Sometimes the Flying Weather’s Fit Only for Turkeys

Winter is a good opportunity for telling old aviation stories.

John Paul Riddle, a talented, handsome (even when I knew him in his 80s), and fascinating barnstormer originally from Pikeville, Kentucky, would play a very big part in creating what is now Cincinnati Municipal Airport-Lunken Field. [Courtesy: City of Pikeville; Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Archives]

It’s mid-January in the Midwest, and I’m in a funk over something you’ll understand—the weather.

We don’t have much violent weather in the Ohio River Valley, but we suffer through weeks of low, gray skies, rain/snow mix, and gusty surface winds. The surface winds at the moment are 240 degrees at 14 gusting to 22 knots with a light rain/snow mix. Ceiling is 1,300 feet overcast with rime ice reports up to 9,000 feet, plus a wind shear alert—winds at 2,000 feet are from 210 degrees at 50 knots. And that wicked witch, Mother Nature, plans even stronger surface winds with high temperatures in the single digits.

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I go down to the airport, KLUK, and sit in the airplane, thinking maybe I ought to take it around the patch a few times, but the thought of pulling off the heavy winter cover, preflighting, and pulling it out of the hangar for a couple landings is too daunting.

So, I’ll regale you with a great story from Lunken Airport’s early days.

It’s a special place for me, but then who doesn’t feel that way about their home field? Lunken is older than most because in the early 1920s, when aviation was “getting off the ground,” the site was uniquely natural for an airport—a big, flat area within 5 miles of downtown Cincinnati. At the time the government was pressuring cities to build airports for the new and popular airmail service.

Called the Turkey Bottoms, this mostly farmland property was eventually purchased by my ex-husband’s grandfather, Eshelby F. Lunken (Lunkenheimer Valve Company), and deeded to the city as an airport for 99 years. Later a ditzy, civic-minded aunt assigned the lease permanently to the city. Bummer.

In the early ’20s, the Cincinnati Polo Club used a portion, and its members didn’t appreciate a guy landing his “flivver” on their field between chukkers—7½-minute periods in polo.

It was John Paul Riddle, a talented, handsome (even when I knew him in his 80s), and fascinating barnstormer originally from Pikeville, Kentucky, who would play a very big part in creating what is now Cincinnati Municipal Airport-Lunken Field.

I came to know Riddle in the 1980s, when the airport was planning a 50th anniversary celebration, and I was asked to write a booklet for the affair.

“Damn,” I said to an old friend, J.R. Wedekind, “I wish that Riddle guy was still alive. There’s so much I’d like to ask him.”

“He is,” said Wedekind. “Lives in Coral Gables, Florida, and, at 80-something, still plays tennis every day. I’ll give you his telephone number. He lives in a two-family house…with his ex-wife upstairs.”

So, I called, wondering if he’d be annoyed at the intrusion, but Riddle was, well, charming. We would talk many times in the following weeks because, like so many of us, his memories from way back were sharp and clear.

A celebration was planned, so the city and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University (with which there was a quasi-connection) brought him to Cincinnati in summer 1987. Riddle hadn’t been at Lunken Airport for more than 50 years, but he recognized the hangars the city had built for what became the Embry-Riddle Company.

We talked for hours, he rode in my Cub, and we enjoyed a memorable dinner one night with my ex, Ebby Lunken, at a restaurant downtown. The Maisonette was an elegant, five-star joint, and the maître d’ was clearly uncomfortable. Ebby and Riddle were both quite deaf and communicated by shouting across the elegantly laid table.

Afterward, I drove Riddle back to Lunken and, as we neared the airport on a little street over railroad tracks called Airport Road, he muttered, “Oh, yes, I remember—Davis Lane.” That had been its original name many years before. I opened the door of one of the three hangars where, in the 1920s, the company had operated its flying and mechanic schools and kept the WACOs and Fairchilds used on its airmail route to Chicago. Standing in that dark hangar with this man with the rain beating down and not a word said was a rare experience.

Riddle was the guy who had landed in the polo field with a passenger and then hopped riders in the afternoon before returning to Ravens Rock upriver. That field at Portsmouth was unlighted, so he would circle town until the local radio announcer heard the airplane and asked everybody with a car to line the runway with their lights on.

On one of his Turkey Bottoms trips to hop some rides, a local man named T. Higbee Embry approached him and asked how much a ride cost.

“How much do you have on you?” Riddle asked.

“Twenty dollars,” Higbee replied.

“That’s what it costs,” Riddle said.

Eventually, Riddle taught Embry to fly, and from that a partnership in a flying company was formed with Embry’s wealthy mother putting up money to buy two WACOs and Riddle running the operation. By 1927, the city had taken legal possession of the land and built three hangars for the new Embry-Riddle Company. It was a success, offering airplane sales, mechanic and flight training, and an airmail contract for daily flights from Cincinnati to Chicago (CAM 24) in WACOs.

He told me wonderful stories, and we pored over old photographs and newspapers the company published. By 1930, Sherman Fairchild brokered a deal for the company to be sold to the Aviation Corporation (which later became Avco), and one of its passenger/airmail companies moved into the hangars. American Airways—later American Airlines—started life at Lunken.

Embry headed to California and Riddle went to Florida, where he would become a big name in the airplane world. Ten years after selling the Embry-Riddle operation, he contracted with the government and trained more than 700 pilots and mechanics, filling big hotels in Miami for civilian pilot training programs. Then he moved to Brazil, where he ran an operation training pilots for its government and, after World War II, founded and operated a large freight carrier, Riddle International Airlines.

I stumbled on a charming story about Riddle’s early years in Pikeville, Kentucky. He graduated from Pikeville College, trained in the military as a pilot and mechanic, and came home to barnstorm. At a Fourth of July celebration in 1923, Riddle, to the huge delight of the townspeople, flew his Jenny under Pikeville’s Middle Bridge.

When I found the still-standing memorial and read it, I laughed but couldn’t help wondering, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

This column first appeared in the April 2024/Issue 947 of FLYING’s print edition.

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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