Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Screen Savers

Small airports have personalities that big ones can’t hope to match

The aforementioned airports have an ambiance about them—a patina, actually—that’s impossible to duplicate. East of the Rockies you’ll stumble into lots of little fields that have wooden hangars that haven’t been painted since the day they were built, which was often right after WWII. That’s when aviation was full of hope, and the factories cranked out nearly 39,000 airplanes expecting every GI to want one. And many pilots established little airports, often in conjunction with a local farmer, thinking their future in aviation was assured, only to find that a future in aviation is never assured. Some of the hangars that have survived from those days still have the occasional crunched Cub in the rafters, or refuse heaps behind them where the rusting bones of what were thought to be useless airplanes were left to return to nature. You never know where you’ll stumble into one of those little airports or what you’ll find at them.

I remember driving down an interstate in Iowa and in my continual search for things aeronautical, spotted a telltale wind sock on the far side of a big cornfield. Something like that literally screams “airplane.” In the few seconds that I was able to focus on the barely visible windsock, I also saw the broad tips of two propeller blades sticking up out of the corn like a two-finger victory sign: one blade at 10 o’clock and another at two o’clock—a four-blade prop! The hair stood up on my neck as I screamed off the next exit and wound through back roads and Amish farms until I again spotted the windsock.

There was a narrow, mostly overgrown, grass runway hacked out of the corn behind a small abandoned factory building of some kind, and there, sinking into the weeds, was a thoroughly dilapidated P-51D, an “N” number crudely bush-painted over the barely obscured Canadian roundels. It was totally stock military and had obviously been ferried in after being surplused by Canada in ’65 or so, and didn’t look as if it had moved a wheel since. It had sunk so far into the dirt that it would have taken a bulldozer to pull it out. You can bet it’s not sitting there today. Or maybe it is. Tempting, isn’t it?

And then there was the duster strip we used to pass while I was a kid on family trips to the southern part of the state to visit cousins. Once in a while, dad would take a back road that went past a duster’s runway. I remember so clearly how the hangar compound was fenced off by Stearman wing panels standing on end, their tattered yellow fabric flapping in the wind. One time the duster was taking off and, as he roared across the road in a Stearman at about 75 feet, I nearly wet my pants in excitement. Later, as a young adult, I tried to retrace my family’s steps but never again found that runway. For all I know, it’s still out there, those dozens and dozens of wings now rotted into linear piles of compost.

Most pilots have a never-ending urge to drop into small, never-before-visited runways because they know each is a portal into an aerial neighborhood that often pleases and surprises. And like the screen savers on my Mac, they generate memories that can brighten an otherwise dull day.


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