A yellow and white Cessna 170 clawed into the air as I drove up, the classic Wichita beauty climbing smartly into the cold January wind. Leaving my rental car at the gate and walking out onto the ramp, I heard the Cessna’s growl fade into the distance. The taildragger’s departure was a false sign of life, a snore from a patient in a coma. As it faded away, it left only the sigh of a breeze pushing through the stubble of mowed-over cornstalks in neighboring fields. There are many hours an airport lies quiet and still, but this silence was on its way to being terminal. I was visiting an airfield that wasn’t long for this world.
But this airfield, a single turf runway aligned northeast and southwest, with a single, lonely building on one side, hadn’t always been struggling toward its last breath. And while the airport bears John Trinca’s name, and his signature in the concrete, a more recent operator of the field is the one most associated with it.
Bob Mazure started hanging around central New Jersey’s Trinca Airport in the 1980s and remembers it fondly. “Pete Billow ran the place and instructed in Cubs. Even then, he was a crotchety old guy, but everyone knew that if he taught you how to fly, by golly, you could fly an airplane.”
Mazure, who flew KC-97s and KC-135s in the Air Force and later retired from American Airlines, bought a Stampe SV4 biplane, a French aerobatic machine, and kept it there for years. Its Renault engine proved less than reliable, and Trinca’s isolated location turned out to be a perfect place to fly from. “I’ve had two engine failures in single-engine aircraft, both at Trinca in the Stampe,” he recalled. The first time, the fuel system failed to feed while inverted on a test hop over the field at 3,000 feet. “The prop stopped instantly. I just brought it back around and made a normal landing. One of the Cubs had landed out in the cornfield nearby; they helped me to push the plane back off the runway.” The next failure, years later, was a little more catastrophic. “Climbing through 700 feet, it started shaking like mad. I made it back to the runway and found a connecting rod had snapped, knocking out a half-square-foot hole at the engine mount. The whole engine was wobbling loose.”
Again, a Cub had landed in the cornfield next door. “After that, if I saw a Cub in the cornfield, I just went somewhere else,” Mazure joked. He later bought an AT-6, and shoehorning the big trainer into Trinca took some effort. There were longer runways nearby, but Bob stuck with Trinca as his home base. “That 1,800-foot runway was tight, so you had to be right on the numbers.”
The grassroots crowd continued through the 1990s. Darren Clarkson, now a 737 captain, showed up around 1990 or 1991 and was one of Billow’s last students. “I’m sure he did some tailwheel training with other pilots after me, but I was his last student to start from scratch and continue through solo,” he said. “I later found out he had macular degeneration and knew his flying days were numbered, but he soldiered on and didn’t ease up a bit.” The airport was tired and ratty, as was the main Cub he trained in, N91949. “There was no intercom, and Pete didn’t talk much anyway. He might say 10 words in the course of a flight. If you needed rudder, you felt a push on the pedal. If you needed to get the nose down, a nudge on the stick would let you know.” Billow taught attitude flying; Clarkson said his first time seeing the airspeed indicator from the backseat of the J-3 was on his solo. Having grown up with early flight simulator programs, he knew that speed mattered and once asked what speed he needed to fly. “You don’t need to see all that,” Pete told him. “Just put the nose here, and it’ll fly.” In fact, the only instrument Bellow really cared about was the altimeter. “He wanted us at 1,100 feet before we turned out over a neighborhood nearby. Not 1,090 feet. It had to be exact,” Clarkson said.
As demanding and cantankerous as Bellow was, the man had a soft spot or two. There was always an airport cat around, Clarkson recalled. One even took a flight of its own. “There was a lady in a Cessna 172 who had fired up, and she always took a long time before she taxied out. One day she was sitting there, engine running, and the cat gave chase to a rabbit. The thing cut under the airplane, and the cat went through the prop. Thwack. We all heard it. The cat sailed a good hundred feet through the air and landed in a nearby hangar.” Pete walked over with a shovel and a garbage bag to collect the remains, only to find the cat licking its wounds, one side splayed open with ribs exposed. The cat, previously unnamed, lived for years after with a new name. Anyone who hung around Trinca field at the time will remember the cat named Propwash.
But the years passed, and so did the cat. Eventually, Pete did as well, at age 83.
Trinca is slated to close in a few months, a quiet death assigned to a small field whose passing will hardly draw notice from the aviation community. It’s no Meigs field or Santa Paula. A rural strip in the middle of New Jersey was an unlikely place for a farm boy turned aviator from Georgia to be standing on a cold February day, but I’d also been there 17 years before, as college kid with wet ink on my pilot and mechanic certificates. A friend had bought a Beech Musketeer to train his boys to fly in, and while the purchase wasn’t sight unseen, it may as well have been. It had been long neglected, and though he’d bought it for a song, he got what he paid for. I went up to spearhead the effort to get it flyable, so we could bring it home to Georgia.
Through the late 1990s, I’d hung out on AOL’s two main aviation chat rooms. There I met a number of characters, three or four I’ve met in person over the years. One of those guys was John Tremper, a mechanic, pilot and flight instructor who had a hangar at Trinca, where he maintained, restored, and instructed in Cubs, Champs and the like. When I got through finding a ton of things for the Musketeer’s mechanic to fix, I hung out with John for a day or two at Trinca and at the nearby Aeroflex-Andover Airport. As he gave me the grand tour at Trinca, I struggled to keep my jaw off the ice-crusted ground as he ushered me between hangars with an AT-6, Mazure’s Stampe and a Great Lakes, as well as a number of other stick-and-rudder machines. This wasn’t a polished operation; if anything, it was the opposite. The hangars were a patchwork of different building materials. Many of the fabric airplanes had survived numerous winters in the elements, and they all had the scars to prove it.
Even then, in 2002, the airport’s fate had been sealed. On my more recent visit, Tremper told me how Billow had big plans for the place at one point. He drew up designs similar to nearby Sussex airport and had hoped to draw in more traffic, including some larger airplanes. He replotted the runway a few degrees off the original orientation, so he could lengthen it. “But at a meeting, he used the wrong word. Instead of expand, he should have said improve,” my buddy said, and from that point, the fates turned against Billow. The township opposed the changes, and instead of blossoming into a great community airfield, Trinca withered on the vine. Eventually, the airport went up for sale. The township swept in with an eminent domain order and took the property for a million dollars less than Billow had hoped to get for the place. The new management of the airfield ranged from inept to vindictive, depending who you asked, and tenants progressively pulled up the stakes, flew over the hill and tied down at Aeroflex-Andover Airport or elsewhere. John was the last tenant, evicted a year before my return to Trinca. The hangar he’d used as a workshop now houses equipment from the township.
So as I stood on the ramp, watching the wind whistle through a shredded, faded windsock, I certainly had the place to myself. I’d not bothered locking the car; anyone approaching would have been visible from far away. My thoughts drifted to other airports closed or closing, ranging from the midnight assault on Meigs mounted by the Daley political machine in Chicago to the incrementally slow death forced upon Santa Monica Municipal by the city itself. Here in New Jersey was an airport with a death sentence whose only crime was being a $17,000-a-year drain on the community, a community that hadn’t bothered trying anything revolutionary like selling fuel or building hangars. Instead, the town’s preferred tool for change at the airport was a bulldozer.
“They tore the roof off the office,” John told me, “and didn’t bother replacing it for a year. It was constantly flooding. Multiple pages of drainage plans were executed, and what it did was create a swamp. Tadpoles filled a giant pool of water, and one day I came to the airport and the thousands of tadpoles were suddenly thousands of frogs. I had frogs in hangars, in airplanes, and one was even perched on top of the control stick in my Cub.”
I joined Tremper at Aeroflex, where there were plenty of planes—but not much activity. General aviation has suffered in the region, stifled by Temporary Flight Restrictions whenever the president headed to play golf at his nearby Bedminster resort. John pointed out planes that had migrated from Trinca, but many of them had not flown since their repositioning flight.
Billow’s old Cub, N91949, is now Clarkson’s Cub and is partway through a restoration. Darren bought the project years ago and had hoped to fly it back to New Jersey, to set it back down onto the same patch of grass where his flying career began. The restoration won’t be done in time, though. There are too many projects and not enough man hours, he lamented. When it does take wing, it’ll be a fitting tribute to the instructor who launched and influenced the flying lives of many.
My visit couldn’t run very late—I had an early hotel shuttle to Newark the next morning for my next flight. As I parted, John apologized. “Sorry you came out here for nothing,” he said.
It really wasn’t a matter of expecting any level of activity. I just wanted to say goodbye. You’d do it for a friend on life support even if you thought they couldn’t hear you. It seemed the dying soul of an airport might likewise desire a little company from a sympathetic visitor before it slipped away, too.