Our airport

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Is it a virus? Maybe an itch that just needs to be scratched ever so often. Whichever your columnist was infected, badly infected, a long time ago and the itch continues every nice day even now.

This old guy learned to fly the summer of 1953. Then as now, one has to be sixteen years old to go out in an airplane alone, “solo”, in the vernacular. I’d been infected long before that riding in my Uncle Willard’s war surplus PT-19 trainer and then again in his brand new 1946 Aeronca Chief. Mom’s brother had a hangar and grass airstrip on his farm south of Culbertson which rather neglected, still exists. Then too during WWII with the active McCook Army Airbase, this six-year-old kid could identify every B-17, B-24 and the giant brand new B-29’s flown low over our farm by flight crews training for war. Our farm a little southwest of McCook was aligned with the main runway at the base and on hot summer days, the crews flew low at reduced power to cool their engines after takeoff.

In my day the McCook airport, built after the war, consisted of three intersecting grass runways. There were two hangars and a small flight shack for pilots to gather. No airline terminal and not a bit of concrete to be found. Ben Frank ran the business, fixing airplanes, pumping gas, $0.37 per gallon, plus spraying crops with his fleet of J-3 Cubs. Ben also farmed producing crops on all the arable land that wasn’t dedicated to runways. He employed a couple other mechanics who doubled as spray pilots and helped him to teach others to fly.

The airport was a friendly place, especially for kids to hang out, touch airplanes, ask a million questions and beg rides. My dad owned a 1939, 50 horsepower, J-3 that he usually kept tied down under a big elm tree on our farm. For me to learn he moved our airplane to the airport where it was hangared tipped up on its nose back to belly with Ben’s other Cubs in the big hangar. Best I remember he paid my instructors $3.00 per hour to teach me the basics.

Oh, how things have changed! Now our runways and taxiways are all paved in concrete. We have a nice airline terminal. There are 43 individual city-owned hangars rented to various airplane owners plus a thriving Fixed Base Operation, FBO in aviation talk meaning maintenance and overhaul plus fuel sales, Av Gas $4.75/gal and large hangars for transient aircraft. Even a couple of us private individuals possess our own hangars. Taken as an economic entity our airport was estimated to produce for our community some $8.91 million worth of positive economic impact including a total annual payroll of $1.28 million at a last study done by the State of Nebraska in 2002. Probably way more today.

There are many airports across the nation where people live in homes with personal hangars attached or close by with access to a runway. For instance, the Leeward Air Ranch where my cousin and her husband lives in Florida. The code is that if the hangar door is open visitors are welcome. Friends, neighbors and even outsiders stop by to chat, look at the airplanes, especially homebuilt aircraft in progress of building and kibitz with the owners. . People gather to barbeque, eat together and maybe even nip an adult beverage after flying is finished for the day. Aviation is the attraction much like what happens every morning as friends gather to visit and swap “knowledge” at our local coffee shops. I have been privileged to visit the Stearman Airport in Wichita a flying community that boasts a really nice restaurant always busy with local residents and people from town who obviously savor the ambiance. I’d love to have something like that here.

Sadly though, in my opinion, our own local airport has lost its reputation as a friendly place to visit. For one the entire perimeter has been enclosed with a chain-link “wildlife” fence. For sure the occasional deer and coyote are kept out but foxes burrow under and enjoy their safe haven as do geese that somehow seem oblivious to the fence. People, however, are kept controlled; only allowed to come and go through locked gates. TSA is present and zealously controls access to the flight line in accordance with their charter to keep air travelers safe. Maybe that is the way it has to be but no more young kids, aspiring pilots, riding their bicycles out from town to watch, rub shoulders with pilots and beg rides to contract the aviation virus. No wonder that this country is currently facing a dire airline pilot shortage—kids don’t get a chance to satisfy their curiosity about learning to fly.

How to make our airport more visitor friendly? I’d love to make modifications to the inside of my hangar and simply move in full time. Grannie Annie says that isn’t going to happen and that is final! How about allowing people to build homes with attached hangars inside or outside the wire so that they could simply taxi to existing taxiways and use the airport as is? In fact there is a platted addition just outside the fence on the east side of our airport designed to do just that. Only one home built there and no access to a runway.

All those ideas are non-starters because some bureaucrat in Washington has decreed that if an airport accepts federal aid to build and maintain an airport there can be no access for residents who want to live on that airport. No full-time residents allowed. No matter that that federal aid comes from taxes levied on the sale of aviation fuel. A dumb rule in my opinion but it is what it is.

That is how I saw it.

Dick Trail

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