High Flying with Martha Lunken

Fearless flying in a Cessna with a local aviation icon.

Illustration by Jonathan Burton

People who don’t know Martha Lunken would describe her, at first glance, as pixie-ish and petite. Those who do might say independent, and well, feisty. Meet her on the street, she moves with a mission. Meet her at Lunken Airport, you’ll find her hanging with local pilots or tinkering with her beautifully updated Cessna 180. Fly with her, and you understand why she’s something of an icon in local aviation circles.

On a perfect summer morning, the winds are calm and it’s CAVU—“ceiling and visibility unlimited”—the kind of day that all pilots cherish. In fact, the weather looks good down and back to Knoxville, the destination on today’s flight plan. Martha is heading there to administer a few “check rides”—flights to test the expertise of three pilots.

The Cessna is already out of the hangar at the south end of the airport—dubbed “South Beach” by the aviators—topped with fuel, checked, and ready to go for the 90-minute trip to Tennessee. “No pit stops, so go now if you need to go,” she hollers at me. Good advice: an in-flight potty break sitting next to a lady pilot would be awkward at best. “I think I can make it,” I say, guzzling the last of my coffee.

Once we’re aboard, Martha runs down the checklist and turns the key; the engine purrs to life. Then, having been given the “cleared for take-off” from the tower, she does something I’ve never seen before: a hands-off take-off. Modern airplanes are inherently stable, and especially so in competent hands. Still, this trick is a wonder. With the elevator and rudder trim tab properly set, Martha pushes in the throttle, lifts her hands from the control wheel, and in a matter of seconds we are off the ground and flying. A gentle 180-degree turn to the south points us toward Knoxville. Cool. Very cool.

Which is exactly how people have been summing up this woman’s way with an airplane for the last half-century.

 

Knoxville is the home base for a nonprofit called Remote Air Medical. Founded by Stan Brock, the cohost of Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom back in the 1960s and ’70s, RAM provides mobile medical clinics to remote areas and swoops in with aid and equipment after disasters. One example: After Hurricane Katrina, Brock and his team arrived in New Orleans with cargo bays full of medical supplies; when they left, they carried out abandoned pets. RAM operates a small squadron of donated aircraft—one of which is a vintage DC-3. The check rides that Martha’s flying down to administer are to make sure that three of RAM’s volunteer pilots know how to handle the big bird.

As you may have already gleaned, Martha knows her stuff; she’s a flight instructor as well as a retired Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) safety inspector and a designated pilot examiner. These days, a lot of her flying involves administering this sort of exam. But what makes Martha a formidable examiner—and a unique aviatrix—is that the vintage airplane waiting for her on the Knoxville tarmac is her specialty. She’s a master at flying Douglas DC-3s.

In the 1930s, the DC-3 made the fledgling airline industry profitable by increasing passenger payloads—whisking travelers from coast to coast in comfort; in the 1940s, it was transformed into the resilient, reliable “Gooney Bird” that dropped paratroopers on D-Day. There are still DC-3s in the air today, lugging cargo all over the globe. Although some have described the airplane as “just a big Piper Cub”—a reference to the classic lightweight aircraft of mid-20th-century aviation—it’s definitely a two-pilot operation. Exact takeoff procedures vary by captain, but typically require the copilot to help manage the throttle/prop/mixture console as well as the two-step process of raising the landing gear.

Once in the air, it takes on more of a big teddy bear feel—a “docile, lumbering old bird,” is the way Martha describes it as we head to Tennessee. But crosswind take offs and landings can be a handful, demanding the pilot’s undivided attention. And when she puts a student through the required test and emergency procedures, she admits that handling the DC-3 “can get pretty nasty.” Still, she has a true fondness for these airplanes. “It’s like dancing with your great aunt,” she says. “Cozy, comfortable, and familiar.”

She has had plenty of time to get comfortable; at 72, Martha knows these grand ladies well. Growing up in Cincinnati, she was Martha Franke—a Mother of Mercy student bitten by the flying bug as a kid. She and her sister Mary earned their private pilot licenses in 1962 thanks to two priests, the good fathers William Blome and Lawrence Porter. They co-owned a vintage 1946 Ercoupe, an innovative two-seat, twin-tailed airplane designed to make the deadly stall/spin accident impossible.

Martha met Father Blome in high school. He was “stationed” at St. Martin’s parish and taught a religion class at Mercy. They would talk airplanes after class, and it became clear to him that Martha was obsessed with the idea of learning to fly. The flying fathers let the Franke sisters aviate for the cost of gasoline while their flight instructor, Larry Whitesell, charged the young ladies a modest $5 an hour for flying lessons—a match almost made in heaven. Because their father would never have approved of the lessons, Martha had to forge his signature on a permission slip. Eventually, dad caught the bug too; he and Mary bought out the two priests, and the girls had their own flying sports car. Mary eventually gave up flying, but Martha had it deep in her soul.

After graduating from Edgecliff College with a degree in English, she met and married Edmund P. Lunken, grandson of the airport’s founder, whose family donated the original thousand acres east of downtown that became Lunken Field. “Ebby” was 30 years her senior, a decorated World War II aviator, an air race pilot, and dashing race car driver. His wedding gift to her: a vintage Lockheed Lodestar. Despite their common interest in anything that flew, their marriage didn’t last. Martha took no financial assets out of the divorce other than keeping the family name (that was enough of a souvenir, she would later recall) and decided to close her flying school: Midwest Flight Center, otherwise known as “Miss Martha’s Flying School” by those of us who took lessons there.

“Good pilots are not always good teachers, but Martha is truly gifted,” observes Robert Lamb, a retired English teacher and president of the Lunken-based Flying Knights club who still occasionally heads skyward with Martha. “Every time I fly [with her] I learn something new, a practical safety tip. She’s fun to fly with and I’m certainly a better pilot because of all the ‘little things’ she taught me.”

Martha operated her flight school from 1966 to 1976. After racking up more than 6,000 hours teaching, rebuilding an antique Pietenpol Air Camper, and then selling that to buy a Piper J-3 Cub, it was time to do something else. That’s when she joined the Federal Aviation Administration as a flight safety inspector—the folks who deliver safety seminars, conduct flight reviews, and investigate accidents. The flying would be a joy. The bureaucracy would be a challenge.

Back in those days, it was traditional to be assigned to a Flight Standards District Office away from your home. The FAA figured that by doing so, one wouldn’t be prone to giving buddies a break if an infraction occurred. While aviation had changed a lot since the days of Waldo Pepper, it was often tough to squeeze an honest buck out of an aviation business. Some operators would cut a corner or two (or three) when it came to pilot credentials and maintenance. The safety inspector was the FAA point person to make sure the operation followed the rules. Enter inspector Martha Lunken: a formidable enforcer at 5-foot-4 and 105 pounds.

In the 1960s and ’70s, the venerable and reliable DC-3 was the freight hauler of choice. Still plentiful due to the thousands built before, during, and after World War II, and with aviation fuel relatively cheap (it’s about $6 a gallon today), freight operators would strip the interiors out of old airliners, reinforce the floors, install a cargo door, and haul anything from auto parts to crab legs across the country. For this reason, the FAA needed pilots with heavy metal experience to do flight and maintenance checks on the planes.

With her vast Lockheed Lodestar and Lockheed Electra experience, Martha was a perfect candidate to become a DC-3 iron lady. The FAA sent her to Opa-locka, Florida, for training. When she stumbled over a spittoon between the cockpit seats, “I knew immediately that I had entered the FAA’s ‘good ole boy’ club,” she recalls. Most of her colleagues reacted to her arrival among their ranks with absolute incredulity.

“Some fellow inspectors—strangely, mostly airworthiness [mechanic] types—seemed to like and respect me,” she recalls. “In fact, when I moved from Indianapolis, the guys formed a convoy of pickup trucks and moved my stuff.” But many on the operations side couldn’t understand why she’d rather be out flying than in the office. She hated the paperwork, was dismayed by colleagues who focused their energy on moving up the government pay grade ladder, and chafed at “committees, buzzwords, political correctness, phony sexual harassment charges….” In short, she says, “I wasn’t a team player.” When she retired in 2008 there was a party at the Tri-State Warbird Museum in Batavia. A huge crowd from the local flying community came, and they presented her with an old wooden propeller they had all signed.

“There wasn’t one FAA person there!” she says. But she sounds more amused than insulted.

 

The smooth 90-minute flight ends when we land at Knoxville’s Downtown Island Airport. It is truly almost an island: a single 3,500-foot east-west runway on a triangle of land surrounded by the Tennessee River with little room for error on either end.

RAM’s DC-3 is waiting on the tarmac along with two veteran pilots and one newly recruited volunteer with a fresh second-in-command DC-3 certificate. All are here to demonstrate their prowess at handling an aircraft that was built during FDR’s third term. N982Z—that’s the serial number of this particular vehicle—began life in 1943. It was built as a C-47 for the Army Air Corps and is believed to have been used in the first wave of paratroop drops over Normandy in June 1944. Converted to a civilian DC-3C after the war, it hauled cargo for Hogan Air, a freight operation in Middletown. Now it’s on “humanitarian loan” to RAM for a dollar a year.

Martha sets about reviewing paperwork and supervising the pre-flight inspection, then climbs aboard for the first of the check flights. With the exception of digital radios and a handful of modern instruments, inside the cockpit it’s still pretty much 1943. There’s a maze of knobs and switches, and the air smells like aviator’s perfume: gas, oil, and hydraulic fluid. The letters on the throttles and prop controls are well worn, and the pilot seats need to be reupholstered yet one more time. But even if she’s not the prettiest gal on the beach, when those two Pratt & Whitney radial engines come to life with a chest-thrumming rumble, it’s a rush.

The fact that this 71-year-old aircraft—this piece of American history—is still working for a living is awe-inspiring. And the fact that its current pilots are getting the once-over by a 72-year-old woman who knows these old birds inside and out—well, that’s awesome, too.

Veteran RAM pilot Gene Christian and newcomer Chris Pease each complete their check rides—executing a precision, non-precision, and circling instrument approach; a missed approach with a hold; a steep turn; an approach to a stall; and three full stop landings. Then it’s Stan Brock’s turn to take his place in the left seat, with Martha supervising from the copilot’s seat on the right.

Brock is a lean, handsome, rugged man with a slow, calming voice. He has hundreds of hours in a DC-3 and has flown this particular airplane for over 20 years. He and Martha are old friends, but a check ride is not the time to catch up on family news. The conversation is brief and focused, especially when the pre-landing checklist begins. Highly experienced pilots have landed at the wrong airport, on the wrong runway, or failed to lower the landing gear by not paying attention to the flying at hand. But Brock is a veteran. The final approach is smooth—even with a simulated engine failure. He nails the airspeed and moments later touches down feather-light on runway 26.

Once on the ground it’s a short taxi back to RAM’s ramp area. When the big props swirl to a stop, Martha’s been flying for almost four hours without a break. To her, it seems like minutes.

 

Heading back to Cincinnati over a patchwork of green and brown fields dotted with streams and lakes, Martha and I talk about restoring her plane, about pilots we’ve known, and about some of the odd chapters in the history of her home airfield—like the time in the 1960s, when an old B-25, bound for a wild animal show and filled with snakes and reptiles, made a gear-up landing at Lunken, skidding along the runway with its exotic cargo after the copilot bailed out. Those were the days.

I thank Martha for taking me along—a bucket list item and lifetime memory. I told her that that DC-3 she’d checked was a terrific old bird. Martha grinned. Yup, she’s a sweetheart, she said. “A joy to fly.” Who wouldn’t love to dance with a great aunt like that?

Originally published in the February 2015 issue.

Illustration by Jonathon Burton

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