Nostalgia for the Small Airport

For several years, we lived in Galesburg, Illinois, a town with a small airport, a place we’d swing by, trying to catch sight of a takeoff or landing. Once, we saw a shiny silver Lockheed Constellation—a Connie—an aircraft from the 1940s and 1950s with four propellers and a triple-finned tail. Depending on who’s counting and when, as many as three or as few as one Constellation remains airworthy in the United States. This Connie sat in the middle of a place many East and West Coasters consider flyover territory, gleaming in the Midwestern sunshine.

Galesburg’s airport, coded KGBG, has one runway with a length of 5791 feet, another running 3600 feet, a defunct terminal building, some hangars for small planes, and a building housing a few flight-related businesses. It has no control tower, though it turns the lights on from dusk to dawn and even the wind indicator is lit at night. Though it was once served by Ozark and Britt airlines, it’s easy to think nothing happens at KGBG anymore. Still, in 2010, it served as home to more than thirty aircraft and averaged 38 operations a day.

Every year for four decades, on Labor Day, dozens of Boeing Stearman planes descend on Galesburg for an annual fly-in. For 2011, that meant 137 of the 1930s- and 1940s-era biplanes from thirty states.  Most are painted the Navy’s yellow or the Army’s blue and yellow because the aircraft was originally a military trainer, but some are black or red. Former president George H.W. Bush and former astronaut John Glenn trained in Strearmans. In fact, the youngest pilot at the 2011 fly-in arrived in the 1942 aircraft Bush had flown during World War II. When we lived in Galesburg, we stopped by to walk amidst the beautifully restored aircraft, talk with pilots, and shade our eyes to watch fly-bys, formations, and tricks in the sky. In these moments, time slows for us, and we catch our breaths together. The fly-in lasts a week, with a fly-out pancake breakfast concluding the reunion on the Sunday following Labor Day weekend.

When we left Galesburg for College Park, Maryland, at the end of the summer of 1991, we chalked the small airport up as one of our secret things we’d miss.

As we discovered, though, College Park has its own small airport, one we found by wending our way around poorly designated roads in the tree cover off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Like the Galesburg Airport, Maryland’s KCGS offers no commercial passenger flights. In fact, it appears dinkier than Galesburg, with just one runway of 2980 feet tip to tip, no Jet-A fuel (though there is 100LL available), and a hand-drawn diagram of measurements for pilots wanting to land there.

To dismiss the College Park Airport, however, would be a huge mistake. KCGS is the oldest, continuously operating airport in the world, up and running since 1909. Wilbur Wright of the first-flying Wright brothers trained our country’s first military pilots at College Park. That same year, the first woman passenger took flight from this airfield. The first cross-country instrument-flight-rules (IFR) flight and the first U. S. Postal Air Mail Service originated at College Park. It’s the place of the first military mile-high flight (by Harold “Hap” Arnold, the U.S. Air Force Commander during World War II), the first controlled helicopter flight, and the first testing of a machine gun on an aircraft. Arguably, this tiny airport is our nation’s most historic airfield.

We visited the airport a couple of times for its annual air show, though the event seems to have disappeared. When we attended in the early 1990s, the air show featured a variety of aircraft on display and several flight demonstrations, including a wing walker that made us gasp. We remember best a man restoring an old Boyd airplane made of corrugated metal, with household pipes for some of its parts. Such a project takes years, with much of the work painstaking in its detail. That day, he was taking out rivet after rivet in preparation for removing a rusted sheet of rippled wing.

By the late 1990s, we were exploring small airports elsewhere. To get to Rosecrans Memorial Airport, named for the sole hometown aviator to die during World War I, you have to cross Pony Express Bridge from St. Joseph, Missouri, and drive through a snippet of Kansas. The airfield has two runways, one of 8059 feet and the other spanning 4797 feet, and 99 aircraft. The terminal was built in 1952, and under its control tower, which is open 8a.m. to 6p.m., is the worth-the-drive Airport Café, complete with large windows facing the runways and excellent breakfasts. For a small airport, it offers a lot of hubbub because the Missouri Air National Guard’s 139th Air Lift Wing and its nine Hercules C-130s are based there.

On the West Coast, we frequented the Corvallis Municipal Airport, circling leisurely to catch a takeoff or landing from one of two runways. The city accepted the airfield from the U.S. Army after World War II, and the latest records show more than 150 aircraft based there. Occasionally, we’d see fire-fighting helicopters practicing drills. Each small airport is a different incarnation.

When we returned to the College Park Airport last year, the airfield itself hadn’t changed. But it was newly accessible down the street from the University of Maryland and boasted the College Park Aviation Museum, formerly dozens of small artifacts in a trailer and now an airy structure filled with old aircraft, memorabilia, and interactive exhibits. Some museum visitors must look out the vast window and wonder whether the asphalt in the midst of the overgrown grass is actually a runway. We imagine it bustling with the novelty of aviation a hundred years ago.

 

Anna Leahy and Douglas Dechow write Lofty Ambitions. Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter, which won the Wick Poetry Prize, and teaches in the MFA and BFA programs at Chapman University. Dechow co-authored SQUEAK: A Quick Trip to Objectland and is the Science Librarian at Chapman University.

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