COUNTRY RUNWAYS. Rural airfields like Great Barrington retain a nostalgic feel.
Behold the home of the $100 hamburger, the remnants of a life gone by, when linen-covered, nitrate-doped biplanes landed in potato fields and took small-town kids for rides on balmy summer days. The kind of place where almost anybody who even considers flying an LSA wants to land at some point in their flying life, no matter how skilled and schooled in urban aviation they may be.
Country airports are where we go to kick back, to engage in the pure pleasure of stick-and-rudder aviating, to leave behind crowded landing patterns with faster airplanes closing in to gobble up our tail feathers.
Great Barrington Airport (GBR) in Massachusetts, 30 minutes from my rural digs in upstate New York, is a classic rural airfield. Country runways, grass strips and barely improved meadows thrive up here. Some have crumbling asphalt tarmacs lined with tall trees on three sides—or four! Some are citified airports with all the amenities. But there’s plenty of down-home flying over the rolling farmland and low, gentle mountains of the northeast.
During America’s colonial and industrial periods, this fecund landscape was almost entirely denuded of trees in the rush to plant haying fields for millions of horses and to construct houses, town halls, barns and cities. When the nation-building tide moved westward, it left behind this decidedly seasonal, eye-filling pastoral environment that, once you let into your soul, evokes a simpler time.
Great Barrington Airport, known by locals as Walter J. Koladza Airport, is nestled next to the town it’s named after, a lively cultural mecca just east of the New York-Massachusetts border.
Walter Koladza was a flight instructor who could not pass the Navy flight physical in WWII. He found another way to support the war effort: as a vitally important test pilot on the Navy’s immortal Chance Vought F4U Corsair fighter, a job that landed him in Long Island Sound not once, but twice.
At GBR, you lift off from the 2,585-foot paved strip—or from the parallel grass runway used for taildraggers like the Piper J3—and climb into a kinder sky.
Cruising over these green, green hills of summer; easing down, window open, through a fall river valley to skim the golden-leafed trees; skiing onto a white winter cornfield, bundled against the cold; setting up short final in brisk and bumpy spring winds above the lush forested ridge east of the strip, aviation lore spreads regally before you.
The airport’s variety of hangar styles dot a broad green acreage in a most pleasingly random way. My mother read a book to me as a child called The Little Pilot. I loved the pictures. The country airport that smiling little guy flew into looked just like Great Barrington.
You touch down, taxi over to the grass tiedown area, then walk inside the rustic office, dodging airplane models hanging from the ceiling, for a chat with the friendly locals. About the only thing missing from the idyllic scene is a cafe—and that’s coming soon.
“We look forward to offering the proverbial $100 hamburger...what’s a country airport without that?” says Rick Solan, one of four owners of GBR who knows this turf. He got his ticket here in 1972, then all his ratings, and went on to fly for American Airlines. He and his partners (Tom Vigneron, Jim Jacobs and John Gueneri) plan to run the airport full time when he finishes his American gig.
I spent a refreshingly cool summer afternoon with Rick talking about the airport I fell in love with the first time I saw it. I had wanted to write about it, but I also wanted to learn why Rick and his partners picked their very first LSA, an Eagle Aviation EA-100, to accomplish their sport-pilot training goals.
He first told me that GBR’s charter business, which had thrived in earlier years, has largely gone away—they recently sold their Piper Aztec twin. Flight instruction, rentals, an LSA dealership, aircraft maintenance and repair (with four mechanics), air shows and developing aviation programs at local high schools is the full-bore path to the future for GBR.
About the LSA, he says, “I liked that the EA-100 was a general aviation type of plane: all metal, GPS, toe brakes, yokes instead of sticks. We’ve noticed that transitioning students from sticks to yokes or vice versa is challenging. I wanted to make the flow into the Cessnas and Pipers we have in the fleet easier for them.”
Having a night-light package installed on the LSA was deliberate. “We don’t want a student to panic if they’re late getting back to the field, and this way we can take them through their private, too.”
Significant delays with the Eagle’s delivery caused an equivalent drag on the LSA training at GBR, so Rick acquired two more Piper J3 Cubs (85 hp and 90 hp variants) to join his own 65 hp classic.
Rates for the J3s are $65 per hour wet and $35 for instruction. Can’t beat that! In the Eagles, $135 per hour dual gets the job done. That’s about the same as the school, Berkshire Aviation, charges for the Cherokee 140s in its fleet.
Rick’s also looking closely at a dealership for the Paradise P1 LSA. He likes the unusually roomy baggage compartment, metal construction and easy-flying personality of the increasingly popular high winger. The P1 is the U.S. LSA version of a Brazilian-certified four-seat airplane.
Full Disclosure Dept.: I’m a transplanted Californian. When winter sets in up here, I rest my hang glider on its hooks in the barn and forget about flying until spring. Like they say, you can take the boy out of California, but not California out of the boy: I was ruined by a lifetime expectation of sunny weather. Rick Solan’s going to change all that for me.
“We’ve got three sets of skis. We’ll have them alongside our Cub at the local Simsbury show this summer. We want to sign up folks to show them the joys of landing on snowy cornfields in New York and Massachusetts. We put 60 hours on the Cub last winter!”
He took his first flight with his uncle, who performed a Flying Farmer act at the famous aerodrome in Rhinebeck, N.Y., when he was five years old. “After that, flying was all I wanted to do in life.”
His favorite airplane? “The J3. When I get home from an airline flight, I go up in the Cub. That’s the fun part of flying for me.”
That kind of enthusiasm from a longtime professional pilot is infectious: After we talked, I signed up for some J3 time the next week! And I’ve also got another local field with an LSA to rent. Thank goodness for country airports.