Unusual Attitudes: In the Beginning …

Wings was a grand idea, but I never dreamed somebody would actually “just show up” in a high-performance airplane he didn’t know how to fly. Flying

In the beginning — well, the beginning of my airplane love affair — you could get your medical/student pilot certificate from the doctor if you were 16 years old, warm, breathing, had most of your important appendages and $30, preferably in cash. For some fledgling aviators, that’s as far as it went — which is not to say they quit flying. It was just something they repeated every two years, continuing to fly wherever and whenever.

In that era, I remember dropping into Harrison Airport (now Cincinnati West Airport) in a Cub on a hot summer afternoon with my friend Tom Byrne. We were sitting on a bench outside the tiny terminal building, drinking Cokes and eavesdropping on a conversation taking place around the corner.

“Didja hear that showoff went and got hisself a private license?”

It seems the three codgers on a bench around the corner were longtime members of something called the Harrison Social Flyers, an organization heavily weighted with hardcore student pilots. A few months later, I somehow found myself in the back seat of the world’s oldest Cessna 172 with another Harrison ­Social Flyers member who told me that, while he’d never bothered with a license, he was so high-time, he’d stopped logging after 100 hours.

Then it came to pass — sometime in the ’70s — endorsements! Suddenly a student needed a CFI’s ­signature on his certificate and logbook (which he had to carry) not only for the first solo but also every 90 days. More endorsements were required for aviating to other airports, into certain kinds of airspace, at night or in a different airplane. So between FBOs, insurance companies and the feds, “free flight” became a thing of the past.

Around then somebody asked me to teach an evening Private Pilot course at the old Courter Tech High School in Cincinnati. Now I wasn’t sure if Bernoulli was a French chef or an Italian race-car driver, and I blanched at the thought of teaching a classroom of people about aeronautics (very much the same feeling I’d later have about writing for an aviation magazine). But when I learned the class was filled with Harrison Social Flyers, I was pretty sure I knew more than they did … well, at least about regulations, wind triangles and omni stations. They were there because the jig was up; they’d have to take the private written and flight tests if they were to keep flying.

But things were still pretty loose because, too often, the day a pilot got his private ticket he was at the peak of his game. Things would go downhill from there, with bad habits taking root, skills deteriorating and accidents happening. So a few years late, the FAA adopted the BFR, or biannual flight review requirement.

Well, you can’t flunk a flight review, but the instructor can — and should — decline to sign your logbook if you’re not up to speed. For those who knew about it, the FAA’s new Wings program became a popular substitute. Taking three hours of dual flight instruction and attending one safety seminar earned you a level in the 20-stage program. Fill out the simple blue postcard, send it to the local FAA office, and you “didn’t need no stinkin’ flight review.”

But as late as 2005, only 2.5 percent of the pilot population had enrolled in Wings. We all know in many cases it’s easier to call that friendly instructor who always signs off your review … sometimes by mail order.

Since I’d do just about anything to stay out of the FSDO where I worked, putting on a full-blown “Wings Weekend” seemed like a splendid idea. So I sent out fliers, worked my butt off and eventually cajoled 50 to 60 CFIs to donate duals in return for renewals based on “acquaintance.” From there, with a tiny group of wonderful guys, we did a Wings Weekend every summer for 13 years, luring as many as 200 pilots to Hogan Field at Butler County Regional Airport in Hamilton, Ohio, to earn “Wings”… for free and in one day. Even with years when the weather was down, we flew more than 5,000 hours of dual instruction and had huge fun.

The flier read “Just show up with an airplane (or we’ll rent you one) on Friday or Saturday. We’ll pair you with a CFI for three hours of dual and a seminar … free … promise!”

Somehow it worked! I’d man a couple of whiteboards with a microphone under the big church tent we erected every year. We’d list pilots and instructors as they arrived and get everybody up for morning and afternoon sessions.

“You need an instrument competency check too? OK, Brian Siebert, fly with Mr. Feldhaus.”

“You brought a Stinson? Bob McConnaughey, you’re a taildragger guy. Meet Mr. Metcalf.”

All this was done accident-free … except once.

A man in his early 50s from south-central Ohio had recently — very recently — bought a Lancair. It was an early model but still high in horsepower and most definitely not an amateur’s airplane. At that time, Lancairs made up just over 3 percent of the amateur-built fleet, but they had over 10 percent of the accidents.

I was busy in the tent when I heard shouts and an unholy crunch from the east end of the field. Something had skidded off the runway and was lying up against a hangar, so I took off running until somebody picked me up in a golf cart.

It seems the pilot was on his third go-around after two previously aborted attempts to land. Witnesses said he was low and slow when he added full power, and the airplane rolled to the left — one estimated he was in a 45-degree bank about 25 feet off the ground. The airplane stalled, the wing hit the ground, and he slid off the runway, traveling a considerable distance before coming to a stop against a hangar door. Some guys working in the hangar dragged the pilot out of the cockpit, and when I got there, he was conscious, alert and in one piece, but shook up and a mess with facial cuts.

He was able to talk and said he was bringing this recently purchased airplane to Wings Weekend for some free dual instruction on how to fly it. He told me how to reach his wife, and I assured him I’d call her. Then the cops and the EMT crew arrived and, although they were pretty sure he was just bruised and banged up, hauled him off to the local hospital. Turns out, the doc at the Mercy Hospital ER in Hamilton was a pilot friend, so I was able to talk to him and confirm the injuries weren’t serious. He said they’d be releasing him that afternoon, and I said I’d call his wife to come retrieve him.

Now it was time to call the manager at the Hillsboro, Ohio, Walmart. I told him who I was and that a “Mr. Jones” had been in a minor airplane accident at Hamilton, Ohio. I needed to speak to “Mrs. Jones,” who worked in his store. Would he be able to bring her to a phone in a private area … like his office?

When she came on the line, I started with, “Mrs. Jones, your husband had a minor accident in his airplane at ­Hamilton Airport this morning.” Then, as clearly and reassuringly as possible, I said: “He’s not badly hurt; it’s just cuts and bruises and he’ll be fine. Can you come over to the hospital and pick him up?”

There was a long silence … and dread on my part about the coming hysterics.

“How’s the airplane?”

“Well, I’m afraid the airplane is pretty badly damaged … probably a total loss. But the good news is that your husband’s OK. He’ll be bruised and sore for a few days, but nothing’s broken.”

Another long silence.

"#&%^@#! That's over $60,000 down the hole. I told that damned fool he had no business buying it."

“Wings” was a grand idea, but I never dreamed somebody would actually “just show up” in a high-performance airplane he didn’t know how to fly.

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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