I’ve read a lot of flying stories. Hundreds. Maybe tens of hundreds. I’ve been reading flying stories since I was a very small boy.
No flying story ever made me cry.
(The One Six Right trailer did make my eyes water, but that was because I had not flown for months, and the Enya soundtrack behind the “single-engine, single-seat” magic hit just the right note.)
Then, on Sunday’s commercial flight from Manila to Bangkok, I read Martha Lunken’s article in August’s FLYING magazine.
Lately I have come to hate airliners more than I normally do. It has nothing to do with flying. Just the sharp, melancholic pain of leaving loved ones again for yet another long, tiring business trip, cutting short a feverish stop at home and walking away from someone I’d really prefer not to leave behind.
But I was smiling as this airliner taxiied away from the gate.
I began Martha’s story as the Thai B777 pushed back. and a smile spread right across my face. Soon I was grinning, chuckling, and then outright laughing out loud. I must have seemed looney to the FA crew-seated across my exit row. I didn’t care.
This was one of the BEST flying stories I had ever read.
And sometimes, if I’d remembered the toilet paper, I’d climb to about four thousand feet upwind of his hangar. Clear the area while unwinding a couple of feet of paper (Scott works best) in my right hand… .”
“The Great Flour Bombing Campaign of 1989”. Delicious humor — short and snappy, irreverent wit, (Martha was an FAA Flight Standards District Office inspector, for heaven’s sake, they’re not even supposed to have humor as an optional extra!), and a clearly honest love for aviation.
Last time I dropped into a private field the owner threatened to call the FAA. I told him I couldn’t help myself, his strip was an attractive nuisance. Then I gave him the FSDO manager’s (my boss’s) name and phone number. “Oh, hell, I should have known,” he sputtered. “You’re that Martha… .”
Anyway, Bruce was useless when it came to small talk, much less sweet-talk. He was an engineer, with all that connotes, and operated a Cheyenne II. He applied for a 135 certificate and I was assigned to do his flight checks. Once he got over the “unsat” I gave on the first try we became great friends. I suggested that, with his personality, he’d make more money if he stuck to hauling bodies instead of live people.
Martha is all about flight. Not gadgets, not airplanes, not even technique (an FAA FSDO inspector, for heaven’s sake!).
If the FAA had taught me nothing else, I learned (so listen up) that the closer your back is to the wall, the more tightly shut you keep your mouth. I just peered up at the State Trooper’s face and make kind of a croaking noise. There goes my job, my pilot license, hell, probably my freedom. I saw them handcuff me and, with a hand on my head, firmly push me into the back seat of the police car. There we no door handles, and through the heavy screen, I heard them in the front seat on the radio, “Says she works for the FAA… .” Then the finger-printing and the mug shots and the too-big orange jumpsuit. Finally, there I was in a cell full of prostitutes, druggies, welfare moms gone bad and low-flying pilots.
So there I was, in this Thai airliner, thoroughly enjoying the article, not wanting it to end AT ALL.
We flew each other’s airplanes and I found that landing a Pitts on a 34-foot wide concrete runway was a guaranteed adrenaline rush. If the wind was cross and strong (like more than 5 knots) I’d land on the “normal” runway at Clinton Field and call, “Hey, John, drive over here and get your airplane.”
Yeah, I remember gingerly landing Meynard Halili’s neon yellow Decathlon at RPLL runway 06, in front of big metal A320s and an Air Force C-130. Every eye was upon us. Taildraggers ROCK!
Then I got to the middle of Martha’s story. And a totally unfair, unacceptable twist to the tale.
I’m nearly 50 years old. I’m a Vice President of a Fortune 500 corporation. Twenty-eight years of corporate politics has pretty much immunized me from the toughest hits from the written word. But my eyes filled as I read on. And then they just overflowed, and I even had to deal with a sob, or three.
Because I’m also a pilot, and Martha’s story was the true account of something no pilot ever wants to read about. About not one, but two, tragedies. Both of which just did NOT need to happen.
When I come back, I’ll sit against the hangar door, and pull out my beads. I’ll finger through the decades, not exactly praying, but remembering John, and Bruce, and every other flying friend gone now. Trying to remember, honor and bless those pilots I didn’t know in life but who I saw in death, doing something we all so love to do that went so very wrong.
I looked out the window as the Boeing taxiied to the runway and watched the rain leave squiggly tracks on the glass. I thought about loved ones who get stranded in a silent empty space when airmen go away, a lifetime of unspoken sentiments snuffed out in an instant. We always think we have so much time.
Martha Lunken has written only twice for FLYING. The first was also a blockbuster, and generated a wealth of reader mail demanding more. Sometimes, we don’t know what we wish for.
I won’t say this again — do not miss the chance to read “The Great Flour Bombing Campaign of 1989”. Martha Lunken. FLYING, August 2007.