Unusual Attitudes: Head in the Clouds

“Things quickly went awry, but wrestling for the stick and yelling, ‘I’ve got it,’ didn’t work. When the dust settled, we quickly hauled it out of the cornfield and into
John’s hangar.”
Courtesy Martha Lunken

After reading, rereading and ruminating over an article on the direction of relative wind as affected by slips and skids, I still wasn’t getting it. Because I don’t have Peter Garrison’s number, I called another friend who has written extensively about all things aeronautical, and as expected, he patiently dumbed it down to where even I understood what the guy was trying to say. Our conversation then morphed into a discussion about readers who assume that because an aviation writer is so knowledgeable about the art and science of flying, he’s a de facto great pilot. My friend inferred he wasn’t—at least not anymore.

I agreed, but I was lying. This guy is a vastly experienced, exceptionally gifted pilot (and writer) who has spent a lifetime honing his craft. But when it comes to me, truth is, I’ve screwed up more in 58 years and many thousands of flying hours than nearly all the pilots I know…combined. And, no, I’m not bragging, thumbing my nose or feeling any sense of pride about this.

If you’re reasonably sane and have read my stories for some time, you’ll agree it would be a stretch to call me a great pilot. Enthusiastic? You bet. Pretty well-trained? By some of the best. A good stick? Usually. Many years and lots of time in wildly diverse flying machines? Yeah. A great airman? ’Fraid not—something known by my guardian angel and a few friends, if not the FAA. Believe me, it isn’t comfortable to acknowledge I’ve bent more metal than most pilots (thank God, never hurting anybody). After all, I’ve spent a lifetime advocating aviation safety, instructing and testing the skills of other pilots while having screwed up, albeit unintentionally, more than my share of the time.

My rap sheet began in the 1960s, when I put my Pietenpol Air Camper on its nose directly in front of the Sky Galley Restaurant at Ohio’s Lunken Airport: an embarrassing predicament caused by funky heel brakes, a 90-degree turn onto a taxiway in a gusty, quartering-left tailwind, inexperience, and a lack of knowledge and skill. But within the year, with a new prop on the Air Camper and a genuine CFI certificate in hand, I taxied into a sawed-off fence post lurking in the grass next to the runway at Johnny Lane’s Lebanon Airport in Ohio. John and his mechanic, Bob Gill, pounded out the prop, and until now, nobody except the three of us was any wiser.

Some years later, now a genuine FAA inspector, I took the rap for a boyfriend I was checking out in an Aeronca 7DC. Well, heck, I was madly in love with and felt sorry for this (as it turned out) rather nefarious character who was a CFI and an about-to-be-disbarred attorney. I dutifully reported it to the FAA and was sentenced to a 709 reexamination ride with an inspector from another FSDO. (The scene of the crime is commemorated by a large engraved stone at Sporty’s Clermont County Airport in Ohio.) And then there was a 2-hour student pilot I encouraged to make the takeoff in a 180 hp Husky from John Schweller’s 32-foot-wide concrete strip. Things quickly went awry, but wrestling for the stick and yelling, “I’ve got it,” didn’t work. When the dust settled, we quickly hauled it out of the cornfield and into John’s hangar. Madly in love—yeah, again—with John, we made two round trips in his little Mercedes, trailering the shrink-wrapped fuselage to Afton, Wyoming. John was killed within the year in another airplane accident, and strange as it sounds, I was almost thankful about the Husky; we had such fun on those long drives to and from Wyoming.

Another longtime friend, Mike Devanney, had a grass strip shorter than John’s and narrower with tall trees on the approach end and both sides of the runway. The right wingtip on my Cessna 180, well, brushed a branch on landing, but Mike’s artistry with duct tape had it flying like new. I did nothing about it until a friend who owned a propeller company insisted I let their mechanic repair it; that duct-taped 180 sitting on the Hartzell ramp in Piqua, Ohio, was something of an embarrassment.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

But duct tape is wonderful stuff, and it saved the day when I took off for Oklahoma City without having secured the right cowl access door—invisible from the left seat while taxiing but certainly part of a proper preflight. When I leveled off and saw it flapping in the slipstream, I made an immediate landing at Greater Cincinnati Airport where another angel, disguised as a Comair mechanic, fixed me up with “500-mph speed tape.” Evidently, this stuff, which (then) cost about $700 per 4-inch-wide roll, is actually approved for certain repairs—well, temporary ones. But it served so well from Cincinnati to Oklahoma City and back, I was tempted to use a little paint and fly on. (I didn’t, but do you know what a genuine Cessna part for a 1956 180 costs?)

There were others: snagging a runway light taxiing a UPF-7, a taxiway light in a DC-3, losing a fight with a pine sapling and the wingtip of another Goon, and a more serious encounter with a tree when landing my Cub at night on an unlit, uphill, doglegged grass strip. And, of course, my finest hour was landing out of an overcast on the Pennsylvania Turnpike because I’d lost an unsecured fuel cap.

And you know all about my unlucky but careless J-3 Cub propping episode—technically not an accident because it was to reposition and “not for the purpose of flight.” My former confreres at the FAA weren’t pleased when the tiedown rope snapped off the tail and the Cub roared to life with nobody at the controls. Thus ended my career as a designated examiner. Interestingly—and here’s that guardian angel again—the guy who bought the salvage found the airframe so badly corroded, it was beyond repair, which was one of the reasons the rope attach point failed.

Thankfully and maybe ominously, for some years, things have been relatively calm. But I have this recurring dream involving my 180 and another cornfield. I’m sure it’s just that—a dream—but yesterday, searching the floor of the 180 for a lost tootsie pop, I saw what looked suspiciously like pieces of cornstalk…

Maybe I need to stop scoffing, swallow my pride, and enroll in one of John and Martha’s courses in decision-making and risk management. In the meantime, learn something from my screw-ups and know at least I’ll never lie to you.

This story appeared in the Jan/Feb 2020 issue of Flying Magazine

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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