Saying goodbye to an airport

Watson airport
Blue Ash Airport was originally Watson Field, located slightly to the south of its final location.

I’ve been to plenty of funerals in my life, but never for an airport. But that’s the only way to describe what happened last week, when I joined a group of 13 other pilots and six airplanes to make the short flight to Blue Ash Airport (ISZ) and land on runway 24 one last time.

We were there to say goodbye to this old friend, a part of Cincinnati aviation history for 91 years. The next day, the airport would be closed forever.

Pilots are usually a tough bunch, but there’s something about seeing a perfectly good airport get bulldozed that makes us sentimental. The emotions among this group were similar to what you would experience at a funeral for a friend: memories of fun days in the past, regret that you didn’t spend more time with him and sympathy for the family (in this case a flying club and many other based airplanes).

Blue Ash was not my home airport, but it was a special place for me. It was a regular stop when practicing landings or instrument approaches, and I even did my first helicopter solo at the airport. I have many fond memories of the triangle-shaped airport, taxiing through the trees in its large, wooded infield. It was also the closest airport to my home–I’m on four mile final for runway 24–and I spent many summer afternoons in my back yard watching airplanes take off and land there.

Hangars at Blue Ash Airport
The hangar doors are covered with local pilots’ memories, but will soon be gone forever.

Watson Field, as the airport was originally known, opened shortly after World War I on a flat plain just north of the city. Air mail service began in 1928, making Blue Ash (as it later became known) one of the first commercial airports in the state of Ohio. Indeed, Blue Ash was an important part of the rich aviation history in the area, which also includes the Aeronca airplane company, the founding of Embry-Riddle and many other famous names. As Cincinnati grew north, Blue Ash turned out to be ideally located–so much so that it almost became the main international airport in the late 1940s.

But over time, Blue Ash’s fortunes faded. The airport was owned by the City of Cincinnati, but located in the city of Blue Ash. This turned out to be a bad mix, and Cincinnati seemed to lose interest. It began to show in the early 2000s, as the facilities started to crumble but the City turned down federal and state money to fix it up. After years of mis-management, pilots got the message and started leaving. Then, when the airport was run down and all but abandoned, the City claimed it had to close it because there was not enough traffic. This was ironic–sort of like the restaurant owner who never mops the floors wondering why nobody eats at his place anymore.

The real reason Blue Ash is gone is sadly typical–petty local politics and amateur politicians. Most Cincinnati pilots know the truth: that the sale of the airport is needed to finance a hideously expensive (and controversial) streetcar project that many politicians have tied their futures to. Apparently the City can’t afford the $40,000/year loss the airport generates, but it can afford a $110 million streetcar. This $40,000/year loss could have easily been erased with merely adequate management of the airport, but this is what happens when pet projects trump reality.

Any airport closing is tragic, but Blue Ash was particularly so because it should have been a great airport. It was right on major roadways, across the street from dozens of businesses, right in the heart of the city and close to upper-middle class neighborhoods. The fact that three other airports in the southwest Ohio region have succeeded with worse locations shows how poorly the City managed the airport and how poorly understood the value of airports is in America.

Blue Ash Airport
The ramp is empty at Blue Ash the night before it closes.

In the end, the details of Blue Ash aren’t that important. For the most part, the story is always the same when an airport goes away: they never come back and they’re usually not mourned for long. Most residents won’t give it a moment’s notice when Blue Ash becomes a park.

The fact is, our great airport-building days are long gone. For a variety of reasons (some legitimate, some not), we simply don’t build them anymore–especially small ones for general aviation. Indeed, it’s almost impossible to imagine an airport like Blue Ash getting built today. So when an airport closes, it’s not just the way history goes or even “creative destruction.” It’s a major loss, and another headwind for the private pilots of tomorrow.

What’s the lesson? Cherish the airports we have and let the local community know what their value is. If an airport by you is threatened, act now–challenge the short-sighted politicians. Otherwise we’ll all be attending many more airport funerals.

16 Comments

  • The politicians who facilitated the demise of this great old airport should be brought up on charges for their planned THEFT of the funds this property will generate but of course this won’t happen because only the aviation community cares.The rest of the folks will just look the other way as usual because it does’nt directly affect them and if asked they tout the same old line”what are you gonna do?,that’s politics”.VOTE people!!

  • Happened here in Albuquerque ten or so years ago, to Coronado Airport on the north edge of town. There were a lot of planes based there and a lot of camaraderie among the pilots. Several businesses operated there, including some that were not aviation-related. A local pueblo tribe bought the property, waited a few years, then closed and bulldozed it. That was the site of my first solo. As a side note, the plane I soloed was a great little 150/150 that I loved to fly, esp. in the mile-high altitude of Albuquerque. It was subsequently destroyed when it was flipped by high winds after being improperly tied down. Sometimes I drive past that site and it feels like it was all a dream — except I’m still here and still flying! Whatever the reason they disappear, these airports are missed, and they are not being replaced.

    • Dave – I had a plane at Coronado years ago – you could see the end for old 4AC coming in the 1980’s when the land started to get valuable around it, yet nothing ever happened to be developed directly around it. Sad to see that airport close as it did. It was always fun to approach over the cemetary to land!

  • Thank you for writing a nice summary of the situation surrounding the loss of the Blue Ash Airport. There has been a great deal of finger pointing and official spinning of tales with regard to who is to blame for the closure. As you point-out, in the final analysis, none of that really matters. What is important is that general aviation has been forced to take yet another hit, and a few of us have lost a place of great personal significance.

  • We could always follow our brethren of Remote Control aircraft and set up our own fields. If I have to pay hangar rent, I rather see it go to a non-profit which solely exsists to support aviation.

  • Flew a 172 EYE-ISZ with a friend a week before it closed. We were not the only plane in the pattern and we were happy to see pilots were using the airport until the bitter end. Karl at Co-Op was a great host who gave us some of the history behind the field. It’s certainly a loss for the flying community around Blue Ash. I wonder if the city planners will be kind enough to have a plaque or monument in the park telling of the significance of the area? Great history. Don’t let this happen to an airport near you!

    • Sara is my friend and I’m happy they did this trip. KISZ will not be forgotten as we have much information at the Cincinnati Aviation Heritage Society from Robert (Ozzie) Osborne’s collection.

      Our museum inside Lunken terminal is small now, but we do have three airplanes. If you’d like to be part of preserving (not only KISZ)General Aviation and Airline Operations history in the area, please contact us.

  • I’ve been around aviation in the KC area all my life beginning with State Line Airport (now a strip mall), Hillsdale (closed), Fairfax (where many B-25s first took to the air is now the Ford plant), Ong field (a subdivision)etc. As I fly around KC within a 100mi. radius I see others on their death bed but not because they have deteriorated. In most cases these field have good runways, a terminal building with a pilot lounge, wireless connections, clean restrooms (HIG, GLY, BUM, K34) but they are lacking planes and pilots. They’re ghost airports. While it appears Blue Ash was lost to the political hacks if General Aviation is not revived somehow the few pilots remaining will have only class B,C airports or the cow pasture as options. What’s the solution? Recruiting! It is our responsibility to ensure the future of GA by selling it to the youngsters so that our sons, daughters and grandchildren will have the opportunity to enjoy the freedom that flying brings to the soul.

  • It’s a shame this story comes out AFTER the fact. weren’t there enough interested pilots to band together to fundraise and stop this from happening? evn i probably woulda contributed, and i live in VA. thousands of people should be stronger than a few politicians. it just takes the right methods and tactics. it’s so sad blue ash is gone! 🙁

    • A group of local pilots and businesses leaders did form a group and work very hard at preserving the airport. Through personal contacts and use of the local media, they were able to garner some attention from those who controlled the decision making process. Unfortunately, the political die had been cast, arguably, some twenty years before the closing.

    • Mark, this has been in the works for at
      least 10-15 years and was probably inevitable after, say, 2000. It’s been in the local news for years, but of course you wouldn’t see that out-of-state.

  • Yes, another sad story, but lessons are there for ALL of Gen Av. We are the greatest group for talking to each other, but when it comes to talking up the benefits to locals we fall well short. The boomers are all coming up on retirement age and most, if they thought of it, would never give up a place for medevac. Local business find it very handy receiving time-critical freight, all kids can benefit from learning about airplanes and it can easily happen at your little podunk airport. The list goes on and on. Are you out talking these benefits up in your community? Probably not and that’s why locals regard your local airport as just a playground for those rich jerks who can afford airplanes. Locals need to be educated that they all get something from the local airport.

  • A national not-for-profit organization operating airports maybe the only solution for the future. I would contribute to it just as I subscribe to AOPA [and did to SSA and EAA for years]. I am looking for final comments by Bill Dunn, AOPA vice president of airport advocacy, on the demise of KISZ. For an earlier discussion see:
    http://www.aopa.org/advocacy/articles/2011/111215cincinnati-warned-against-closing-blue-ash-airport.html.
    So long ISZ !

  • I didn’t know that this also happens regularly in the Unired States. In Europe Pilots have to fight for their Airports, since the “Greens” are against everyhing with an engine burning fuel. I’d just remember to TEMPELHOF in Berlin, that Airport who was keeping Berlin alive during the blockage by the Sovyet Communists. No their are building BER, the new Airport which was due to be opened in 2011. The newest opening date is sometimes in 2018 –
    perhaps… My advise: Fight for your Airports!

  • Anyone finding this article interesting should try to find one written by the iconic Richard Bach for a decades-old Flying Magazine issue. Mr. Bach turned his keen eye on just how special an airport, any airport is. The pavement (if any), the hangars (if any), but most of all, those who gather–or used to gather–there. I believe if a pilot shares a viewpoint with Richard Bach, it’s worth having.

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