It was a dark and stormy night; my electrical system had failed, and the battery was dead. Descending lower and lower in the murk, looking for familiar landmarks, I saw—dead ahead—the magnificent Jeremiah Morrow Bridge spanning the Little Miami River on Ohio’s Interstate 71. My only option was to fly beneath that high-and-wide span and make my way back home to Lunken Airport.
No—that’s a big, fat lie.
The unvarnished truth is: It was a pretty, early spring afternoon on March 2, 2020, and I was randomly boring holes into the sky, making takeoffs and landings at several small airports and planning to call Cincinnati Approach for a practice approach into Lunken. I did some bounces at a nontowered airport near Wilmington, but nobody was home, so I flew north a few miles to an old friend’s semi-abandoned private strip. He’s gone now after a tragic airplane accident, but I still land there sometimes and sit on the empty ramp, remembering and whispering a prayer for him. But that day, I was testing my mettle with a couple of landings on that narrow 32-foot-wide paved strip with a built-in crosswind. My “arrivals” were less than elegant, so after the last jarring touchdown, I gave up and pointed the Cessna 180 west toward Oxford, Ohio.
Now I was in “Martha’s Vineyard,” nicknamed by Johnny Lane when he hired me as a fledgling flight instructor 50-some years ago. I’d use this area south of Lebanon for my students’ practice area while John worked with his to the north. To this day, it still feels like my backyard. Still pretty low, I glanced over my left shoulder at the expansive, recently rebuilt Jeremiah Morrow Bridge. And, friends, even now I can neither explain nor justify my impulsive, unpremeditated and spontaneous decision to fly underneath it. I do remember saying out loud, “Lord, I just have to do this before I’m too old to fly anymore.”
Yeah, those were the exact words, but evidently, He didn’t think it was such a great idea. Neither did Ohio’s state highway department or the FAA.
There’s no excuse for this lapse of judgment, but I am very familiar with the area, having frequently hiked and biked the trail underneath this span over the scenic river. I knew there were no cables or obstructions, and I also knew an airplane flying underneath wouldn’t be visible to traffic on the bridge. As an airline-pilot friend once said to me, “Hell, you could fly a DC-3 under that thing.” So, I didn’t consider it reckless or dangerous; I would never intentionally put anyone at risk. But I sure as hell knew it was illegal.
So where was my guardian angel that day when highway workers were underneath the bridge using a photo drone that caught my blurry image? About a week later, I got a phone call from two inspectors at “my” former FSDO.
“Ms. Lunken, on March 2, 2020, did you fly your airplane under…?”
“Did you turn off your transponder?”
We’d go around about the ADS-B Out transponder which—confirmed by a radio shop—had worked loose in the panel mount and was operating intermittently. Maybe those hard landings and the considerable low-level turbulence had unseated the pins. But the FAA wasn’t buying it, and this remains my word against theirs.
Understand, I’ve been “living” and writing this story for more than a year, agonizing over when and how to confess it to you. It’s time. The sword of Damocles has fallen.
When I received the FAA’s letter of investigation, I had already contacted the Yodice Associates law firm in Maryland. Kathy Yodice and I knew that if action isn’t taken on a proposed suspension within six months, it becomes a “cold case” and the FAA issues a “no action” letter. For six months, I checked the mailbox daily with my heart in my throat. I’d even put a tiny crucifix inside the box and retrieved each day’s mail, saying, “Lord, this is up to you…”
Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes
I was mildly hopeful after a year passed—until Kathy reminded me there’s no time limit on certificate-revocation actions, which can be executed years after an alleged event. Yeah, I’ve jabbed at the FAA for years in my monthly column, but it’s hard to believe the administrator would “get even” by revoking my certificates for a relatively benign prank. Especially with no previous violations in 60-plus years of aviating?
More than a year after flying under the bridge, a large box appeared on my porch. Opening it, wondering what I’d ordered from Amazon, I felt gut-punched as I stared at a letter titled “Emergency Order of Revocation,” stating, “Effective March 2, 2021, any and all airman pilot certificates you hold, including your airline transport pilot certificate, were revoked.”
FAA enforcement attorney Brian Khan’s letter stated that—after I’d been flying for a year—protection of the public required immediate revocation of everything. My deliberate, egregious operation of an aircraft without an activated transponder and flying under a bridge within 500 feet of persons and structures showed disregard for the regulations, lack of compliance disposition, and defiance of safety regulations. Because I can’t be trusted to conform, I lack the qualifications to hold an airman certificate.
Well, I’ve never claimed to be a role model, but what a cruel and harsh punishment. You can’t begin to imagine how devastating it feels to have everything I’ve worked for, held dear and loved for 61 years suddenly erased.
The Yodice firm would appeal such a severe FAA sanction to the National Transportation Safety Board, but attorney and expert fees in litigating the case could run well in excess of $25,000. Even a decision that mitigated the sanction would probably be appealed to the full NTSB by the FAA. This would drag on, becoming increasingly more expensive, with no guarantee of success.
Kathy got the one-year revocation period reduced to 9 months. So, I can take written exams now and apply for a student pilot certificate after December 2. In the meantime, I’ll stay proficient by flying with an appropriately rated friend as PIC in the 180. Then I’ll take the practical tests for the private pilot with instrument rating. Meanwhile, Flying is temporarily putting my column on hiatus; maybe I’m a little too “unusual” for readers uninterested in the stories of a renegade aviator. I’m scheduled to be back in the January+February 2022 issue, with my story of starting again.
I’ll miss you but will stay busy—as students sometimes say—”studying for my privates.”
This story appeared in the August 2021 issue of Flying Magazine