New Friends in Aviation

Scott and Brenda White, and their Cessna 185. Courtesy Martha Lunken

What a salesman! With one phone call, this Cessna 180 owner and regional director of the International 180/185 Club had sold me on joining the organization and speaking at their convention next year. And by now, you’ve probably gathered that “joining” and “speaking” are recessive genes in my DNA.

But I was intrigued when Eric Gardner described the cabin he and his wife, Shannon, had built on a mountain strip in the heart of West Virginia—a “mountain mama, almost heaven” spot (thank you, John Denver) that author Stephen Coonts wrote of as his Shangri-La. Eric said to think about joining the gaggle of 180 drivers who’d be there on Labor Day weekend.

Rather than waiting, my friend Joe Loewenstein and I flew my ’56 Cessna 180 to this 3,300-foot grass strip in Rainelle, West Virginia. Eric and Shannon had arrived from their home in Florida, and he drove us around, explaining that this place had been reclaimed from an abandoned strip mine in the early 1960s. After Lawrence “Squire” Haynes and two airplane-owner friends bulldozed, leveled and seeded it, Squire built a restaurant. And in those golden days of general aviation, it was a popular fly-in destination. The Squire is gone and his popular hash house closed, but somebody built three hangars, and that cinder-block restaurant still stands. WV30 is open for primitive camping, and Eric said he hopes to have new bathroom and shower facilities by next summer.

During our visit, another beautiful 180 landed, and Eric and Shannon’s friend Scott White joined us chatting at a picnic table. This place does seem to be a magnet for 180-series pilots. As we talked, I was thinking about my introduction to this rugged and beloved airplane.

It was a long time ago—50 years—but I won’t forget that Saturday morning at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati.

The outfit was called Midwest Flight Center (because “Midwest” was already painted on the hangar) but better known as Miss Martha’s Flying School. I operated out of Ebby Lunken’s Hangar 7 on the south line of the airport. Ebby and I shared an office, and when I wasn’t flying, I’d help with what remained of his Midwest Airways venture. A couple of years later—after a long, sporadic engagement—we’d marry, but by 1970, his airline serving Cincinnati, Columbus, Cleveland and Detroit had sadly imploded. He’d sold the four Lockheed 10A Electras, bought two Douglas DC-3s ($16,000 each) from the defunct Lake Central Airlines in Indianapolis, and was struggling to keep his dream alive with charters to sporting events and northern Michigan resorts. But for scheduled interstate service with “large” (over 12,500 pounds gross weight) airplanes like DC-3s, you needed a CAB certificate of public convenience and necessity. His efforts dragged on for several years with huge legal fees, but Ebby’s bid was ultimately unsuccessful.

Blaine White, and his wife and son, with the 180 that was once flown by his grandfather. Courtesy Martha Lunken

My trainers—a Cessna 150 and Citabria—roosted inside this historic 1925 Army hangar, and the DC-3s were parked in the grass across the ramp. Flying-school business was good, but I was alone in the office that Saturday morning because of the crowds and exhibitions on the terminal ramp. In a few hours, the airport would be closed for the airshow.

I picked up the ringing phone, and some Civil Air Patrol Oberbefehlshaber asked if we had portable oxygen—for an ailing airshow spectator, I assumed. I told him I’d get a bottle from the DC-3. When the truck arrived, I was climbing out of the -3, bottle in hand, and I told the driver to go wherever it was needed while I figured out how to get it working.

Instead of the terminal ramp, he headed out a nearby taxiway to the departure end of Lunken’s long runway. The oxygen was flowing when we stopped beside a young man standing next to an apparently undamaged, single-engine tailwheel airplane sitting off in the grass. An older man was lying on the ground.

I remember somebody was doing chest compressions, and I held the oxygen mask to the man’s mouth; we were frantically doing our best with limited knowledge and skill. But there was no movement, no heartbeat, no breath, and the man had a gray-blue pallor. We kept trying and hoping—and fervently praying—until the life squad arrived and took over.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

The young man, the pilot’s son, rode in the ambulance with his father to the hospital. Somebody from the airport asked if I could taxi the airplane to our ramp at Hangar 7 so the runway could be reopened. I had plenty of tailwheel time, but this would be my introduction to the Cessna 180.

The father was declared dead on arrival at the hospital, and his son returned several hours later—quiet and dazed. He told us he’d had some time in the airplane, and got it stopped and shut down after his dad suddenly slumped over (cardiac arrest) during the landing rollout. I remember thinking that maybe it wasn’t the worst way to die—like Bing Crosby who famously collapsed after playing a successful round of golf. But this pilot, a husband and father, was only 50 years old.

Ebby gave the young guy some cash, and I flew him over to KCVG and got him on a Piedmont Airlines flight to Wise, Virginia. We told him the airplane would be secure in the hangar for as long as necessary; I wrote his mom a letter just to say that people had been there, caring and trying everything possible.

Many times, I would sit in that 180 and wish…but a few months later, somebody picked it up, and it slipped into history. We heard no more about it.

Enough reminiscing, I told myself. Just enjoy the beautiful day, this idyllic spot, and savor the opportunity to trade tales with kindred spirits, making new friends with people I’d never seen before.

Except, I had seen…

“Yeah, we’re a real 180 family,” Scott said. He was obviously proud of his own airplane, and that his son, Blaine, a third-generation 180 owner, is flying what had been his grandfather’s airplane.

“You know,” Eric told me, “Scott was riding the right seat in that 180 when his dad suddenly died during a landing rollout.”

The hair on the back of my neck was tingling, and I asked Scott where it had happened.

“Oh,” he said, “it was a long time ago—50 years. We’d flown to Lunken Airport in Cincinnati for an airshow.”

“Scott, I was there.”

He looked at me closely for a while and then said slowly, “OK, yeah, now I remember you.”

This story appeared in the November 2020, Buyers Guide 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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