Airports of Call

The choicest sites for airplane watching.

I   FEEL AT HOME WHEREVER AIRPLANES ARE. When I travel, either in my own airplane or on an airliner, I take a look around the airports at my destination. At major terminals, of course, you’re restricted, though you can usually find a good vantage point for watching the activity on the runways. But at smaller ones, if you’re not a nuisance, you can quietly explore, looking through open hangar doors, meeting people and their airplanes, and watching them fly. Add a day onto your next trip to seek out a small airport. You’ll almost surely see something you’ve never seen before. Let me introduce you to a few places I’ve visited recently.

Several years ago on a long cross-country flight in my Piper Super Cub, I saw a curious sight southwest of Spokane, Washington. It was one of those super-clear days that makes you keep checking the chart in disbelief because you can see so much farther than usual. Ahead, two very large airplanes were doing touch-and-go landings on a giant runway in the middle of nowhere. I grabbed my sectional chart. This was either a mirage or Grant County International Airport at Moses Lake, a small town in southeast central Washington that is for some reason served by an airport with a 13,503-foot runway. Closer in, I could see they were Boeing 747s going round and round in a tight pattern.

“Grant County tower, Super Cub 7789P.”

“Cub 89P, Grant County.”

“89P is 15 to the east at 2,500. We’d appreciate traffic advisories, and, ah, what are those 747s doing?”

“They belong to Japan Air Lines. JAL trains here.”

I learned that Grant County International was formerly a Strategic Air Command base—Larson Air Force Base—and B-52s flew from that long runway. In fact, Boeing delivered all the B-52s built in Washington to the Air Force at Moses Lake. But as the missile age dawned, some SAC bases closed. The little town was left with a magnificent but vacant airport. For JAL, however, Moses Lake was the perfect place for its Heavy Jet Aircrew Training Center. The airline has been in town now for 34 years and currently operates a 747-200 and 747-400.

I stop in Moses Lake whenever I’m out that way. I’ve watched those graceful hippos whistling down the chute in the rain, at night, and at dawn, big tires screeching against asphalt in billowing clouds of rubber smoke. I’ve seen the rudder kick way over as the instructor yanks back a thrust lever to simulate an engine failure just as the airplane is poised on its hind feet for takeoff. I can imagine the student stretching his leg hard against the rudder pedal, trying to keep his aircraft straight.  Sometimes, both 747s will use opposite ends of the same runway to save time in an alternating ballet of taking off straight out, wracking over into a teardrop turn, and coming on around to land in the reverse direction.

Moses Lake Port Authority has great hopes and big plans for its airport. With long runways and a rural location, Grant County Airport would make a fine international freight hub, according to its supporters, and the Authority recently made a deal in which McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma can use Moses Lake as a training facility for its C-17 Globemaster IIIs. Long-term planners even envision this as a port for space shuttle replacements that can take off and land on conventional runways. For now, though, the 747s are enough to satisfy any airport bum.

LOCATED 35 MILES EAST OF DOWNTOWN Los Angeles and just six miles south of Ontario International Airport, Chino Airport was established in 1940 as Cal-Aero Academy. Thousands of U.S. Army Air Forces pilots were trained here by civilian instructors under government contract. It was the first civil school built in the form of an Army post, and was commanded at one time by Captain Robert L. Scott, who later wrote God Is My Co-Pilot. Many of the original wooden buildings still stand.

Aviation history is alive in every corner. Over at the Military Aircraft Restoration Corporation—the hangar with the C-123 transport parked out front—you’ll likely run across Joe Krzeminski and coworkers, restoring and maintaining rare aircraft. Krzeminski forms a strong allegiance to the particular history of each aircraft he restores. He’s currently working on a Douglas A-20 Havoc.

A few steps east of the C-123, Tony Ritzman is running up a Douglas A-26, which is flanked by three North American B-25s. Aero Traders, owned by Ritzman and his partner, Carl Scholl, specializes in the restoration of military aircraft from World War II and the period immediately after, primarily piston engine types. The company will also train you to fly them, or rent you a B-25 camera ship and crew for your next air-to-air photography session.

Sam Stewart was sitting in his Martin 404 when I hollered up the rear stairs to see if anyone was home. Stewart has owned ten 404s, but never more than three at once. He and his son, Ted, flew the Doobie Brothers band on this ex-Eastern Air Lines aircraft, serial number 14235, for seven years, through 1985.

You’ve probably heard of the Planes of Fame Air Museum at Chino, and its branch site at Valle Airport in Grand Canyon, Arizona. Planes of Fame, on the north side of Chino airport, started in 1957 as a dream of Edward Maloney. Housed in several buildings, one of which is an original Cal-Aero hangar, Planes of Fame has amassed some 150 aircraft, 30 of them flyable. The collection includes several one-of-a-kind treasures: the only flyable Northrop N9M 60-foot flying wing, the only flyable Mitsubishi A6M5 Zero model 52, the only flyable Boeing P-26 and P-12E, the last surviving Seversky AT-12, and Charles Nungesser’s Hanriot HD-1 Scout. Fighter Rebuilders, the museum’s on-site restoration facility, is also open to the public.

On the last afternoon of my Chino visit, I walked among the rows of T-hangars at the northeast corner. “Hangarminiums” would be more descriptive—some have kitchenettes, bathrooms, couches, and shops, as well as space for both winged and wheeled machines. In his hangar, paleontologist Michael Stokes has his office as well as his Cessna 140, his 1942 Dodge WC54 military ambulance, and his hangarmate’s Luscombe. Archie Lane’s head was in the wheel well of his Beech D-17S Staggerwing when I passed by—the airplane will be back in the air very soon, he said. One hangar row away, Robin Scott had parked his 1957 Ford Thunderbird and was cranking up his bright red Yak-52 for some aerobatic practice. A Fouga jet trainer, with its unique butterfly tail, taxied by Dave Hansen’s hangar party. Friends had parked their airplanes nearby, and an excellent band played Glenn Miller favorites.

FROM THE SUNNY SOUTHWEST I TRAVELED to the sunny southeast and Opa Locka Airport in Florida, a scant eight miles north of Miami International. I came here for three reasons, and they all begin with DC: DC-3, DC-6, and DC-7. Florida Air Cargo has four DC-3s and two Beech 18s. On the adjacent ramp, Florida Air Transport flies the sole DC-7 in commercial service. Its DC-6 is almost ready to go on the line. Both companies fly the old radial engine airplanes for profit, not nostalgia. But the thundering relics are unlikely to remain economically viable much longer when pitted against the costlier but far less maintenance-intensive turboprops like the Shorts 360.

Paul Kupke runs Florida Air Cargo. He has been through a tornado, blown engines from fraudulent overhauls, and endured a host of other Aviation Economics 101 realities. Kupke started flying freight to the Bahamas in 1994 with one DC-3. “You have to do everything yourself,” he says, “all your own maintenance, flying, and freight forwarding. Otherwise, you’re not going to make any money.” Kupke gives his DC-3s five years or less of profitable life. “Insurance premiums on a Shorts 360, for example, are half what they are for a DC-3, even though the Douglas hull value is $175,000, compared to $1.4 million for the Shorts,” he says. “Mechanics for radial engine airplanes are getting very difficult to find. Overhauling a Pratt & Whitney 1830 on the DC-3 used to cost $18,000; now it’s $45,000. And the maintenance time per flight hour for a DC-3 is much higher than for the Shorts. You could operate two Shorts with one mechanic. Two DC-3s require three mechanics. Used to be DC-3s were so cheap you could have them sitting around to be used when needed. No more. Finance payments are higher on the more expensive Shorts, but you can fly those PT-6 engines all day long, every day, with very little maintenance.” But doesn’t he just flat out love the DC-3? “Oh yeah,” he says. “It is a great airplane. It’s fun to fly, and when it’s running good, I love it. When it’s broken and I have a load of freight on the ramp, I hate it.” This day, as a matter of fact, Kupke was leasing a Shorts 360 as a trial.

Martin Gomez and his sons started flying their DC-7 about two years ago as Florida Air Transport. The airplane was a derelict at Opa Locka when they bought it. Gomez knows old transports and round engines. He began his career as a mechanic with Avianca in Colombia, moved to the United States in 1964, and has worked on the old beasts most of the time since. His children have grown up with aviation. Son Carlos runs the office, and son Walter is chief of maintenance. One or the other also flies as flight engineer on weekly freight trips to the Bahamas.

The DC-7 and a recently acquired DC-6A freighter were parked on a ramp leased from the county when I visited. Sitting between the two stately airplanes was the Gomezes’ parts van. All maintenance is performed outdoors by Walter, his father, his uncle, and the rest of the ground crew. Hangar space would be prohibitively expensive. This DC-7B, serial number 44921, still carries the same registration, N381AA, it did when delivered new to American Airlines in 1956.

“That’s a beautiful airplane,” I said to Carlos while we were standing by the DC-7. “You want to buy it?” he asked, laughing. Like Paul Kupke, Carlos and Walter have an intimate knowledge of piston-engine airplane economics. “Everyone laughed when we bought the airplane,” he said. “It’s not easy, but we make it work by doing everything ourselves. When we’re not flying it, we’re working on it.”

“Why do you do it?” I asked.

“We’ve been in aviation since we were kids,” Carlos said. “We know the airplane’s special niche. The DC-7 can carry 35,000 pounds of freight into a 5,000-foot strip in the islands. The runways aren’t going to get any longer in most of the places we fly, because they end at the water. Right now, and probably for another few years, these airplanes are the most economical way for us to serve that market. Time’s running out, though. Then it’s on to the next gig. I’d love to just restore old transport aircraft, but I’ve got to make a living.”

On Tuesday morning, the day before the scheduled run, Walter was in the cockpit cranking the uncowled number-two engine for a ground check. The prop was turning so slowly it seemed like it could never catch, but it did, chugging, one cylinder after another exploding, belching smoke, shaking, and then settling into a smooth idle. After the oil had warmed up, Walter increased the power. The 18-cylinder Wright R-3350 Cyclone wrapped into a serious roar unlike the sound of any other airplane at the airport, and the airplane rocked back and forth in its chocks.

It was still dark Wednesday morning when the DC-7 took off for the Bahamas, all four full-throated engines turning as smoothly as the day they were born. George Riley, about the same age as the airplane, was in the left seat today. “I gave up flying a DC-8 and an apartment in Paris to come fly this thing,” he told me.

Martin told me the -7 was due back around 2 p.m., so at 1:30 I waited outside the airport fence on the approach to runway 27 Right. Sure enough, at 1:55  there it was, an unmistakable elegant shape, still too far away to hear. As it grew larger, gear down and full flaps, I could hear those engines, the same stirring, throttled-back rumble I heard often as a child at the airport fence in Denver.

B AYPORT AERODROME IS A 2,740-FOOT grass strip 50 miles east of New York City and four miles south of Long Island MacArthur Airport. This rare airport would have been a housing development years ago had it not been for Peter Cohalan, an enlightened Islip Town supervisor, his board, and local citizens. A developer was set to begin bulldozing, but the neighbors decided they would rather have an airport next door than yet another development. Would that all airports were so fortunate.

My connection with Bayport began 33 years ago. The first owner of my 1962 Super Cub was the Long Island Soaring Association, based at Bayport, then called Edwards Field. When the club was trading the ’62  in for a new Cub in 1967, I bought it. The airport has hardly changed since, except for two new rows of metal T-hangars on the northeast end of the field. A small museum and some beautiful aircraft live in those hangars; among them are Cubs, Stearmans, a 1931 Aeronca C-3, an Aeronca Champ, a Fleet 16B, an N3N-3, and a rare Waco UBA, one of six known to have been built. On almost any nice weekend some of them will be flying.

D’Angelone Aviation, the fixed-base operator, is owned by Frank D’Angelone, who 30 years ago was my commercial and multi-engine instructor. D’Angelone, an FAA-designated examiner, is an affable man who loves to fly and teach. Affable, that is, unless you operate an airplane in a sloppy manner. Bayport is surrounded on all sides by trees and lies underneath MacArthur’s busy airspace in a special corridor. Since there is not much room for error, it is best to call ahead or drive by for a briefing if you haven’t landed there before.

Steve Martin (not the actor) was giving rides in his Fleet biplane every time I stopped by Bayport. “I hung around airports as a kid,” he told me, “but no one ever gave me a ride. I made up my mind then that if I ever had an airplane, I would give anyone a ride who asked.” His brightly colored Fleet, with “El Conquistador del Cielo” painted on the side, is popular indeed.

With no commercial traffic, there are no security gates or tall fences. Bayport says “come in,” not “keep out.” Children, properly supervised, are welcome to watch the airplanes come and go and see them up close. I didn’t meet a pilot there who wouldn’t be happy to chat or answer a visitor’s questions. After all, that’s probably how they got started: kids at airport fences who grew up and stepped inside.

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