It was a beautiful day this week when my sister, Mary, and I met at the hangar for a $100—no, $200—hamburger flight. Seems like yesterday that we two very young gals were driving down Airport Road in a green Volkswagen Beetle and flying Ercoupes, Piper Colts, Cessna 120s, 140s and Cubs from right here, on the south line at Lunken Airport. It was the early 1960s, and I remember we’d giggle at the thought that, in 50 years, we two old ladies would probably still be driving down Airport Road to the south line, still climbing into airplanes.
Outrageous, but here we are.
Mary’s arthritis makes turning her head to the right painful, so she adjusts the right seat in the Cessna 180 way back, which actually helps to spot traffic—something she’s better at that than I am. She’s also sensitive to light (I call it wimpy) and wears big dark sunglasses and a baseball cap with a Bose headset holding everything in place. I just squint.
As I preflighted ’72B, Mary pointed to a pretty little Cessna 120 taxiing by the hangar.
“Remember when we used to fly Tony Maier’s N72197 for $7 an hour?” she asked. “And remember the time you showed me a really short-field landing? You touched down and stopped in the grass short of the runway. The idea was to surprise Tony by taxiing in from behind his T-hangars. It didn’t bother anybody in the tower (it was a different time), and it worked—but that landing was a bone-cruncher.”
“Yeah, I remember,” I said. “I rolled it out of a slip, cleared the fence and flared, but the damned thing quit flying about 3 feet too high. It wasn’t unsafe but definitely not pretty. Heck, I was just a kid…”
“And a showoff.”
Our lunch destination, Ohio’s Urbana airport (I74), has an interesting history. In the 1930s, an orphan named Warren Grimes purchased farmland and turned it into an airport, which was home to the Grimes Manufacturing Company. Grimes invented the red, green and white navigation lights on aircraft wingtips and tails, as well as all kinds of landing, instrument and interior lights. It’s said that every American-made airplane flown during World War II was equipped with Grimes lights.
Well, the company’s no longer at Urbana, but you can visit the Champaign Aviation Museum where dedicated—and patient—volunteers are rebuilding a B-17 from extremely small pieces. You can also join pilots and townsfolk at the venerable little restaurant, which hasn’t changed much in my lifetime, still serving the best homemade airport pies around.
While she doesn’t fly herself anymore, Mary loves flying with me in the 180, which is great because she’s (usually) good company, often buys lunch and always splits the fuel bill. But we’re a classic example of close siblings with wildly different personalities. This genuinely nice lady is sweeter, gentler, and more kindly, amiable and (I suspect) normal than her “Ms. Full Charge” sister, who she calls “Martha Braveheart.” When I worked for the feds, Mary often came along to seminars and airshows, and to this day, I rarely go anywhere without people asking, “Hey, how’s your sister?”
So, what am I…chopped liver?
Flashing back to that fateful day: At Urbana, I landed right into a brisk wind on the grass runway. We kind of thunked down, and Mary—a longtime school teacher—graded it a six. C’mon, my technique was perfect; the grass just needed rolling. But instead of reinstating my hero status back at Lunken, the 180 “won” again, and I scored something lower than that six. How can this happen after 57 years of flying taildraggers and 25 in this Cessna 180?
Well, the causes for the inelegant arrival—other than having my head up you know where—are kind of interesting, humbling and maybe worth talking about.
The airport was busy with lots of traffic after a long, dreary winter, a wet early spring and then the virus thing. ATIS was advertising the longer, parallel 6,500-foot Runway 3R, which was pretty much into the wind.
Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes
When I called the tower 8 miles north, there were two or three airplanes ahead of me for that runway, so they told me to report left downwind for the shorter, parallel Runway 3L. Closer in, I asked if I could slow up and maybe fit into the traffic landing on 3R. Why was that important? Well, having just spent well in excess of $200 on fuel, hamburgers and butterscotch pie, I was unhappy about the extra expense and longer taxi route to my T-hangar if I landed on 3L. Landing in the first 1,200 feet of 3R means you can exit at the high-speed Bravo taxiway—within spittin’ distance of my hangar.
The tower knows me and the 180 well enough that, with those barn-door flaps out, it can nearly hover (the GPS read 60 knots groundspeed on the downwind). With the first airplane for 3R on the ground, they cleared me to land number two behind a Husky, which my sister, “Ms. Eagle Eye,” had in sight.
I tucked in kind of tight because the Husky, a great short fielder, lives in a hangar near my airplane, so he’d surely stop in 1,200 feet and exit the runway at Bravo.
Except he didn’t. He sailed by the taxiway, and finally at a stop, the tower cleared him for a 180 back to the Bravo taxiway. Rats. So, I made some S-turning monkey motions on base and final and landed just as he cleared the runway. Like, God forbid I’d have to go around—think of the fuel!
But what was really going through my mind? “Hey, Mr. Husky, watch this and see how the pros do short-field landings in taildraggers.”
No surprise that my pure, unadulterated pride wenteth before the fall…from maybe 3 feet above the runway. It wasn’t unsafe, but it sure wasn’t pretty (and this time, I couldn’t use the “I’m just a kid” excuse). I’d held about 55 mph on final with full flaps and just enough power to stay on the visual-approach slope. Pulling the power and transitioning to a three-point full stall—wheel against the stops—take a combination of skill and luck to score a touchdown. This was a bone-crunching drop-down.
Bush pilots use a better technique for really short-field landings: minimum approach speed, full flaps, and enough power for a 500 fpm descent all the way to touchdown. Only on contact do they pull the power and glue it—tail low—on the mains.
Well, my version certainly didn’t impress the Husky pilot—or Mary, who said: “Well, you haven’t changed. You’re still a showoff.”
This story appeared in the October 2020 issue of Flying Magazine