Sunday Service at an Airport

A common sight at Salamon Field in West Union, Ohio. Courtesy Martha Lunken

Nearly every suburban parish in (heavily Catholic) Cincinnati has a Saturday afternoon or evening Mass but, for lots of reasons, I’ve just been going through the motions—never feeling too “connected.” But there’s a racetrack near Lunken Airport and, about a year ago, a friend introduced me to a small community of “backtrackers.” Because of their work schedules and transportation issues, these stable hands, trainers, hot walkers, veterinaries, farriers, exercise riders and jockeys can’t make traditional church services. So, my friend, a racing enthusiast, arranged for a priest to come and say Mass at a back-of-the-track building on Sunday mornings. It’s bare bones, with a card table serving as the altar in front of a bunch of vending machines, betting windows and a pool table. Now, I know absolutely nothing about horse racing (and probably less about being a Christian), but this simple, short, beautifully devout celebration is my kind of church.

The only downside is I’ve been missing Sunday-morning-breakfast fly-outs with my buddies.

So, when all the churches were shut down by this coronavirus mess, I got to do that other holiest thing I know how to do and went flying. And I guess the Lord was OK with that because the first Sunday of the quarantine was a glorious day—in fact, it was the first nice VFR morning in what’s been a cold, gray winter and early spring in the Midwest.

Nobody was around when I got to the hangar, so I just picked an airport from the A list on the GPS. KAMT (Salamon Field) in West Union, Ohio, is one of the airports built in nearly every Ohio county in the 1960s to pump up the local economy. Unfortunately, it didn’t work in this acutely depressed, southeastern part of the state known as “the Edge of Appalachia.” But I’m well familiar with the field since my FAA days, when I used to put on safety seminars for its local flying club.

Pilots from nearby airports came as well as the club members (with wives and girlfriends, who brought homemade goodies), and the get-togethers were always fun. What an eclectic collection of farmers, schoolteachers, a judge, heavy-equipment workers, a small-business man, and a wonderful octogenarian named Charlie, who removed the front seat in his Piper Cub to satisfy the insurance company mandate that he not carry a passenger.

They’d all listen intently while I rattled on about something or watch a film I brought but, strangely, there were rarely any questions or discussions. Eventually, I came to understand that only a handful of the membership actually flew airplanes—but you never know when some useful bit of information gets through and makes a difference. Anyway, there were those homemade pies and new friends who, to this day, invite me to fly-in picnics, and show me where to look for morels in the spring and hunt deer in November.

About a year ago, when I dropped in at Salamon, I was met on the ramp by burley guys in uniforms. It seems flying activity had dropped off so disastrously that the county converted the terminal building into a jail. The inmates turned out to be young drug offenders, but the guard guys declined when I suggested they might be motivated by a close-up look at my airplane. Since then, either the FAA or the state shut down the jail, and it’s back to being a terminal building. Sadly, an empty one.

David and Lori Zombeck celebrate their anniversary with carryout, wine and candles during the quarantine at KLUK. Courtesy Martha Lunken

That first quarantine Sunday when I landed (well, “arrived”—the Cessna 180 won that time), there were two other airplanes from Lunken on the ramp—my friend Bud in his RV-8, and PJ, a corporate pilot, in his 172. PJ’s wife had driven out in the family van with four kids, just to get out of the house during this quarantine. They stopped at a chili joint on the way and brought bags of takeout Cincinnati-style three-way chili and Coney Islands (hot dogs with chili) for a fly-in lunch. Everybody stood 6 feet apart, telling tall tales, ribbing me about my landing and devouring the goodies. It was fun and a tribute to ingenuity in this troubled time—but also very, very sad.

Later that week, I dragged the 180 out, again feeling slightly guilty about being able to fly. But there were good crosswinds and, after that less-than-elegant landing at KAMT, I needed to give ’72B some lessons about who’s boss. This time, I chose Mansfield, Ohio (KMFD), just because I hadn’t been there in years. On the way, I remembered this story—he calls it a “true lie”—from a longtime reader, Jim Hackman, who ran an FBO called Richland Aviation with his wife, Marjean, at Mansfield in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Read More from Martha Lunken: Unusual Attitudes

Jim had an elderly former employee named Virgil, who had retired from the service department. But on occasion, they called him back for some special need or project. Helping out one day, Virgil came into the office and asked if he could use one of Richland’s Cessna trainers. Jim said he knew Virgil was a pretty good pilot and had long operated an old Taylorcraft off a very short and bumpy grass runway at his house with an adjacent hangar for parts and rebuild projects.

Virgil said he needed the airplane because his wife had locked herself out of the house, and he had to get home and let her in.

“Whoa, Virgil, I’m not sure we want one of our airplanes going into that little grass strip. It may be OK for the T-craft, but…”

“Oh, Jim, I’m not going to land. See, here’s the garage door opener from my pickup. All I need to do is fly by the front of the house and open the door for her.”

Twenty minutes later, Virgil hung the Cessna keys back on the peg in the office and went back to work in the shop.

Jim, living in Arizona now, says he’s about the same age Virgil was at the time and, even though with age comes wisdom, he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t be that innovative. Then a young pilot friend reminded him that today he’d just use the app on his smartphone.

I’m finishing this on Easter Sunday, sitting at home and watching Mass televised from St. Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City. (No, I’m not tempted—it’s too crummy to go flying.) My fervent prayer is that when you read this, we’ll all be back to our normal lives—back to flying for your airline or your company, instructing, or just cranking up your bird for a breakfast fly-out on a Sunday morning.

This story appeared in the August 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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