embedded an eye bolt in cement, and I bought heavy-duty nylon rope with sturdy carabiners on both ends, confident that it wasn’t going anywhere if I had to prop it alone.

So that’s where I was that May afternoon — the Cub secured to the eye bolt with the carabiner hooked around the tailwheel, wheels chocked and engine primed. I pulled it through with all I had and it fired … and immediately began to move forward. I raced around to reach the throttle, noting with horror that one of the tailwheel springs was off and the rope had detached from the airplane. I grabbed the wing strut and held on for dear life for what seemed like forever.

The airplane was turning clockwise, off the grass now and on the asphalt, picking up momentum. All 100 pounds of me tried desperately to reach the throttle, but I simply could not, and soon I was being dragged across the pavement on my heels (shoes ripped off) and butt (pants torn through). I think I hung on, yelling, for maybe three revolutions, but I was running out of strength and tried to time the inevitable “let go” where it would cause the least mayhem — like not toward 
Signature’s hangar.

My hands slipped off the strut and, lying on the ground, I heard a loud crash. The Cub had impacted the edge of a T hangar (good) and the right wing of — you guessed it — Dave’s Cessna 150 (not good).

Somebody called the life squad who hauled me off to the ER where a nice male nurse cleaned layers of asphalt out of my backside and my feet. I was OK, I thought, just grateful that nobody else was hurt, and now Dave could use the insurance money to buy that Mooney he wanted.

But it wasn’t “just OK.” As I was being dragged around, I saw my life, my career, my passion go by in a kind of slow-motion picture; I saw every possible consequence of this horrible situation and, although I was yelling, I knew it had been too risky for anybody to help. For weeks — even now — I wake up in the night, agonizing and reliving that experience.

As surreal as it sounds, the Cub was hard to start and I hated all the wires and cords connected to radios, antennas, headsets and intercoms. When Bobby died a few weeks before this incident (I was taxiing to another hangar to pick up a passenger), I found myself reluctant to fly it, which was weird because flying Cubs — I’ve owned all or part of four — has always been a joyful experience.

But my trouble didn’t end there.

The FAA’s reaction to my first screw-up when I damaged Dave’s wingtip while taxiing had been a surprise. But they said the Great Lakes regional office was coming down hard on DPEs, and to head off any trouble I’d need to take the 709 re-exam. This time, without even asking what kind of shape I was in, a frontline manager, who had been a friend and co-worker, said the region wanted me to voluntarily surrender my examining privileges.

I didn’t know what to say. I was glad I hadn’t caused any further mayhem but felt I needed some time to think and get advice. I’ve had 10 years — incident- and complaint-free — as a popular and unusually active examiner, as well as giving tests as an FAA inspector 28 years before that. It’s possible the rope between the tailwheel and the tiedown had some slack and the jerk of the sudden start pulled the structure loose at the tail, so, yeah, it was awful, but I believed I had taken reasonable, prudent precautions. It was an accident. I couldn’t in good faith make a voluntary surrender, but it was no surprise when I received a letter saying my designation had been terminated.

The FAA’s decision could be appealed, and I talked to an attorney from the firm that defended Bob Hoover. The consensus? DPE terminations are usually for fraud or serious ethical and legal violations. This is unfair, but the appeal process is expensive and time-consuming, with no guarantee of success.

I sold the Cub to ace aircraft builder Paul Redlich and his son, so I know the airplane will fly again. Dave has his Mooney, and I still have my Cessna 180 with more time now to fly it. But, gosh, it feels like there’s a great big hole in my life, and it hurts when an eager applicant calls to schedule a practical test in a Champ or a Cub, an Aztec or a Cirrus, Diamond, Seminole or 172, and I have to say, “I’m sorry, but I’m no longer an examiner.”

If nothing else, it's been a good lesson in humility, and I understand if you feel the same as the FAA and don't plan to read this lady's stories anymore. But, hey, if you do, there's a new book out this month from Sporty's called (guess what) Unusual Attitudes.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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