Editor’s note: This article was written in 2010, but sums up the feelings of many pilots who have watched a favorite airport close down.
I said goodbye to an old friend today. My friend won’t actually be gone until January 13, but I had to make a special trip to pay my respects.
Lots of pilots in the West know my friend, some with tender feelings, others not. My friend was one that challenged the skill, or nerve, of every pilot who came along. I was lucky enough to learn from my friend, and in fact love that dear airport.
WHAT? I’m talking about an AIRPORT?
Yup, I am talking about the aircraft carrier in Utah, that airport with three different wind conditions, St George.
I met St. George Airport in 1972, at the ripe old age of 6. I was deeply into aviation, with every Apollo and Skylab mission as a must-see. When an airplane flew over, I would let the baseball fly over unheeded. That’s part of why I don’t do sports very well.
On each Saturday, after my chores were done, and sometimes before, I would hike up the mesa to the airport. At that time, the FBO was mid-field, run by Sky West. I was welcome, as I was respectful of the wonderful residents there. There was a yellow Grumman Traveler, called “Yellow Bird” by my uncle. Sky West had 5 airplanes at that time, and I was allowed to peer into the magic of the nacelles of the Chieftain. One Saturday I was at the ranch with my grandpa, so I missed my trek. The staff at the FBO called my mom to check on me, and make sure I was okay. I was welcomed and expected by them. I miss that at airports today.
As time went by, my friend grew. Old when we met, improvements, runway extensions, and new hangars kept my friend young. The Sabre fighter and Beech 18 I spent hours “flying” as a child were sold or scrapped, I’m not sure which.
I grew, and moved away. In Provo, I started flying with my step-dad in his 150. One great memory was a trip with him to St. George. We flew over the old airport just south of Washington. Now the “new” airport sits on that land.
Approaching the airport was done from over the Red Hill, with the DIXIE Rock seemingly right under the wheels. In later years, I would extend my approach a bit in the summer to see the college girls sun-bathing on the red rocks.
The wind was usually blocked on the north by the second mesa, so long as the pattern was kept tight. If you flew too far north, however, the breeze through the saddle would remind you where you were flying.
Over the fence, you had that sinking feeling from losing 350 feet of altitude, or so it seemed to the eyes. I will always be a bit nervous at other airports, where the ground is so close all the way in. The steep sides of the mesa provided a “bonus” altitude that other airports just don’t have.
On takeoff, once past the blacktop, the ground fell away, giving the illusion of an extra 300 feet. A golf course was at the south end, offering safety to any unlucky plane, and its pilot, whose engine quit. All you had to do to benefit from all this altitude was successfully navigate the three crosswinds.
I trained with Freedom Aviation, flying a 1976 Cessna 150. I know it was a ’76 because it rolled off the line on the 4th of July, and was one of very few to have the Stars and Stripes as a factory paint job. I have forgotten if that airplane was “Liberty Bell” or “Old Glory,” but I soloed in that airplane, then logged many hours in it and its sisters.
Some know my friend as KSGU, some as the carrier with a cliff. I know my friend as a teacher. I would never have had the story of six landings on one approach at somewhere as tame as Provo. The base leg was most unnerving for me at first, because I always was flying directly toward my Uncle Lee’s house on Don-Lee Drive. I guess this kind of helped me with my pattern later, but at first I was so scared I would end up in the back yard of a favored cousin.
After I earned my license, I married and joined the Army. Eight years went by without a flight. I hungered for flight. I read the required magazines, built models, and taught my son to recognize a Continental from a Lycoming by the sound. I visited my friend often, but always in a car.
Sky West has out-grown my friend, and a new airport has been built. No longer will my friend, who today sits right in the middle of town, be able to challenge and welcome pilots from all over the world. Like her or hate her, St. George was a young pilot’s friend.
So, today, I drove from my home in Indianola to Provo and climbed into a 210 with my human friend. We spent almost two hours flying to say goodbye to my old friend. She has grown up. Once a single strip of blacktop, now she boasts a taxiway on each side of an extended runway, a terminal, and her own TSA presence. The last may not be a huge plus, but he was good enough to let us back onto the ramp. With the closure so close, the codes to the gate for transient pilots have been removed.
The first Sky West hangar, the blue one on the south end, is still there. So is the “new” Sky West hangar on the North end, but now it’s called the Jet Center. As with any airport, airplanes of every type and state of repair line the ramp. A Twin Commander with no wings sits on its belly on the north side, reminding me of the Mooney I used to play in by the blue hangar. A 177RG has “For Sale” flags flying from its prop, reminding me of the Cardinal I almost bought back in 1985, that was on the northwest ramp. A Mooney with severe prop-rash told of a flight that ended about 2 feet too low.
My friend is going away. St George will have a new, larger, “better” airport just five miles away, but never again will the magic of a “carrier” landing be had after the 13th of January.
I had a lump in my throat when I told the very helpful lineman I had come to say goodbye to an old friend. He may not have understood.
Then again, he may have.