One last visit to a dying airport

The dirt road into the airport had a gate across it. It was made of heavy-duty, galvanized pipe welded in the shape of a triangle, hinged on one side and secured to a substantial iron post by a rusty chain and padlock. I left the car in front of the gate, lengthwise. The fresh air was a welcome respite from the cheap rental car. They always smelled like smoke, cheap perfume, and whatever. I grabbed what was left of a six-pack from the passenger’s seat, laughed at the crumpled tie under it, and locked the car.

The fresh air smelled sweet and familiar in the misting rain. Entering the dirt entry road it was about a quarter mile down to the airport, and coming up over the rise I saw the hangars, solid, gray concrete boxes, unchanged for half a century. The airport was overgrown.

Old hangar
If walls could talk…

At the first hangar, I noticed a few more windows broken, but they were all high up, so there was no looking in, but I could tell it was empty. There was an empty sound to it sitting there. The little white pebbles that were against the concrete slab the structure sat on were still there, still brilliantly white, washed and rewashed by decades of rain rolling off of the roof onto them. The big door was hard to slide on its rollers. We used to oil them every year at the beginning of the season and that hadn’t been done for a while.

When I looked in, the hangar was starkly empty. There were a couple of old boxes, a ripped plastic tarp, and a coat of dirt on the concrete floor. It was the same hangar, but the Cubs and Cruisers, the barrels of smoke oil, the banners, airplane parts, tools—all of the things that gave a hangar life—were long gone.

Standing there, I tried to recapture the feel of a summer day when the hangar was full of airplanes and promise. I just felt sad and tossed an empty beer can into the middle of the deserted space. At the next hangar, it too was empty, which looked very odd since it had always been full of the town’s road department equipment with a giant pile of salted sand in the middle of it.

I started down toward the main hangar and offices. The gas pumps were still there, but the hoses were missing. When they were first installed, it felt very modern to have low-profile pumps that a Cub wing would clear. Now, the glass was broken out and the paint on them was a chalky white with even chalkier red lettering. Right next to these same pumps a man died in a helicopter on a beautiful, sunny day because he made a mistake, a little mistake that took his life.

All of the railroad ties that we used to outline a semblance of a parking area were gone. The smaller hangar had an office on either side and enough space to fit three or four airplanes comfortably so that there was room to work on them. The first office had been the town’s road department office and the office on the far end was the flight school. They all faced the airport and the flight school had a picture window. The road department office and the hangar were in the same state of disuse as the other hangars. The flight school office had a lot of junk everywhere.

I saw a pile of old logbooks. Students used to leave their logs at the airport with their names printed on the edges of the pages. They stood side-by-side on a table behind the counter next to the cashbox. Now, they were a pile of discarded, long-forgotten dreams. On the floor, scuffed and dirty, next to the logbooks, was the solo board. Someone, before I got there, had crafted a large piece of sturdy white cardboard with blocks to record the latest solo or license. After a solo, you could see the student beam with pilotness as the instructor inked in the date, his name, the type of airplane, and the almighty initials that made everything official. I knew exactly where my name was: Nov 6, 1968-Cessna 150-W.J.N., the great William J. Nauta had been my instructor.

The room was a maelstrom but it was exactly the same as it had been almost 30 years earlier, the first time I saw it. None of the mess, none of the broken, interrupted my vision. I could still feel it, still see it clearly. I’d grown up in this room, on this airport, celebrated my first solo, my licenses. All of the milestones of my nascent career in aviation were here. My first love had been consummated just a few feet from where I stood. This airport had been my heart and soul from my late teens for more than several years. I could hear WNEW dribbling out of the crappy radio on the counter, the Coke machine whining, smell the vague noxiousness of the heat from the propane heater. I could see the men that would never be forgotten to me, the instructors that would guide me and help me to get my licenses.

Colts Neck aerial
It didn’t look like much, but this little airport made a lot of pilots.

Out of the front window, the tie-downs were still filled with the flight school airplanes: Cessna 150s, 172s, Tri-Pacers, and Colts. Each airplane had as distinct a personality as any of the people I remember. To the left was the row of tie-downs starting with the flight school Cub and glider, then one after the other: a Cessna 140, a Cessna 120, a Commonwealth, a prewar Chief with the exhaust manifold sticking out of the top of the cowling, and on… I knew them all. It was intoxicating to see them so clearly: the airplanes, the people, to hear the instructor’s voices. I was home. I could feel it but couldn’t touch it. I’d wandered too far.

Stepping outside, the payphone next to the door was gone. The bare, oil-soaked, compacted dirt spots where each airplane had sat and leaked its vital fluids still bore witness to the life of an airport that had been lived. They were sorrowful, stubborn stains that would not wash away. I walked toward the outline of the main runway. The wind tee was gone. Someone had mounted an old drone on a pipe, smeared it with bright yellow marker paint and it had guided a generation of pilots to land into the wind, most of the time. It was gone. Large furrows had been plowed across both runways to keep transient airplanes out. All I could think was, “hell, I could still land a Cub here with room to spare.” I walked some more as the sun got low. The cornfields that bordered the runways were gone, the hill where I picked up banners was grown over.

Walking back toward the office, the airport looked worn and broken. Soon enough, someone would clear it and make it something important to the world as the 21st century was ushered in. They’d plow under the oil stains, all of them. What had been my heart and soul, my lifeblood, was in the very throes of its last gasps at life. I’d wandered too far and it died without me being there.

I realized there was nothing at the office for me. I thought about grabbing the solo board, but I had to get going. I was seeing a friend to tip a few and besides, I had to jump on a smoker back home in a few days and it wouldn’t fit in the airplane.

I turned up past the pumps onto the dirt road to leave. As I passed, I said good-bye to the hangar where the banner planes had been. There was a magnetism that drew me toward it. I tried to walk by. I didn’t want to try to reconcile myself with who I’d been. I’d loved those airplanes and I’d loved that life, at the airport. I stood in the spot where my Cub had sat, the one I towed banners with for eight seasons. I never again experienced that pure joy, never matched the love of life I’d felt every day at that airport. With tears in my eyes I pushed out into the darkness and into the night.

48 Comments

    • Little airports are the lifeblood of aviation. Every one that dies cuts off a bit of the flow of airmen that they produce. Great memories, though.

    • Ok
      How about this: Sitting on a bench, windsock hanging limp and still. Looking out at the acres of neatly mowed grass strip and taking in the quiet as the sun sets and the edge lights come on.

  • When I first started reading your well written story, I expected that you were describing South Norfolk Airport in Chesapeake,Va. It’s long gone, but as I read further, the memories of Piper Cubs, Cessna 150’s, and a Citabria came into view. The tail numbers are still in an old logbook somewhere. So thankful to have had a little bit of grass roots aviation from the early 70’s. Thank you for helping to relive the wonderful days of grass airports.

    • Thanks for the props. Everyone who started flying at a little airport have a story inside. Some day when you’re sitting with a little smile on your face and people are wondering what the hell you’re daydreaming about, chances are pretty good it’ll be your little airport.

  • Wow, what vivid memories. Like witnessing the death of an old friend. Life goes on I guess. Thank you for sharing your time of reminiscing. It speaks to a lot of us.

    • Yeah. When I think of my time at the little airport, forty-plus years ago, it’s still incredibly vivid. I can easily remember the N numbers of fifty airplanes from there and I can’t remember the names of 3 of the last 50 people I’ve met. Ha. Everybody loves their first, airport, that is.

  • Your story brought tears to my eyes. Early last summer I stopped by the little airport (Ellington, Ct) where I started my flying career. It too had seen better days. The old main building was empty. This is where I took my 1st flying lesson, where later I would teach. It was sad to see only a couple of airplanes that had seen better days. I walked the ramp where I took my 1st lesson, and learned how to do a pre-flight inspection, then out to the runway where I landed after my solo. Then out to where we used to have a bench, where as CFI’s we used to watch our students solo. Sat there for almost an hour remembering the people and events that made this part of my life so happy. It’s sad to see these airports fade away.

    • Thanks for the great letter. We’ll always have those airport days. I’m at a small airport in SW WA now. I have a Clipped Cub with a big engine and pimped out paint job. The instructors and students can’t be bothered to walk a hundred feet to take a look at it. All they want to talk about is radio stacks, moving maps and Bluetooth interfaces. They toss their gigantic Jepp flight bags into the back of the 150 and go get the required air work out of the way so they can get to the point where they can crank up the radios. What’s left of GA seems to be filled with the electronics generation. The little airports were always hip-pocket operations. They don’t generate enough money to be relevant in the 21st century. Those little airports sure make good housing developments or golf courses or whatever feeds the insatiable need for growth. I’m officially an “old fart” I guess. Yesterday was 52 years since my first solo. But, I’d still much rather go bend the Cub around then follow a bunch of TV screens through the sky. To each his/her own. I don’t judge. I’m happy.

  • Strikes a resonant chord – it’s difficult to explain to others the world of GA in the 60/70s with it’s heady mixture of unforgettable personalities and different types of aircraft.

    • Sure was a great time. I could write a thousand pages on my day-to-day experiences from back then, but it’s just a warm, happy memory now.

  • This got me to thinking. Many years ago my grandfather lived in a small town in western North Carolina. There was a busy GA airport there. He was very active as a CFI. It was there that I had my first ride in an airplane. I was so little that I have no conscious memory of it.
    I went back a few years ago. I walked the runway and stood on the spot where I first left the ground in an airplane.
    The place was deserted. No fuel, no resident airplanes, nothing but birds and wind gently blowing in the grass.
    I remembered it when a dozen airplanes were based there and transients were frequent.
    For a few moments it was just as I remembered it. My grandfather taught me how to preflight an airplane there and it is where I took my first shaky flying lessons.
    Very hard to believe it is all fifty years ago.
    Thank you for taking me back.

    • It is amazing how many people with a shared experience of little airports have told me of those vivid memories. Thanks for the good letter.

    • Tom, it is amazing how many people with a shared experience of little airports have told me of those vivid memories. Thanks for the good letter.

  • Thanks Dan for bringing me back to a wonderful time in my life. I was blessed to get my first CFI job in April 1965 at the Clots Neck airport working at Shore Air Services under Duff Donald and flying with Jim Harris and Tim Cervies. What a great time I had there before being hired by TWA where I flew for the next 34 years. I loved every minute of it!

    • Wow! When I got there in ‘68 Paul Wille had just taken over. I heard a lot about Duff and the Twin Bonanzas. Dirk Tanis told me some stories. Colts Neck was a special airport. I towed banners for Cecil for 9 seasons until I got hired in ‘78. T-Way was a great airline in its day. I was sorry to see it go. Thanks for the letter.

  • Thanks for sharing. When I was growing up, my dad kept an airplane at a nearby airport and I can still remember sitting in the FBO office listening to pilots sitting around and talking, see the glass cases with pilot supplies that seemed so mystical back then. I remember how I felt when I figured out I could walk through the fields behind our house and come out at the runway in 15 minutes, walk across and buy a candy bar. The Stone Mountain airport was sold off after the 1996 Olympics and has slowly disappeared into the trees, with a similar fence across the entrance. I haven’t had the heart to go back and walk it. I recently went back to nearby Briscoe Field to get checked out to take my dad flying, and my instructor had instructed at Stone Mountain, so it felt like I had come full circle in a way. One of my daydreams would be to have an airport where I could recreate that kind of place, where people would love to come to the airport even if they weren’t flying, just to be around aviation and share their love for it with anyone who would sit down on the old, worn leather couch next to them.

  • I did the same thing last year at the little turf airport where I learned to fly in a C-150….Brewer, Maine–1975. Great memories, but nothing left there anymore. Sad.

    • It can be sad. But the memories are good. I don’t regret losing my little airport, it would have come and gone whether I was there or not. I’m just happy I had it and it will always be there for me.

      • Absolutely great memories! If those old hangars could talk, they would have some incredibly wonderful stories. Brewer airport was only 1400′ long and in the direct landing flight path for Runway 33 at Bangor International Airport. We had to fly a right hand pattern at 600′. There was no Unicom, we just announced position. The airport was owned at the time by a guy named Wes Leighton, an airline pilot, but I don’t recall the carrier.

        There’s really something special about the fields where we learned to fly. When I got my Private I felt comfortable going anywhere in New England because if you can fly in and out of Brewer, Maine, you can land and take-off just about anywhere. ‘

        I grounded myself a while back for medical reasons, so my ‘flying’ is limited to my Microsoft FSX Simulator. I have photo scenery for the entire country, except Alaska and can ‘fly’ anywhere. I especially like Hawaii, but I always come back for a few Touch & Goes at Brewer.

  • My experience was a little different. I got my license back in the mid-1970s at a relatively small towered airport. The flight school, one of several at the airport back then, had a number of enthusiastic CFIs, and was very welcoming to new pilots. Over the years I was based at a number of small non-towered and towered airports, but a few years ago I came back to my first airport. It is still there, but what a shock. There is now a manned 24-hour security gate at the entry to the airport, and a guard who wants to know why you are trying to enter his airport. If I were a young person wondering if learning to fly would be fun, this is about the least inviting environment possible. Ironically, there is no airline traffic into this airport, but it is easier to get into your typical international airport compared to this place!

    • Yeah. I kept a Pitts at FXE back in the early 80’s. It had all kinds of treasures and hideaways. Many years later I went back and it was akin to a fortress. What a shocker.

  • Sad that all responders seem to be totally resigned to the death of small airports and more deaths to come. Why only minimal pushback to the government and other entities that are killing little airports even though there is such attraction and likely many who would love to operate from one if only one were available?? Here’s a partial list of culprits.. Land use zoners, developers together with government to make money, some FAA policies, insurance companies/lawyers, bigger airports not wanting completion,
    Politicians with no aviation interests and doing favors for votes, taxation that’s inequitable next to government owned that pays no taxes and gets public subsidies,
    media bias that paints GA as dangerous, commercial operations that suck up money for lots of runway and approach technology not needed for a grassroots airport, a recent spirit of intolerance by the culture if it’s not for the big ME, ETC.

    • Your comments were spot on Marty. It’s maddening to see it all unfold. Yes, the world according to ME… Methinks it’s a darn shame.

    • There seem to be so many factors in the demise of many grass airports. I’m sure greed is numero uno. The guys at Marlboro Airport in NJ fought a long, expensive battle and were still screwed out of the airport. Another factor is the approach of the young guys toward flying. So many of them are wrapped up in electronics and want to know what an airline pilot makes. Hell, I got hired and didn’t know what an airline pilot made until they handed me a contract. I tell them all that if you don’t love to fly, being an airline pilot is a boring-ass job. I’ve flown with plenty of guys just like that.

  • Thanks for letting so many of us walk through our memories and relive those special days when we grew from being just mortal beings into souls never landed on the same earth again.

  • Thanks Dan so much for the trip down memory lane. I come from a Brooklyn N.Y. middle class family of the 1950’s with no money to be had but for the essentials. This was a non aviation family as evidenced by the family’s statement that “Only birds and idiots fly”. Additionally, we didn’t have the money to even think about general aviation or an airline ticket as only the very wealthy could apply. But I couldn’t shake the feeling. I watched Sky King, the flying Arizona rancher every Saturday morning on that basement floor in Brooklyn with snowy, grainy and ghost like images emanating from a black and white DuMont TV. No reception was to be had until the TV was turned on and the tubes “warmed up”.

    Eventually on the weekends my dad would drive my brother and I in the Rambler Classic to Zahn’s airport in Amityville, Long Island, New York to look at the planes come and go and walk through dusty big hangar smelling and touching those J3 Cubs and Tri Pacers. Then the Piper Cherokees were delivered to the flight school. I thought, Wow! They looked like jets in my eyes as the Boeing 707 was being introduced at the time. Such was my mindset and imagination as a young boy. But aviation was just a dream as I would never have the means to even get a ride in any airplane. Oh how I wished one of those pilots stopping at Zahn’s to refuel would give me a ride—even for a couple of minutes. Even a taxi ride off the side of the runway would have been great Then one day while sitting on the bench watching those planes come and go, an older gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Let’s go. I’m taking you for a ride in that Piper Colt over there.” I just laughed and sat there. The older gentleman said, “Well come on. I don’t have all day. Your dad just bought you a ride and I’m your instructor.” I thought I was dreaming.
    Long story short, I got hooked during that ride, got a college student summer job years later to finance my flying lessons and got my pilot’s license after one year of weekend only weather permitting instruction. No ground school at the time. My instructor had me buy 2 books and said, “Read and digest these and then go take the written test”. I failed the test by 2 questions on the first try but then passed by 2 questions the second time.

    That boy became a private pilot, moved to Arizona, eventually owned a Piper Cherokee 140, a Grumman AA1A and 3 Beech Bonanzas (one of which I presently fly). Wow! I actually became that Arizona flying rancher named Sky King—only without the ranch.

    My childhood dream had come true. I reminded my non flying family of their statement that since only birds and idiots fly, they could now say “Hi” to the biggest idiot that has ever left the ground.

    As per Dan’s great article, I remember the large old broken down hangar which smelled of dust, 80, 90 and 100 grade avgas, engine oil, those J3 Cubs and Cherokees which I finally flew, the chief pilot reprimanding me for taxiing the J3 “too fast”, the crackle sound of the Narco crank frequency selector radios, the crude restaurant next to the hangar with crummy hamburgers that were as good as prime rib in my mind, the weather teletype machine that usually jammed, the telephone booth housing a dirty phone that rarely worked, the barely paved runways with no painted numbers or lines, and the muddy taxiways of Zahns airport. Thank you Zahns airport for the inspiration bestowed on a boy with a dream that finally came true.

    • You’re on a great journey. Zahn’s was a legendary place. They used to store the Cubs nose-down in the hangar. Damn fine place that spawned a raft of aviators. Thanks for the good comment

  • The article brought back my memories learning to fly at Zahns airport back in 1968. I worked there as a line men and amazingly I never took any pictures! My cell phone would have come in handy to record all the crazy things that happened there. I could write a book…

    I remember the ground school that was run at night by a gentlemen name Jack Wilcox. He loved teaching and we learned dead reckoning and how to use the E-6 computer and plotter laying out future cross country flights on sectionals. Jack was about 80 years old back in 1968 ! He had such enthusiasm for aviation and it rubbed off. I looked forward going to class with my fellow aviators learning navigation, weather and aerodynamics from Jack. God bless him where ever he is!

    • Ha. Another Zahn’s guy. You’re part of an aviation breed. I soloed in ‘68 out in the country wilds of New Jersey at Colts Neck.

  • Admittedly many airports fall victim to developers, but I think the real culprit is the long term decline in real wages which hits new entrants to the workforce (the potential pilot pool) hardest.

    • There ain’t no Walmart airport to learn to fly. It is out of reach of a lot of people. I started in ‘68 and they had just raised the rates to $14/hr for the C150 and $7/hr for the instructor. Hell, that was too rich for my blood but they let me work for flying time and I washed the instructor’s cars (actually they took pity and donated their service). Today though, big bucks.

  • Folks
    My culprits list is not complete. There are plenty of other poisons for little private airports. Yes, so many young people have jobs that do not leave any money for flight training. Another detrimental feature is the security fencing that keeps youth out of the airport and distant from their potential dreams to fly.

  • I fly out of two airports and they could not be more different. The class D has no fence, the airport community is vibrant, hangar BBQs are often and people come and sit and watch the planes take off and land. Someone walking up to a hangar is welcomed and folks are alway happy to talk flying.

    The other is pilot controlled and fenced and has virtually no social circles or interactions. People come, pull their planes out, go fly and put them away.

    We need pilots, and we need them to love aviation and airports and not just flying GA to get the ratings and time to move to airline jobs. Why do some airports and FBOs do virtually nothing, or worse are hostile to non-pilots wanting to see the planes, talk about flying and then perhaps tip their toe in the water?

    AOPA is for people that already know and love aviation. EAA does some good outreach but airports themselves need to start to open their doors and make themselves part of the community. Maybe we wouldn’t lose so many to NIMBYs then either.

    • The influx has taken a very corporate approach, but the kids are growing up on computers and don’t have any tolerance for getting their hands dirty. Savor the fun airports. I keep my Cub at a little airport in SW WA. It’s got some flavor.

  • Brought a tear to my eye. The small airport I learned to fly at in the 90’s was another casualty. I remember helping clean out the attic and storage area one rainy day. Finding boxes of those old student logbooks from the 70’s.

    Flipping though them, wondering what happened to those pilots, what memories those pages held, stories them and their instructors could tell.

    It was dying when I flew there; few planes rotting on tie-down, couple hangars slowly collapsing, so many areas overgrown.

    First flying job was towing banners in Cubs and Cruisers out of a private strip in South Jersey. I still go back once a summer, the Old Man has long since passed, but his family keeps the business going. I wonder for how much longer though.

    Thank-you. You have a true way with words.

    • Thanks for the good comments. An era is passing, aviation is evolving, and I have great memories of my time in it. South Jersey makes me think of Andre Tomolino. He had a pretty big towing operation out of Cape May. Besides the Cubs, he had a bunch of N3N’s.

      • You nailed it. I am lucky enough to have been yelled at by Andre a time or two. Even in the early 2000’s he still ran his outfit like it was the 1950’s.

        Fond memories of working for him; he’d fuss at you if you screwed up, but would treat you like a man as well. Which was pretty humbling for a 20 year old kid with the ink still wet on his Commercial rating.

        Sitting in the hangar as the sun set, enjoying a beer and listening to him tell stories of instructing in The War, or buzzing the fed from the CAB in his N3N were some of my fondest memories in aviation. Or having him show me how to straighten a Cub’s frame with a hydraulic puller and sledge hammer…

        • Oh, man. BS’ing over a beer and talking to guys like that were part of the essence of it all. I started towing at 18 for Cecil Coffrin. He was a hero and mentor. If you listened closely there were words of wisdom you’d never hear from anyone else.

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