Martha Lunken on flying home for Christmas

I’m essentially a little airplane pilot and only rarely have I “flown far out across the prairies of the sky to lands my fathers never knew and shores my kindred never trod,” but I think any pilot understands Gill Robb Wilson’s feelings about flying home for Christmas.

I’ve blessed my wings a thousand times
For where they’ve carried me…
But there is a nearer ecstasy! The wings that bear one home… The joy of letting down to the place
The heart has never left—the thrill
of returning to the one spot on earth
beloved above all others—home!
And, if it be “Home for Christmas,”
How thrice blessed are my wings.

Do you know about him? Do you remember him?

Gill Robb Wilson
Gill Robb Wilson, a minister, pilot and poet.

As a teenager, the only thing I knew about airplanes was that I desperately wanted to be a pilot. But I faithfully read Flying magazine every month and my favorite feature was “The Airman’s World,” usually a two-page spread with a wonderful poem about flying and a photograph illustrating the verse. The poetry was from a collection written by Gill Robb Wilson, an iconic airman from Pennsylvania who was the magazine’s publisher and editor from 1952 until 1962. He was the son of a Presbyterian minister who learned to fly at the outbreak of WWI and was awarded the Croix de Guerre as a pilot in France. I guess he followed his father’s footsteps because he was ordained in the Presbyterian Church but turned to writing and became the long-time aviation editor of The New York Times. In his “spare time” Wilson was not only an active pilot but a founding member of the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association and the Civil Air Patrol.

But whatever else he was, Gill Robb Wilson was most definitely the inspiration for one awkward, gawky, Midwestern teenager who wanted to be a pilot more than anything in the world. Recently I was rereading his poems and the one about Christmas in “The Airman’s World” reminded me of my best ever Christmas flight… a flight where I wasn’t even the pilot.

In the early 60s, when I was working for Ebby Lunken’s Midwest Airways, a salesman friend asked me to ferry a Tri-Pacer from Cincinnati to Clarksville, Tennessee. On this Christmas Eve afternoon, it was cold and clear but the wind was howling out of the southwest. I was making about 60 knots over the ground and was so late reaching Clarksville that the guy who would bring me back left hours before I landed. After a few phone calls, the broker, Jerry Swart, reluctantly bought me an airline ticket home and the nice people at the Outlaw Field FBO took me to Nashville in a 182 to catch the late flight. I called Ebby to say I wouldn’t be back in time for the Chrismas Eve we’d planned together. See, we were engaged but I was 21 years old and he was 51; our wedding date was on an indefinite hold because of considerable family pressures… from both sides.

Unusual Attitudes cover
This article is from Martha Lunken’s latest book, Unusual Attitudes.

Anyway, I sat around for hours in the nearly deserted Nashville Airport with a couple of bucks in my jeans, hungry and tired and feeling sorry for myself. When we finally boarded, there weren’t many passengers and I stuck my head in the cockpit to talk to the crew. I don’t remember the details but I’m sure it was because I wanted to see the cockpit and I’m pretty sure it was because I wanted them to know I was a pilot! Whatever… I was young and pretty and interested and it was Christmas so the Captain invited me to ride up front on the cockpit jumpseat of this magnificent American Airlines DC-6. I will never forget that crystal clear night flying at about 10,000 feet past Louisville and then descending into Cincinnati. With the cockpit lights turned down, the stars winked like diamonds and green and red Christmas lights on the ground glimmered and sparkled. That magic night will always be my most treasured piece of Christmas jewelry.

At Greater Cincinnati Airport, we wished each other Merry Christmas and, still hoarding the two bucks in my pocket, I used a borrowed crew pass to ride the bus downtown. I called Ebby and he told me to get a cab to Lunken Airport where he’d be waiting to pay the fare and take me home. And I remember commiserating with the cab driver as we drove out Columbia Parkway about what a miserable, lonely way this was to spend a Christmas Eve. I was lying through my teeth, of course; it had turned into the best Christmas ever.

It was getting close to midnight when Ebby and I got to his apartment and we shared a Christmas Eve drink while I recounted my wonderful adventure. And then he said he wanted to read me something, a story he always read whether alone or with friends on Christmas Eve. I don’t know where it came from… maybe the little tale had been published in a magazine or more likely it was a hand-out for Delta Air Lines passengers at Christmas in the early 50s when the airline operated DC-4s.

DC-4
“A time when captains could walk through the cabin of his airliner.”

I guess I love it because of its frank sentimentality and, of course, the memories it holds for me. But also because it’s a reminder of the time when a captain could walk through the cabin of his airliner going “four miles to a minute,” at “exactly 10,000 feet,” and chat with his passengers.

A bunch of Christmas Eves have passed since then and I’ve accumulated lots of Christmastime flying adventures… some glorious fun, some beautiful, a couple tragic. But I still read this story out loud, alone or with friends and family, every year. So here, my friends, is my Christmas gift and I… oh well, Merry Christmas to you.

The Midnight Clear

The weather reports say it was snowing that Christmas Eve, with the cold wave sending a White Christmas down to the very fringes of the South. The newspapers say so, too.

And the passengers who boarded at Chicago say it was snowing, that the only lights they saw for many miles that night were stars above the clouds or occasional lights of a distant plane.

But two men who were aboard will solemnly assure you that the night was sharp and clear, no matter what the records, papers or other passengers say and that you could look down and see Yule trees shining in village squares below.

The airliner was flying south above scudding clouds, and the miles between Chicago and Miami dropping behind four to the minute. In the cabin of the big DC-4, most of the passengers were noisily gay, for it was holiday time and they would soon be celebrating Christmas.

As they droned past Cincinnati and on over Kentucky, the stewardess went forward to speak to the captain. One of the passengers wanted to speak to him, she said, when he had time. “Nothing wrong,” she added, “he just wants to talk to you. He’s the old gentleman in Seat 34. It’s his first flight, by the way.”

The captain nodded his way back through the cabin. Yes, they were on time. Altitude? Exactly 10,000 feet. Weather? Miami was perfect; the overcast should end about Atlanta. He finally paused by Seat 34. “Everything all right, sir?” he asked.

A head lifted from the pillow; white hair topped a face lined by many years. “What? Oh, you must be the skipper. Sure, son, everything’s all right. It’s just that my eyes—well, they’re not what they used to be. I thought maybe you could tell me about a place in Tennessee.”

He mentioned a tiny hamlet, settled many years ago when men first pushed through the mountains and named places in terms of simple pioneering folk. He asked if they would pass over it.

The pilot hesitated, then leaned toward the window. “We’re almost there now,” he said softly. “I can see…” and he went on to describe the twinkling lights below in little towns of the Great Smokies, the rising hills and then the mountains jutting into the sky. They talked about peaks known as Parson Bald and Hickory Top and Hannah Mountain, as the old man explained he had been born down there and hunted their ridges as a boy. Then the pilot said he could see the exact village, he knew it well, and though there weren’t many lights they were shining bright and clear tonight with tints of red and green.

Nodding, smiling with quiet happiness, the old timer listened. Then he thanked the captain and said he guessed he would doze a while so he would be fresh when he met his daughter and son-in-law in Miami.

In a steady routine, they picked up checkpoints—Atlanta, Macon, Jacksonville—and swept along Florida’s 300-mile strip of coast where white fringes broke against the darkened beach, and they came down out of the night into the soft warmth of Miami.

The passengers vanished in a flurry of greetings, and the two pilots hurried to finish their flight reports and head toward home. “Tell me one thing,” the co-pilot said as they walked out to their cars in the parking lot. “What was all that travelogue you were giving the old man? The stewardess said you had three or four passengers straining their eyes to spot some lights in Tennessee, but you know we couldn’t see the ground until beyond Atlanta.”

The old flyer glanced at his watch. “In just one minute,” he replied, “it will be Christmas. So maybe you can stand a sixty-second sermon. You know every man has some one place he calls home. And even if he can’t go back, he likes to think of Christmas as still perfect there.”

He paused, as far off a midnight bell began to ring and over the usually raucous public address system came the unexpected strains of a carol. Stepping into his car, he rolled down the window and leaned out to continue, “Actually, the spot he was looking for disappeared ten years ago when a big dam backed up a lake over it. But it isn’t likely he’ll ever know that. You see, he was stone blind. So I… oh, well, Merry Christmas to you.”

Reprinted courtesy of Delta Air Lines
Atlanta, Georgia

 

Editor’s note: This article is taken from Martha Lunken’s latest book, Unusual Attitudes: Obsessions and Confessions of a Lady Pilot, which is available from Sporty’s Pilot Shop.

11 Comments

  • Thanks Martha. Another great story—-you continue to knock it out of the park! While it doesn’t compare, my most cherished Christmas flight memory was seeing the sun rise over a solid deck when flying eastbound at 9000msl over Michigan, while heading to KCLE to pick up my daughter and bring her back to Chicago to spend Christmas with us. I don’t have the words: but on that day it was the most wonderful, beautiful, serene, breathtaking thing I have had the pleasure to see from the cockpit—and of course, it was on Christmas morning.

  • She was a pain in the neck student. She wanted to solo the Ercoupe after 4 hours instruction. WHAT’S WORSE is that she could have done it if I had allowed her
    LArry Whitesell CFI 1458478

  • I tend not to be real sentimental, especially when it comes to the notion of “good old days” which in many ways easily forgotten or never experienced, really weren’t so good (in some respects, for all of us back then, life wasn’t so convenient or pleasant … and for certain others who weren’t held in high social esteem, it was much worse than that). So this story doesn’t exactly make me pine for the “good old days.”

    And yet …

    … both Martha’s story as relayed from Delta Air Lines, as well as her own personal story here, do show us the remarkable contrast between commercial air travel back in the days when the airlines still flew DC-6s, and today’s world of air travel. The privilege of being a commercial air passenger in those days was vastly more upscale than the cattle-car high stress world of cramped coach seats, long security lines, non-existent food, and stressed airline employees and passengers alike. The safety record, however, was not so good then as now.

    I still remember as a kid, it was a big treat just to have Dad pile us kids and Mom into the family car on a Saturday night and head over to the municipal airport to watch the planes take off and land. Imagine that! What wonder and excitement! So foreign today.

    I distinctly remember the bone-vibrating loud sounds of those four big radials and huge props on the DC-6 reving up on the runway for takeoff! What a thrill. The airport fenceline and unofficial parking area along it was not far removed from the runways at all. I remember picking up “rich” family members at the airport, where we would hang out next to the fenceline that was close enough to actually identify our family members deplaning on an open air stair. And thinking, “some day, I’m going to get to do that!”.

    And now most of the modern airport is one big sterile area. The part of the terminal where you send off and receive passengers is so far removed from the aircraft, we may as well be hanging around at the mall. And inside the aircraft cabin, the notion of passengers being able to walk up to the cockpit door, usually left open, and politely ask if we can poke our heads in for a look inside, and talk with the pilots a moment, seems positively preposterous today. Yet we could do that back then. Today, the cockpit may as well be on the moon.

    Commercial transport is so totally removed from what it was 50 or 60 years ago, it’s just hard to re-imagine. When I tell my own adult kids, married and with kids of their own, about this stuff, their eyes glaze over … they have no concept.

    Thanks Martha … Christmas is a good time to be reminded of times past.

  • Merry Xmas Martha. Can’t seem to locate your private email for comments. I enjoyed and valued our friendship for so many years dating back to and beyond fly ins at Pike County Airport and Bob Hass at Bainbridge . Keep up the good work as long as you like. Our last meeting at Bainbridge was a long time ago. I’m still beating and shaping metals in my shop as time, weather and family matters permit. Regards Ray

  • Christmas Eve 1966. 7000MSL over Prescott, Az.In the clubs 150. Yavapai county courthouse lit up, cold and not a bump in the sky. That is my most beautiful, memorable flight.

  • I’m glad to see the comments about the DC-4 to DC-6 & 7 days. I was a brand new second officer on the 6 & 7 at Delta in 1962. Flying over LUK from ATL to ORD I used to call my LUK tower control buddy, Howard on ground control on night flights when there was very little traffic. Occasionally some ground controller on the same frequency would answer in wonderment if he was going to have to handle a DC-6. Those were the days of the friendly skies.

    I apologize to all about my comment earlier. I didn’t realize this was an open forum since I got it as a forwarded message. I was just kidding Martha, who really was my student when I was instructing at LUK. Merry Xmas to all.

  • Thanks for the wonderful story Martha. My first flight was in 1963 on a Lockheed Electra from San Francisco 2 San Diego where I would attend bootcamp( it was quite a thrill) the ticket cost $13.60! I got my private in Hayward California in 1971 at the cost of $495 Plus fuel at $0.69 a gallon. My biggest enjoyment these days is flying Young Eagles every month in southern Utah. I encourage all of you to get involved with this program through the EAA

  • The true spirit of pilots and christmas in that story, undoubtedly fiction but still brought tears to these old eyes. And may those old blade spinners live forever, progress isn’t always, is it? Merry Christmases and Happy New Year to all.

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