July 1, 2000
By Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz is a writer and flight instructor living in Maine.
Driving a back road one summer day years ago, I rounded a turn, pulled up to a stop sign, and came face to face with an airplane. Actually, the aircraft was across the road, sitting in a field. An ultralight—scarcely more than a cage with wings. Which was good because the field was hardly more than a Little League-sized clearing fringed with tall trees. The aircraft was unattended, but nearby stood a small country store. Perhaps the pilot was in there getting a soda. I had miles to go, and now a logging truck had come up behind me, so I kept driving. But it was nice to know that a ball field I had often passed unseeing could now be regarded as an airport.
Less than a century since people began surveying the landscape for airports, Wilbur and Orville would be pleased to know how many parcels of earth have launched flying machines and welcomed their return to Earth. Action and fanfare surround the big airports everyone knows about, but the other 99 percent of airfields remain many communities' best-kept secrets. Not because they launch a Piper Cub at dawn on Sunday and lie quiet the rest of the week. Many bustling general aviation airports go unnoticed by the local populace, only to come to the fore with an annual summer pancake breakfast, the arrival of a VIP in town, or some other news event. If your state is like mine, the disparity between the number of airports out there and the number people think are out there is huge. This is good for aviation because when the number is revealed, many people recognize how unobtrusive—yet how prevalent—general aviation is.
When I am among lay folks and the talk turns to flying, I like to ask them to guess at the number of airports in Maine. Typically, the respondent lists our state's two (yes, only two) tower-controlled civilian fields. Some of the more informed can rattle off the name of an Air Force base (now closed) and a Naval air station. So they come up with four. Four airports in Maine.
Is that all?
If they say yes, I report that their estimate has fallen short by more than 100 airports—not counting the backyard strips that wouldn't be identifiable without the windsock flying from the roof. And these aren't just playgrounds. People earn their livings from such places, by spotting fish, taking aerial photographs, instructing, or even commuting to work.
Go flying with one of the old-timers in your area and find out where all these other airports lie hidden away. Hear the human stories that go along with the travelogue. Ask them to talk about the airports that are, and the airports that were; occasionally, evidence of the bygone fields' existence can still be found in a name, an old newspaper article, or even a time-worn artifact.
You may be in for quite a surprise. I knew from years of flying that airports abounded well beyond what was recorded on charts. I didn't know, however, that I live on the grounds of a former airport, until one of the old-timers stopped by for lunch one day and talked about a landing he once made here, in what is now a 50-year-old neighborhood of closely spaced homes. When talking to such knowledgeable folks, it pays dividends to speak a different dialect than you would with anyone else.
In such a conversation, never refer to Bangor International Airport by its very official-sounding proper name. Call it Godfrey Field, and bring a smile. If your guest is a veteran, score brownie points by referring to the place as Dow Air Force Base, or more succinctly, "The Base." This longtime mentor of mine would never make an appointment to meet me, say, at 1 p.m. at the general aviation terminal at Bangor International Airport. He'd make the appointment to meet me at "thirteen hundred hours at base operations."
By contrast, go to the mall while wearing a shirt boasting the name of a local town's grass strip, and count the number of people who read the writing on your garment and then blurt out that they live in the same town but didn't know there was an airport there. A few even ask if the shirt is some kind of obscure joke. Some eventually make their way there to walk the dog and peek at airplanes.
Once I found out that I lived on the site of a former airport, it wasn't long before I began finding airports everywhere. An auto trip to a coastal fishing village with an out-of-state visitor took us on a ride down a long seaside peninsula. The nearest known airport was 15 miles away. I made the turn from U.S. Route 1 onto a state highway and soon came upon a sign that read, "Airport Road." I poked in and could find no traces of aviation in progress. There was a row of modest houses and trailers, and the road dead-ended at a driveway. A few weeks later, I located the old strip from the air. It looked to me like someone could make the place airworthy with little more than a chainsaw.
Another of the local pilots cannot pass above or alongside a certain restaurant without pointing to a road into the woods and wondering whether a certain antique craft is still stored on the grounds. The story has it that an accident of the water-in-the-gas-tank variety put a stop to the flying at this location. Inquiries could be made, but it seems better to leave the legend alone and allow it to attain the status of full-fledged aeronautical mythology.
Charts don't always help you find the old airfields, and the cat-and-mouse games between airports and cartographers can have interesting results. A small strip well displayed on our sectional chart is hard to find without an electron microscope. But a larger field, with its row of hangars and requisite supply of yellow taildraggers parked in the sun, went uncharted for years despite all the comings and goings, the availability of vectors to and from the place by air traffic control—even the unofficial commandeering of a frequency for traffic advisories.
Another airfield, this one a closed gravel runway miles out in the Maine puckerbrush, is no longer on the charts. When it was, a good exercise was to ask student pilots to find the place during lost-procedures training. The clever found it at the confluence of the 190-degree radial from one VOR and the 065-degree radial from another.
A paved two-runway airport, closed for years, makes a prominent X along the river a few miles south of our home field. It is not uncommon to hear airline crews query our air traffic controllers about the place. Land at your own risk and keep an eye out for drag racers. Or find the convenience store at the southern edge of East Corinth, then look behind it and behold the local fleet parked beside an east-west runway in a rolling field. Not far away is a windsock used to herald another pilot's home base. If the crops in his field have not grown too high, two taildraggers can be seen. Just a few miles to the north, where a low ridge marks the boundary between our coastal lowlands and the mountainous region, another tempting strip can be picked out of the mono-colored background. The knowledgeable find the place from the air by locating a large round vegetable garden in the dooryard of a nearby home, and then hopscotching to the airport. Neither of these two strips appears on an aeronautical chart.
I had never driven along a certain country road on Maine's easternmost boundary before, but I knew from flying in the area that this had to be the road on which a certain strip sits on high ground with a commanding view of Passamaquoddy Bay. I inquired. Our native driver knew nothing about it. So I felt smug pleasure when we came around a turn, and there was a Cessna 180 and a runway. One-upping the locals isn't easy, especially if you're a city slicker from some far-off place such as Bangor or Boston—or Brussels or Buenos Aires, for that matter.
And speaking of the coast, everyone knows that poets and painters love Maine's bays, studded with misty islands, etc. Surprise. Those misted islands are studded with unpainted, unpoeticized airfields. Yes, the better-known strips have acquired feature story status in those country-gentry magazines you see in your dentist's waiting room. But many of the other strips you'll discover only by flying over. One in particular, a two-runway affair on a wooded island where no one lives, looks very tempting for a summer day with a picnic basket and a willing accomplice. I hear the island is for sale. Although a little out of my price range right now, a real-estate man with the keys to the place happens to be a pilot I know. I may just ring him up and find out whether the strip is still usable.
As you'd guess, these island airstrips have their unique temptations. Many years ago a talented but slightly too-bold student pilot admitted to visiting a few of them on an unsupervised solo outing. Those with supervisory authority over the fellow made stern faces and uttered threats about regulations and the rental agreement. But knowing the lure of it, they were reduced to begging him not to go there again—and certainly to cease recording landings at such places as "Large Duck Island" in his logbook.
This fellow might have learned a lesson from a flight to "Letter O" Airport in New Hampshire. The pranksters at our flight service station kept a pilot named Larry guessing about that airport one rainy day long ago. The sectional-chart symbol for an unpaved airstrip is an open circle, and it was clear enough on the chart. But none of the usual information that accompanies such a marker—field name, field elevation, runway length, and frequency—could be found. The pranksters let poor Larry stew over this for a while. Then they showed him how the words White Mountains spread over a large portion of the chart, left the letter O out on a limb, so to speak, like an airport marker. It was a fun prank on a rainy day. And who were we to say that there wasn't really an airport there, after all?
Dan Namowitz is an aviation writer and flight instructor. He has been a pilot since 1985 and an instructor since 1990.
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