Unusual Attitudes: Shaking Things Up at Bristol Village

My old friend Air Force Lt. Col. Jerry Kemp and his F-16. Martha Lunken

I hadn’t seen Jerry Kemp in a while, but an email from him recently brought a flood of memories and a delightful (in retrospect) reminiscence about this hero and friend, an FAA safety meeting and a place called Bristol Village in rural southeastern Ohio.

By the late 1980s, I’d swapped my job as principal operations inspector in Indianapolis for the safety program manager (SPM) slot at the Cincinnati FSDO. “Manager” might sound impressive, but it wasn’t. The position was cemented at the GS-13 level — good enough pay but no mechanism for clawing your way into the higher echelons of the FAA. There was an attempt to sweeten things by designating accident-​prevention specialists as SPMs and eliminating that nasty accident word. But while the newly created managers basked in their titles, the change was purely cosmetic — accidents would continue to happen, and SPMs would see no raises in grade or salary.

Being a “13” was fine with me. The Cincinnati office was small, so I did other work — flight checks (I could fly), accident investigations (I had experience … investigating, not having them … yet) and writing other guys’ reports (I knew how to construct a sentence). But my official job with the safety program was a great gig despite the lack of prestige and upward mobility. I planned my own work program and had a private office for “sensitive” counseling sessions. Seminars were fun and got me out of the office, so I dreamed up, advertised and conducted at least one every week in the district. I created safety awards where there were none, and we honored the recipients with banquets (parties) and, with lots of help, did a glorious Wings Weekend gala every summer. My confreres began to realize, with no little envy, that I had a helluva deal. Few people in government enjoy so much freedom, make so many friends and have as much fun as I did — in spite of a boss who was suspicious of minions who enjoyed themselves.

Sadly, the safety program — Pete Campbell’s 1960s brainchild — morphed into the current FAASTeam monster about 10 years ago. Maybe too many SPMs were content to man a desk — and the FSDO break room — while doing little more than manage a team of counselors. But safety-​program counselor was an unofficial designation with no teeth, so how could they be expected to ferret out errant pilots for counseling or advertise and produce their own seminars? My guys helped when I came with a program, and they’d show up at the required annual meeting, where I’d remind them to send me their activity reports. They knew that I knew they wouldn’t, and I covered them with quarterly “guesstimates” to the regional office. I guess that’s what I did. … It was a long time ago.

I’d create flyers, using newspaper ads and coloring-book illustrations, which the FAA printed and mailed under a contract with some federal prison. They usually reached pilots in the counties I’d selected, but occasionally (I suspect) ticked-off inmates would mail them to someplace in northwestern Nebraska. Under extreme duress I’d talk at seminars, but more often we’d have FAA videos or a much more interesting speaker from the industry. The Ohio Air National Guard at Springfield and an Air Force fighter squadron at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base developed a program on collision avoidance they were always willing to show. So when the Pike County Flyers asked for a seminar, I knew it was ideal for this military presentation. Air Force Lt. Col. Jerry Kemp agreed to bring “The Sound of Freedom,” which explained the importance of Air Force training missions — and encouraged pilots to stay the heck out of their way in the MOA. Since Jerry was also an airline and general aviation pilot, he was perfect for the mission.

Lt. Col. Kemp was also an airline and GA pilot, making him a perfect speaker at my seminars. Martha Lunken

The Pike County Flyers president was delighted that a real, live military fighter pilot was coming and arranged for the club to borrow the facilities at Bristol Village, where most of the members lived. It was much better, he said, than the dilapidated little shack at the airport. Bristol Village, I would learn, was a large retirement community in Waverly, Ohio, and the Pike County Flyers were elderly gentlemen flying ultralights off the institution’s grounds.

Jerry and I met in Waverly and hauled the equipment to Bristol Village. He had two videos: “The Sound of Freedom” and something new called “Red Flag,” which he described as spectacular footage of a war-games exercise at Nellis Air Force Base. It featured intensely wild maneuvers — air-to-air combat; high-speed, low-level runs; and bomb drops with stuff actually being blown up. Audiences loved it.

As I unloaded my microwave-size video projector, a quiet, elderly man stopped me, took the tapes and said he’d set everything up with their equipment. The room, more like an auditorium, seemed awfully large for our little group, and the stereo sound system and giant video screen were nothing short of awesome. The quiet little man, it seems, was a retiree from some Ivy League college, where he headed up the audio-visual department.

To our surprise — well, Jerry’s and mine — by 7 p.m., the house was packed … with every mobile resident of the large retirement community, and some who weren’t mobile.

How nice, I thought. Obviously, not too many pilots, but I’m sure they’ll enjoy the films.

I introduced Lt. Col. Kemp, magnificent in a uniform resplendent with insignia and decorations. He launched “The Sound of Freedom.”

As it was playing, there were murmurs…

Then we rolled “Red Flag” and the murmurs increased in volume. In fact, some in the audience were visibly and audibly agitated.

As the lights came up, all hell broke loose. If the audience had saved any stewed tomatoes from dinner we’d have been splattered in red goo.

See, this retirement community and nearby Pike County Airport, both located in a lovely, bucolic area of southern Ohio, were also smack in the middle of Brush Creek MOA — an area long used for low-​altitude maneuvers by A-7s and F-16s from the Wright-Pat and Springfield bases. The Air Force had long fielded noise complaints from locals in this sparsely populated area; in fact, that was part of the reason it had made “The Sound of Freedom.” But apparently, the residents of Bristol Village assumed the FAA, the Ohio Air National Guard and the U.S. Air Force were there to hear — and solve — their complaints about the roar and occasional thunderclap from those infernal low-flying airplanes. They were definitely not mollified by “The Sound of Freedom.”

I’m not sure how — or if — Jerry and I made a graceful exit that night, but we did escape relatively unscathed. The Pike County Flyers were appropriately embarrassed, but, you know, it was OK. Everybody — in their own way — had a wonderful time.

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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