Welcome to Moontown

A grass strip that Alabama pilots call home

May 1, 2005

The red Alabama clay is packed hard into a surface solid enough for lawn bowling — at just shy of 2,200 feet long this grass strip makes an excellent partner whether you're flying an old Piper Cub or an old Mooney. Whether you're as light as a Quicksilver or Blanik, or as heavy as a "Big Annie" Antonov AN-2, slip down below the ridgeline to the west, get down to just a few feet over the hayfield on short final, flare just past the runway end lights — this is a 24-hour operation — and roll onto the smooth grass. You've come home to Moontown Airport, just outside of Huntsville.

An interesting collection of self-termed "characters" and regular folks have found in Moontown a place to enjoy aviation in a way uncomplicated by hold-short lines and two-page foldout departure procedures. The approaches are clear but terrain eases up to the field on the south and the west, with more northern Alabama hills — the kind that used to hide stills and perhaps still do — all around.

Moontown isn't a fly-in community on paper; it shelters a couple of rows of T-hangars, a handful of larger commercial-type hangars, and some open tiedowns. But there are houses nearby, in and out of the woods, so a residential atmosphere prevails. And the community feeling hangs in the air, giving you the sense that you just pulled into the driveway of a friendly relation. In fact, the mobile home tucked into the trees near the east end of the runway belongs to George Myers, the airstrip's owner and air boss, and he rents it to a friend to keep an eye on the place when he can't be there.

Myers came to Huntsville 19 years ago with NASA's space shuttle program; he's an aeromechanical engineer currently working for the Marshall Space Flight Center on future spaceflights. Myers' roots with NASA go back to the Saturn Apollo days and continued through his involvement with the shuttle's payload integration unit. He met Stuart "Buz" and Jane Barton, Moontown's then-proprietors, at the airport in 1985 shortly after he arrived in town. "The previous owner offered the airport to me just before he passed away with cancer," says Myers. Since then, "the fun far outclasses the bad, and the difference usually depends on the weather."

The airport started as a crop-duster field in 1965, according to Myers, and was owned by Clyde Mooring and his friend Clint Mills, who sold fuel and ran the airport for Mooring. For a time it was called Mills Field, and then Madison County Skypark. When the Civil Air Patrol began a squadron based at the field, it built the row of open hangars and some buildings to use for classrooms. In the 1970s, Betty and Harold Roman leased the field from the Mooring family and ran the operation, and several flight instructors set up shop.

Harold Roman was an airframe and powerplant mechanic who had work-ed part time for Mills prior to taking the reins when age caught up with Mills. Roman had three Cessna 150s to rent and teach in. Pappy Glenn rented out two Piper J-5s and two Cessna 170s for several years, until Bob Ralph took over the rental and instruction business, with two Cessna 150s and a Skyhawk, through the late 1970s. The Romans sold the FBO to the Bartons in 1985.

Barton worked as a traveling salesman until he retired and purchased the Moontown operation. "One evening," says Myers, "I jokingly said that I would like to buy Moontown when he was really ready to retire. About a year later, while I was working on my Mooney in the maintenance hangar, he told me that he had good news and bad news." The plan was to slowly transition the airport from Barton's hands to Myers over the course of four years, but fate took over. Barton passed away three months later, and in 1990 Myers and his wife, Shirley, took over operations. The Moorings retained ownership of the land itself.

Booming at Moontown

On the third Saturday of every flyable month (that's most every month in Alabama), Moontown's morning starts buzzing with activity, and often tops nearby Huntsville International for daily operations. The only real competition is Montgomery Regional Airport, according to Moontown pilots. Watching the activity during the weekend of the airport's annual fly-in last May, with a takeoff or landing taking place at least every minute, it's not hard to imagine. Moontown has grown from about 60 based airplanes during the Bartons' ownership to 95 to 100 aircraft — "counting sailplanes and ultralights," says Myers — today.

"I haven't found another airport around here that offers the same kind of aviation — what do you call it? — camaraderie," says John Adams, owner of an Auburn Tiger-adorned Ercoupe based at the field — Adams being a particular fan of the Tigers. Adams, who will go on to win an award for Best Classic Airplane at the fly-in banquet, wears his father's worn Vietnam helmet and a Navy flight suit when he flies. "He survived, so I figure the helmet has good mojo." As for the Ercoupe, he chose the airplane because it was simple to fly, and suitable for breezing around the patch, like driving a convertible on a summer Sunday evening. And during the fly-in he happily demonstrates that; although the Ercoupe doesn't pace the rockets next door for climb performance, it offers enough get-up-and-go to roll sedately off Moontown's runway. Admittedly, the clear approaches don't hurt.

Several other classic and unique airplanes call Moontown home. One is the Lionheart flown by Gordie Seuell. A current engineer for NASA and retired military test pilot, Seuell has a contract with Griffon Aerospace, manufacturers of the kitbuilt Lionheart, to demonstrate the airplane to prospective customers. The sleek yellow Lionheart looks much like the Beech Staggerwing, of which it is a derivative design, but lengthened to seat six. The factory demonstrator kept by Seuell flies behind a Pratt & Whitney R-985 that produces the appropriate round noises.

Seuell is a member of the Flint River Valley Pilots Association, known as the Rat Squadron. Led by Rat Exec Adams and Rat Boss Tom Kahlert, and reported on by Rat Webmaster Alan Cockrell, the group primarily owns and flies Russian and Chinese warbird aircraft (and honorary warbirds like Adams'

Ercoupe), but membership is quite open: "First, you must be breathing. Second, you must enjoy flying, working on, watching, or just talking about airplanes. Third, you must possess a thick skin. Fourth, you must show up," says the Web site. Show up where? Well, Moontown, of course, where Rats at play fly formation and aerobatics over the field whenever the ceiling is high enough to keep it legal.

Future investments

A younger generation keeps things moving at Moontown. Emily Dover learned to fly there, soloing in December 2000. Now, four years later, she's instructing in the same airplanes she originally flew, soloing her first student by February 2004. Her instructor, Ken King, is a retired air traffic controller who found the CFI gig to his liking 14 years ago when he was looking for a second career. "Someday I'll need another career," says King. "Who knows what that would be?"

King need not worry about looking too hard yet — Moontown is an active training field. Dover counts 15 to 20 students in her current roster. "I was thinking about taking Tuesday afternoons off, but I can't hardly," she says. She was considering the airlines, but now wonders about a corporate flying job. "Whatever I can do to keep flying." On the day of the fly-in, Dover managed to squeeze in an intro flight and a lesson amidst all the traffic in the pattern. Moontown offers the 150 and a Cessna 172 for rental and instruction, and Myers expects to have the Aeronca Champ back on the line sometime soon.

Another hard-working aviation fanatic, Keavy Nenninger, is learning to fly the old-fashioned way at Moontown — she's pumping gas into airplanes. In between fills, pilots give her rides and she takes lessons, and she came back to finish her private certificate over the winter holidays. A recent graduate of Huntsville High School, she is now attending St. Louis University.

She's starting early, just like Don Langford did, back in 1967 when he had but 50 hours under his belt. Langford, who his friends claim has flown everything, also has ties to the space program from the period when Huntsville hosted Wernher Von Braun's rocket team, according to local pilot, aviation speaker, and AOPA Flight Training magazine contributor Ralph Hood (see " Operation GA: Running Coors," page 86). Langford essentially taught himself how to dust crops in an old Piper Cub with a battered rig, and has moved up considerably in altitude from those low-level days to flying as a captain for FedEx in the Boeing 747. His book Are We There Yet? tells straight-up tales from his career, which includes flying helicopters, gliders, and a wide array of corporate and charter steeds, and wrenching on those same airplanes. At last year's fly-in, Langford had a Republic Sea-Bee on display that he helped rebuild, an airplane that he says "flies like a Mack truck with a flat tire." Since he has flown most everything, we can take his word for it.

But not everyone who calls Moontown home is a local. Bob Stacey is an engineer for Boeing in Long Beach, California, and often visits Huntsville on business for the aerospace giant. He recently got back into flying — he originally learned to fly in 1966. "This is real flying," he says. "If you can fly here, you can fly anywhere — even Southern California!" Stacey clearly contrasts Moontown favorably with his home base at Fullerton Municipal Airport.

The ties to space run deep — and not just to NASA's programs. Burt Rutan, designer of SpaceShipOne and whose team recently captured the Ansari X Prize (see " Pilot Briefing: SpaceShipOne Flies High Above Hallowed Ground," November 2004 Pilot), is among the friends of Moontown. Last fall Rutan gave a candid talk about his own space program to several hundred people at Myers' hangar, and he spent time afterward shooting the breeze with local aviators, much to their delight, according to Cockrell.

For some, the earthly pull of Moontown is so strong they've made deals with the devil to stay. Rickey Weldon is now the proud owner of Rinet Air Services, which handles maintenance work on the field. The day before the fly-in, Weldon was busy getting himself current in Myers' Mooney M20C "Mark 21" so he could give rides to aspiring pilots on Saturday. Weldon left his job caring for Gulfstreams and Learjets at Atlanta's Dekalb-Peachtree Airport when the opportunity presented itself to work on less rarified steeds at Moontown. He's been doing annual and 100-hour inspections here for about two years, and he hasn't regretted a moment. His wife, Janette, works at the FBO's desk with the younger set, and agrees immediately when asked if the airport feels like home. "That's how all of us feel," she says.

And because it feels like home, when the Moorings wanted to sell the land last year, the Myerses were faced with a tough stretch of road: They didn't have the funds to purchase the land. However, according to Myers, "a pilot friend put up the money and we now lease the land from him."

While the airport has grown and improved (those runway lights were once smudge pots, according to Langford) since its early days, Myers won't change what is arguably its most salient feature: "We plan always to have the grass runway."

E-mail the author at [email protected].

Links to additional information about Moontown Airport may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links.shtml).