More than an FBO

In my personal flying, and in my career in aviation insurance, I’ve visited countless FBOs, large and small. At some point I became aware that what we’ll call the “glass and chrome, potted-plant, WiFi-enabled” building had all but supplanted the mom and pop FBO; the ones that always seemed to have a three-legged dog, 30-year old courtesy car, and the smell of burnt coffee greeting visitors at the door. I have nothing against glass and chrome, and terrazzo floors, and if I were flying around in a kerosene burner while sporting epaulets, I’m sure that I would enjoy the leather recliners and cappuccino. But, my aviation heart lies with the time capsule FBOs, where the latest in information technology is a 15-year old copy of Trade-A-Plane, and the tube-fired UNICOM radio behind a Formica counter.

ISZ
An FBO, but so much more.

In the year 2000, I settled in, along with my airplane, at an end-of-an-era FBO: Co-Op Aircraft Service at Cincinnati’s Blue Ash Airport. These buildings, and the surrounding crumbling concrete and asphalt, became more to me than a place to tie-down and buy avgas. The business, the airport, and the people who were drawn to it, became like a second home and family. I feel privileged to have been part of the last 12 years of its life.

Co-Op consisted of three 1930s hangars, plus a shop, office and pilot’s lounge. The furnishings and overall ambiance of the lounge was a bit like a cross between the back room of a service station and the basement of a fraternity house. The carpet was faded, the photos were faded, and the place itself was fading through a combination of age and benign neglect. I’ll leave others to chronicle the loss of Blue Ash Airport to developers, but even years before the lights were turned off in 2012, there was an understanding that the end, if not near, was certainly inevitable. Eventually, an all too familiar mixture of money and politics sealed its fate.

Although somewhat rough around the edges, Co-Op provided a tangible connection to aviation’s past. Its hangars were stuffed to the rafters with detritus, but a careful eye could spy bits of treasure interspersed: a Beech 18 door, BT-13 landing gear, cowlings from a UC-78, Staggerwing wings, all left behind from aircraft that had once been nestled inside. In the shop, or next door at Mark Day’s Blue Ash Aircraft Service, parts, some of which had been there since the 1950s, were stacked floor to ceiling. There was no need to consult a computerized inventory system; if you knew what you needed, they would find it. When you walked across the concrete hangar floor, you knew that Roscoe Turner once stood there, that instead of an MU-2, the airplane in the corner was once a Waco 10. There weren’t any layers of paint or modern lighting systems between you and the history in those hangars; it was there for all who cared to look.

The place was presided over by “Moose” Glos, resident IA and owner since 1952. In this case, the nickname was not meant to be ironic, as even in his later years, “Moose” was an imposing figure of a man. He could quote part numbers and prices from memory, seemed to know every aircraft and owner within a 50-mile radius, and was a repository for all things relating to Cincinnati aviation from the 1940s on. In his eighties, he still came to work every day. On the way to his back office, he could be counted on to throw a disparaging comment at the crowd seated in the lounge, but we knew he secretly loved to see a full house. You knew you were a bona-fide regular when he asked you for a cup of coffee, and you knew how he wanted it: black, with one packet of blue sweetener.

Rafters
There’s history in those hangar rafters.

In the last days, as a sort of funereal pall surrounded the place, strangers came to pay their last respects. Old men with canes or walkers would show-up in the lounge with stories of the lessons they took, or the Aeronca Chief they based there decades before. Often they would tell us about the guy that used to run the place back then: “His name was Moose.”

“Yes sir,” we would tell them. “He’s still here, back in his office.” They would then smile in disbelief, and disappear into the back room to sit and share memories.

Aviation has a sometimes unfortunate hierarchy, its classes defined by tickets held, and equipment flown. What I witnessed at Co-Op though was something approaching true egalitarianism. The only ticket to entry was a love of airplanes. For many of us, Co-Op was more than an FBO; it was a social center. On any given weekend, the charcoal grill would be serving-up charred sausages to students, renter pilots, tradesmen, airline captains, captains of industry, and even a federal judge. CFIs, combat veterans, test pilots, or a former SR-71 driver could be seen conversing with student pilots about the subject we all had in common.

The lines between employee and customer were somewhat blurred. On any given day, it might be one of the regular customers who fueled an airplane, drove a transient pilot to a nearby hotel, or took a dad and his son, who just happened to drive by the airport and stop-in, out to the airplanes for pictures. There were no electrified fences or security badges at Co-Op. Anyone interested in what was happening at the airport needed only to walk in the door, and he would be greeted by people eager to share what we loved. Several of us had keys to the business, and when Karl, the owner’s son, would leave for the night, would be told to “just lock-up when you leave.”

Weekends would be filled with flying and shared meals. When weather permitted, my brother might lead six or eight of us in our airplanes on a flight to some distant airport restaurant. Thanksgiving turkeys were deep-fried on the ramp, and when circumstances dictated, Christmas night might find a couple of us celebrating the holiday in the humble surroundings of the Co-Op lounge.

We often live our lives in retrospect, only later truly appreciating the people and joys for what they were: extraordinary and fleeting. I’m happy to say that my countless hours spent with airplanes and friends at Co-Op are the exception to this rule. I knew then that a place like this could not last; a place that brought the sometimes undefinable allure of aviation into crisp focus for me. Changing times and “progress,” if you like, had marked it for destruction long before the wrecking ball came. I’m guessing that this species of FBO still has some survivors at small airports. The day that every large city had one or two though, is sadly over.

15 Comments

  • I really appreciate this article. In my opinion it accurately represents the true nature of an FBO from the “Golden Age” of aviation and those who were there and contributed to all the advances we have today. The type of experience we talk about when we reminisce about the guy who just knew everything about whatever you needed who has now been replaced by a 20something kid who must use a computer because that is all he knows. Great job!

  • Excellent article. I enjoyed sharing the author’s memories. It brings up an issue for light GA. We need FBOs to make utility of our light aircraft possible, but do not need the amenities or costs of the locations geared toward corporate aviation. Unfortunately, it is the upper end of the business spectrum that probably allows the FBO to make a profit and stay in business. Remember to support the local FBO and buy a little fuel if they offer free parking or other services that you use.

  • I like the old, run-down off the beaten path airports / FBOs, but I and others have an expectation of modernity. At least have WiFi and a decent bathroom. Patina has its limits, especially if you want to nourish new flyers. Just sayin’…..

    • But, my subject FBO was located very much on the heavily beaten path, as were many others in medium and large size metro areas. Patina is often the outward manifestation of character, but with respect to your comment about new and potential aviators, I’m sure you are correct. Allow me to be a little bit sad at that reality though.

  • Nice story…it brings back memories of my early days back in the sixties at Zahns airport. Eventually builders and high taxes did in the airport.

    They had the airport dog and greasy spoon coffee shop and old planes. But I loved the place and went there every free minute I had.

    I worked the line pumping gas and getting airplane rides while learning to fly.

    Yep would not change a thing………

  • This brings to mind the airport where I learned to fly, in a beat-up C-150, back in 1977. The airport, flight school and FBO were welcoming then. I have been based at a number of different airports on the east coast since then, but, as fate would have it, at the end of my flying life I am based at the same airport where I learned to fly. Now there is a motorized gate at the entrance to the airport, with a guard who wants to know your reason for being there. People will debate the reasons for the loss of interest in General Aviation. I know one of the reasons.

  • Boy, this piece truly brings back memories of FBO’s just like the one mentioned in the article. As I was learning the “intricacies” of the venerable Piper PA-11 at one city FBO, I was amazed at the amassed number of parts, cases of av oil, (a lot of the oil layered on the cracked, concrete floor) and – dare we say the work? – “junk,” everywhere within the hangar. It and other facilities I’ve visited over the decades all had one thing in common; they all catered to those of us with a unquenchable lust to become “aeroplane” pilots! And for many it was just that sort of a draw. Now, looking back on 65+years of flying, 31 with a major airline, I am once again back frequenting such a facility. And, lucky we are to still have such a place to visit, share stories and see old, like-minded folks with Aviation written in their wrinkles, gray hair and slow gait!

  • Dave
    Just phenomenally done, sir.
    Got me thinking of days spent at our local FBO while in college, where every weekday was spent eagerly awaiting the end of classes so I could high tail it to my beloved friends, and my job on the line, at the FBO and the weekends meant I could go early and stay late.
    We also had a Moose, as seemingly every airport did back then. The thought of those days and their memories…well, apparently the wife is peeling onions as something seems to be irritating my eyes.
    Thanks for writing this article.

  • Wonderful and sad.
    There’s absolutely no place at KRAP anymore to go and hang out or FIND OUT about airplanes. Our 100k population area desperately needs a small nearby airport for GA since the FBO businesses and airport management at Rapid City seem look at small airplanes as a nuisance.
    “FAA Minimum Standards for Commercial Aeronautical Activities” has been used by the existing FBO to bludgeon anyone who dares to independently flight instruct or work on planes out of existence.

  • I took a flight out of Moraine Air Park in South Dayton, Ohio as a pre-teen (early 1960’s) in one of my newspaper route’s customers airplanes. His name was Mr. Morris, and in our occasional “hello’s and short talks” in his driveway and garage as I delivered his paper, he mentioned his aircraft…and my interest in aircraft and flying not really known to him…well, I believe he eventually, over a period of time, regretted mentioning it to me. I carefully and gently “nudge-nudge-wink-winked” him over the next few weeks (summer was just coming on) to give me a ride (my first of any) in his aircraft. It was a beautiful yellow Piper Cub, and I distinctly remember that it was not “worn” in any way and was in pristine condition. He explained what needed to be explained (pre-flight——-all of it…)…we took off…I was giddy, happy, mesmerized, in awe….and was to put it mildly…a very happy fellow. We flew over Huffman Prairie just north of downtown Dayton (he explained its significance), and over The Wright Brothers House on Park Ave. in the southern section of town known as Oakwood (old money area), and over the West Third Street area where the original Wright Cycle Company building was located. We then headed over near Wright Patterson Air Force Base (many many miles away…but I could see the layout) and after that he did let me fly straight and level and then allowed a few turns….and then a very wide gentle 360 degree ! At age 11….I was hooked! I could go on about this day, but you now what it’s about and I’ll leave with this: My life changed that day. I learned to fly, after high school I enlisted Naval Aviation (Ordnance…no money left from Dad after he put three others through college), I worked for Airwork Corporation and Ohio Aviation and then Northwest Airlines and Frontier Airlines as a contractor. I am a retiree of Delta Airlines as they purchased Northwest. Now? I can afford an ultralight…and in spring will be flying one – – -a new Aerolite 103 . Hey…it’s just buzzin’ the tree tops and staying out of general aviation’s way (you guys)……..so give an old geezer a break, please? It’s the only way I can get into the air without a medical………which I will fail because of their ridiculous rules. In the words of John Gillespie Magee ” Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth……”

  • I learned to fly at Blue Ash in a 65 HP Taylorcraft in 1948. A grass runway then, and Moose was there. We were both in our early 20’s then.

  • My dad had an avionics business at Lunken Airport since 1959. He did business with and knew everyone. I remember Moose coming to his annual Christmas party. My first airshow was at Blue Ash at age 8 and that’s when I secured a promise to sky dive when I turned 16 – double my life at that moment and the legal minimum age at the time. As I read the article, I remembered all the great GA airports I have called home and sat in the ancient cracked leather overstuffed chairs and the understuffed cloth couches.

  • RIP Sedalia, Colorado airport!
    One narrow sloping gravel runway, and hangars and camaraderie just like you said Dave. I was skydiving there for quite some time and one of the other jumpers was a CFI. Hooked!
    When I went for my checkride at mega-airport the examiner took over the only landing due to an extreme Rocky Mountains gust front so we were waiting it out and he checked my logbook. “You have all these landings at Sedalia? Heck, here is your license!”
    And my first plane was a 65hp Airknocker Champ under a very old roof-only sunshade “hangar”.
    Night landings were intense, the only light was 150’ away on a hangar, you offset your landing and looked for the three reflectors and went around if you needed! Loved those days! Thanks Dave!

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