Unusual Attitudes: Wasn't that a Time

Reminiscing on good old "Hog Air."

unusual attitudes hog air
A look back at Hogan Air, AKA "Hog Air," and the FAA's very serious punishment for one man's cheeky joke.Martha Lunken

I borrowed this title from a documentary about Pete Seeger and the Weavers because the phrase “wasn’t that a time” always comes to mind when I ­remember an airfreight company operating out of southwestern Ohio for nearly 30 years — first as Hogan Air and then Miami Valley Aviation.

When I came back home to work in the ­Cincinnati FSDO, Miami Valley was rising from the ashes of the revoked Hogan Air 135 certificate, relocating from ­Hamilton, Ohio, to nearby Hook Field in Middletown. OK, I’m going to be flat-out honest here. “Hog Air” wasn’t squeaky clean, but no airfreight operation flying old Beech 18s and DC-3s could be totally compliant and stay in business. They flew well-maintained, if bedraggled and cosmetically challenged, airplanes and employed a bunch of skilled and enthusiastic, if unwashed, pilots — who favored psychedelic T-shirts, stained jeans and oil-soaked gym shoes — and a team of expert mechanics who worked magic with round engines. But they were lousy when it came to paperwork and recordkeeping. Hogan Air was accident-free, but the FAA is highly suspicious (read “scared”) of old airplanes in a revenue operation it doesn’t understand.

I was still based in Indianapolis when I heard the FAA planned a RASIP — a regional aviation safety inspection program — on Hogan Air. Remember that Hogan Air, like any certificated carrier, had ongoing oversight from ­inspectors in the local FSDO, but few companies get a “no findings” grade from a RASIP team. Think of it as an IRS audit on steroids. Several months beforehand, I went to Bill Hogan with the RASIP checklist (I must have stumbled across one and made a copy) and strongly suggested a full push to put their house in order.

Bill was a superb person — pilot, mechanic and friend — but stubborn as a mule. So nothing changed, and the RASIP was a disaster. And, yeah, there were plenty inconsistencies in pilot flight and duty time and airplane inspection records.

With a two-year-old type rating, I was the DC-3 ­“expert” and assigned to conduct flight tests on the new operation, Miami Valley Aviation. It was essentially the same company but with management changes and ­newly scrutinized and approved manuals. George Shirk and John O’Rourke, really fine FAA airworthiness inspectors in Cincinnati, held their feet to the fire, but they got the company flying again as quickly as possible. In the brotherhood of airfreight operators, companies like Bob McSwiggan’s Academy Airlines had leased and flown the Hogan ’3s during the downtime.

Kevin Uppstrom was tall, skinny, blonde and fair-skinned with a magnificent handlebar mustache and a small ponytail. As chief pilot, he was usually on board when I did the 135 check rides and was in the cockpit while I rode along for the required 25 hours of certification-proving runs. He was a neat guy and a magnificent pilot; as a teenager, Kevin actually flew C-47s with “Colonel Dad” on sport-parachute-club flights when the family lived in Thailand. But at first he was a little leery of me and, when I learned the story, I could appreciate why.

In his words:

“In 1984, we had a Monday through Friday nightly FedEx run from Charleston to Louisville, and on a ­Saturday morning return leg, taxiing to our parking spot, I saw that the National Guard, airport, county and city were conducting mock-disaster training. They’d closed the short runway and positioned a C-130 and another small airplane as if they’d collided. The area was littered with ambulances, EMS responders, ‘victims’ lying around and a bunch of guys in olive drab with some Civil Air Patrol or Boy Scout kids participating. “Thinking the military guys would find it amusing, I turned the airplane over to my copilot, slid the side ­window open, stood on the left seat and dropped trou. ­Seven and a half seconds later, I was back in my seat, and then we parked the airplane and drove back to Hamilton for the weekend. But on Monday, before I drove back for that night’s flight, the FBO in Charleston called and said the FAA was looking for me. I went ahead and took the flight that night but, sure enough, when I got back in the morning, the feds were waiting for me with ‘something in their office I needed to see.’ “Someone, it seems, had video of this cool DC-3 taxiing by with — oh my gosh! — some very white buttocks sticking out of the window. Sure, I expected a dressing-down, but it didn’t seem all that serious, so my Hawkeye Pierce persona said something like, ‘Gee, that’s a side of me I’ve never seen before.’ Ominously, nobody else seemed amused.”

Somebody in the FAA took it very seriously, because a few days later, Kevin received the letter, beginning with “Personnel of this office are investigating an occurrence …” The proposed sanction was a revocation of his ATP for “lack of good moral character,” “leaving a duty station,” and the standard “careless and reckless.”

With legal help (remember, his career was at stake), he appealed to the NTSB, and the administrative-law judge, Joyce Capps, ruled that a two-week suspension of his commercial privileges was sufficient punishment for that crime against humanity. (After multiple viewings of the videotape, she also announced she didn’t want to see that white tush one more time.) This would leave his ATP intact, and he could continue to work. But the FAA successfully objected that the underlying (Commercial SEL) rating couldn’t be suspended without impacting the ones above it, so Kevin ended up with a 30-day suspension of his ATP — not the end of the world, since it was winter and Mike Hogan kept him on the payroll, but not something a professional pilot likes having on his record.

To this day, I have a hard time understanding the ­motivation and sanity of the bureaucrat(s) who authorized this expenditure of time, effort and taxpayer ­money on this ridiculous investigation. OK, maybe a penalty like some kind of community service. I’m thinking of 30 CAP meetings in 30 days, or conducting 50 Young Eagles flights, or maybe going door to door collecting clean but used boxer shorts for the Salvation Army.

Anyway, Miami Valley eventually went the way of ­nearly all DC-3 freight operations, but Kevin Uppstrom survived and today flies great-big jet freighters all over the world. He has kids with advanced degrees in esoteric fields that I don’t begin to understand, and he is a proud grandfather. I also count him as the nearest thing I’ll ever have to a brother.

But, gee, I’ve always wanted to see that videotape …