From the archives: Wolfgang Langewiesche on airports in every town

Editor’s note: This inspiring article, first published in the October 1956 edition of Air Facts, reflects the big dreams of the mid-1950s and perhaps the missed opportunities for general aviation. Legendary writer Wolfgang Langewiesche argued for a nationwide network of landing strips (not airports, just a place to land) to be created as a part of the Interstate Highway System that was born with the passage of the Federal Aid Highway Act of 1956. The benefits of a convenient general aviation airport remain as powerful today as they were 63 years ago.

Make Your Town Air-Accessible

Every town can be on the beaten path

Now that we are going to build all those roads, why not, in the same grand operation, fix up a landing strip for every town? Not an “airport;” not even a small airport; but merely a place where one can put an airplane down, park it, and take it off again: just enough to make every town air-accessible.

It takes very little, compared to building a road; ridiculously little, compared to building an airport. A swipe or two with the bulldozer; maybe a hunk of rock blasted, some trees cut and stumps pulled, maybe a drainage ditch. The very smallness of the job makes it impractical if you attempt it as an independent, single operation. You can’t move the big machines to so small a job; it doesn’t pay the expert operators to fool with it. But now, under the new highway building program, the road-building crews will be going right past the sites we want. Now is our time!

If we want to get action, we’ll have to build down, rather up, people’s ideas about the facilities it takes to land an airplane. We’ve done so much wallowing in super runways and electronic complications! It’s time to remind everybody that, to land an airplane, a pilot normally needs nothing but a suitable running-surface and his own skilled eye. He needs no help, advice, supervision or information from the ground. The whole apparatus of our big airports has to do with traffic congestion and with bad-weather “blind landing” procedures. An ordinary landing is a simple thing.

This is All

To make a town air-accessible, Mr. Public Official, all it takes is a strip of land 2500 feet long, 200 feet broad, with clear approaches to the two ends, i.e. no trees or electric pole lines. That’s all it takes! Not five million dollars, but five thousand dollars is about the size of it!

Interstate
With the Interstate Highway System being built, Langewiesche saw an opportunity to expand general aviation airports too.

An airstrip does not need to be hard-surfaced. Sod or dirt will do—especially if the site drains well. It does not need to be level. It may have a hump, or several humps, to a degree that would make you nervous in an automobile.

The airplane is less demanding as to running-surface than the automobile because at any considerable speed, it is half-flying. Its wings control and stabilizing surface help keep it straight. Also, its wheels are not power-driven and it does not depend on the surface for traction. It rolls easily over soft spots where an automobile would mire down.

An airstrip does not need a control tower, an airport manager, an administration building, guards, a men’s room, a restaurant. It does not need white lines, yellow lines, yellow markers, black and white bars, black and yellow checkerboard roofs or names written on roof-tops. It does not need red lights, green lights, blue lights, flashing lights,—or lights. All these things are nice (though some are nicer than others) but they are necessary only because we concentrate a lot of traffic at one spot. An airstrip near every town is a way to disperse traffic.

An airstrip does not need a hangar, a repair station, a weather bureau, a refueling crew, a radio station. Most airplanes stay outdoors day and night, summer and winter; you tie them down. Most pilots get the weather by telephone or radio or TV. An airplane is itself a radio station! All it has to do is get into the air, and call one of the now existing government stations—if indeed it is necessary to call anybody which for ordinary flying it is not. As for repair and refueling, an airplane does not need them at every landing place anymore than a car needs them along every mile of highway.

A Myth

Most important, an airstrip does not need several runways in different directions. It is no longer true that an airplane needs to land into the wind. It’s merely a tradition from the early days of aviation when airplanes were light and slow, their controls none too effective, their landing gears fragile and unstable. Today’s airplane can be landed and taken off cross-wind with little difficulty. Some of our big airports operate cross-wind much of the time, where this helps keep airplane noise away from towns. Single-strip fields exist and operate in all parts of the country. True, a very strong cross-wind might block a single strip for a few hours or whole days per year. But then, so do snow, fog, thaw, thunderstorms. One can accept that. Besides, there’s probably another strip nearby that is more favorably aligned for that particular day’s wind. Here is a way to get more for our money: Instead of always building a crosswise, second runway every time, build the second runway at some other site, to serve another town. Almost all the time, both runways will be useable!

An airstrip does not even need a windsock! It’s been a sort of joke right along. A flag shows the wind just as clearly, and much more cheaply, than that impressive-looking device. But we can cut out even the flag, and the job of raising a flag-pole. A pilot has a dozen ways of telling where the wind is from. If he can’t tell, there is so little wind it doesn’t matter.

Basic Needs

But let’s not be cheap. Such a strip does need certain amenities. In order of importance they are: A phone, so you can call a cab or a friend or your house or the hotel to come and get you. A heated place so you can get indoors in cold weather. Fuel, so you can top off your tanks and maybe cut out an extra gas stop. Sometimes the need for a toilet is strongly felt. Stakes and ropes to tie down a visiting airplane—or some firm anchorage to which you can tie your own rope. Maybe a cup of coffee.

All this is easy. A filling station will find it profitable to locate near the strip, doing automobile service out front, airplane service in back.

In states where cattle range freely you want a fence. You want a sign which says this is for airplanes, and please don’t park a hay-rake in the middle of it. In snow states you want whoever plows the road to plow also the strip. In most regions, you want someone to mow it twice a year. And that is really and truly all!

What, No Lights?

Grass runway
An airport does not mean paved runways, lights, and windsocks. Grass is enough.

Well, maybe, sooner or later, the local users of the strip will want to come in after dark. This takes very little: merely a line of “Scotch Lite” reflectors marking the runway—the kind of white paint that shines up so well at night along some of our highways and that makes the taping of a car’s rear-end with red lines so effective. They come to life as the headlights of your car shine on them. The landing lights of an airplane are just as effective! To make it possible for strangers to find the strip at night, you might want one (1) green electric light marking each end of the strip. This allows the pilot to align himself with the strip, and then his landing lights bring up the reflectors.

This system was used at the famous Roosevelt Field until its demise, with never a complaint, by relatively fast and heavy airplanes, such as Lodestars. It is 100% sufficient for any airplane, of any size, in ordinary weather! The elaborate and very expensive light systems of our big airports make sense only for the pilot who comes out of a low ceiling, after a blind approach “on instruments,” and perhaps in rain or snow. Such lighting has no value and no purpose where such flying is not possible. If you install it, you also should install the radio beams or beacons by which a blind approach could be made: you would then have to furnish also a long broad runway: you would get back to the big, expensive airport.

Who Will Use Them?

This short, cheap, simple local airstrip cannot take airliners or combat airplanes. But they don’t want to be taken, and you don’t want them: they are the noisy ones. The bigger the airport, the noisier the types of flying it attracts, and the bigger the deficit. By keeping your strip short, you get rid of both the expense and the noise. You still keep almost all the utility. You can still take, except for transports and combat airplanes, practically everything that flies.

This brings up the question: Who wants these airstrips? Why build them? Who comes and goes by air?

Let’s not use the argument that such strips would be useful to aircraft in distress. It talks good, but it’s a phony. Right now there are enough airports so that if all you want is to get down, you can do so pronto. Emergencies on the ground are another matter: the ambulance case, the serum, the spare part for some important machine. Here the airplane could help—if the ground facilities existed. In an atomic emergency, with roads clogged, air communication will be vital. But even that is not our real argument. Every town should be air-accessible, simply to give its people the benefits of the air age, and to make the airstrips and airports of all other towns more valuable.

Airports are like telephones. A single airport is useless. With two airports you can start a sense-making operation. With every landing facility you add, you multiply the number of possible operations, and raise the value of all other facilities. And with airstrips universal, the airstrip becomes an entirely new class of thing. Right now, airport-wise, the average American is still “not in the book.” He ought to be.

Airports are also like roads. Right now, in the air, we have a system of highways and super-highways and truck and bus terminals, but no local roads, no city streets, no driveways, no place to park! We take this as normal, but it cripples the use of the airplane. It’s time we changed it, and let the airplane play its proper role in our society.

This role is big. Thanks to universal radio and TV, universal hard-surfaced roads, universal electrification, universal airlines, we now have a condition — first time this ever happened in history — where the whole country is—almost—metropolis: the “provinces” cease—almost—to exist: no sticks, no hicks. At the same time, we have a life-and-death need to decentralize our industries and disperse our people. In this situation, the air-automobile is just the thing that’s needed, because it can make the whole country, not only the main cities, accessible by air. We have it: but we can’t use it, because we don’t have what it requires—universal landing facilities.

Times Have Changed

Here now we have an information job to do. Most people have no idea of the automobile-like use of automobile-like airplanes: that it exists, that it is booming, what it can do for people, that it is now something used by the successful, not by the restless and the devil-may-care. A Public Official, a newspaper editor, a congressman thinks of the air as it was about 1947, with a strong admixture of 1937, plus some fiction. The airlines and the military he sees and understands. But beyond them he sees only “Amateurs” who fly “Piper Cubs” and other “sports jobs” or “puddle-jumpers.” He thinks these people fly for fun, mostly around the airport, and not very well. He also thinks they’re poor. Also, somehow, they “hit”airliners. He wishes they would go away. He certainly won’t build an airstrip for them!

Well, we must answer him. The air-automobile won’t go away. To think that the flying machine’s only successful use will be on the airlines is absurd; it’s like trying to limit the use of the powered wheel to railroads and busses. For a slow airplane to hit a fast one is mathematically impossible. The Piper Cub always did cost as much as a high-priced car, all those small airplanes were trainers, not “sport jobs.” The Cub is now a high-powered airplane for special uses such as crop dusting and prospecting. The typical airplane now is a four seat machine that costs fully equipped, from 10,000 to 30,000 dollars, or a light twin-engined machine, four to eight seats, costing from 25,000 to 100,000 dollars. Nothing cheap here. Every one of our popular small-airplanes has been flown across the Atlantic. So much for puddle-jumpers.

The automobile-like airplane outnumbers the airliner about forty to one! It flies more than the airlines do, in airplane-miles or airplane-hours, though of course not in seat-miles. But—this is important—its activity does not show up. It makes small noise. It has few accidents. When a good airplane is flown by a business man on real business, flying is remarkably safe. It looks only about one-fourth as expensive as it is; when a man taxies up in it, you don’t realize he’s driving several Cadillacs. He doesn’t stop; at the ramp, where people are looking. No loudspeaker announces his arrival and departure. No public relations organization keeps his flying before the public. Nothing tells you how fast he has come from how far. He gets out with his briefcase, and takes a cab to town. His business is probably as substantial as his transportation. What is his business? There’s no way of telling. It’s as varied as the business of the motorists who use a given stretch of road; as varied as American life itself. It is not necessarily “important,” except to him.

No One Asks!

Consider the roads on which we spend so much. Much driving, perhaps most driving, is unnecessary! People would be better off at least in the short run if everybody stayed home and tended to his knitting. Same with the mails. A postcard, “wish you were here”—is it really worth carrying through night, rain, snow, etc.? Same with the airlines. What’s so important about some salesman of useless gadgets going someplace to get more people into installment-debt? The point is we don’t ask these questions. We don’t try to judge, in the large field of communications what’s useful and what’s useless. We go on the theory that contact between persons, movement of goods, exchange of services is a good thing in itself and results in good. The postcard “wish you were here” may end a quarrel. It may start a romance. And anyway, the citizen wishes to send it. That’s enough. Let’s apply these old principles to the new machine, and not try to judge which type and size of aircraft and of aircraft owner is desirable. Let’s build facilities for the people who fly not for those who ought to fly. Isolation is bad. And a town that is not air-accessible is isolating itself, that’s all.

The Post War Surge

Is all this true? Or is it baloney? It seems too pretty-pretty a picture to be quite believable. We must admit that, right after the war, we had a wave of flying that was more problematic: people learning to fly, mostly under the “G.I. Bill of Rights,” who were motivated mostly by the romantic appeal of flying but had no real use for the transportation an airplane delivers. It’s a good thing they got a crack at flying. They had seen flying glamorized during the war, while they themselves were on the ground. They had something to get out of their systems. But because their flying had no strong economic roots and did not deliver much to those who did it, it has withered on the vine. Today, people who fly are mostly those who have much travelling to do.

We must also explain something about those airplanes: here, too, things were different right after the war. The manufacturers still tried to keep airplanes priced within reach of the average man. This resulted in machines that were a bit skimpy on size, on speed, on equipment, and could not deliver fully practical transportation. It was also still thought that the slower, lighter airplane is easier for the non-professional pilot to handle. But by about 1950 or so, thinking changed. It had become clear that if a man has no economic use for an airplane, he won’t keep one no matter how low-priced it is. If he does have genuine use for an airplane, he wants and can afford a “real”one—four seats, lots of go, plenty of instruments and radio. It was also realized that the heavier, faster airplane is really easier to fly than the light kite. This shift to high performance, high price, economic use, has been the real post-war development in flying. Like most real post-war developments, it came only after a time lag of several years. But there it is now and the time has come to give this new traffic a way to reach your town.

Plenty of Customers

So, Mr. Mayor, if your town opened an airstrip today, it would right away attract two or three regulars—people who would drop in time and again: someone to visit his parents; some salesman on this regular beat; some technical man visiting the local factory. It never fails, now, where there is a landing facility, someone has regular use for it. A new airstrip would also right away produce two or three airplanes owned by people in town. This, too, never fails: open an airport, and local people buy airplanes—because they now can use airplanes. Close the airport, and airplane ownership fades out. It just isn’t attractive without a close-by place to keep the airplane. Your strip would also be used by a steady trickle of casual itinerants. But I mention the regulars because they would have an immediate effect on the quality of life in your town. Here’s an interesting question: If Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, had not had its simple little flying field, would it today have the President of the United States?

Obviously the chance of catching big fish like that for your town are not good, not enough to justify building an airstrip. But neither is one airstrip by itself, enough to make a real change in the American air facilities pattern. Let’s build 3,000 of them, make 3,000 towns air-accessible each for all others, and we shall raise flying to a new level: your strip becomes the gateway to 3,000 others, and to all present airports. At 3,000 other strips, plus at the present airports, someone can jump into an airplane and come to see you.

Keep it Close In

But the airstrip must be close to town.

The temptation will always be to “do it right,” make the runway a little longer, have two of them in cross-pattern, pave them; to have several towns team up, make it a County Airport, build a hangar, have an airport manager. All of which may be “doing it right,”but does not do anybody any particular good! At least, it adds nothing to the existing picture of air facilities.

How close is close-in? It depends on the size of the town. Willy-nilly, for the big cities one accepts a long ride. But we’re not talking about the big cities. For an ordinary town, ten miles is too far out! The visitor would not call that town “air-accessible.” Distance between field and town counts double: you have to phone for a taxi, and wait for it to come out; then you still have to ride in. So, a ten mile distance may use up 45 minutes. This is 13 mph, it is ten times as slow as the slowest airplanes now on the market! It is as if there were a law that, every time you use your car, you must do the last mile on foot. And as aviation progresses and airplanes get faster, this delay will become more absurd. The strip really should be in town; and that’s where progressive cities have put them: Chicago, Cleveland, Milwaukee. Most other towns and cities will do this later, at great expense to the taxpayer. Meanwhile, the place to put the airstrip is just outside the built-up area of town.

Noise? People’s thinking goes back right away to the regular airport complete with flying school and maintenance base. Even a small one can annoy some neighbors—those who are pre-disposed to be annoyed. The light aircraft that use it aren’t very noisy but they go round and round the same pattern all day long. By contrast to these training and maintenance operations, the coming and going of small airplanes in actual use is hardly noticeable. The arriving ship is almost noiseless, its engines throttled back. The departing airplane is, of course, noisier. But he, too, climbs and is on his way.

So the small airstrip is a good neighbor, and can be close in.

Those roadbuilding crews, will be out there soon, right near the proper site. Why not use them?

Ten years from now, what will we wish we had done?

2 Comments

  • Langewiesche was right. I am fortunate to live on an airstrip and many of my clients are on municipal airports. I get to live the dream he had. How remarkable would it have been if towns were easily accessible everywhere by air? The economy would decentralize, people’s lives would be more productive and enjoyable, business would boom.

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