Wings Field

The airport where AOPA was born

May 1, 2009

We make quite a scene when we land in the Let’s Go Flying Sweepstakes Cirrus SR22, especially at quiet small airports such as Wings Field (LOM) in Blue Bell, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Our plan was to arrive inconspicuously and spend the day at the airport where AOPA was founded, quietly observing a typical day at Wings Field. It’s hard to go unnoticed when your aircraft is emblazoned with two-foot-high letters spelling out Let’s Go Flying!

We were immediately surrounded by instructors and their students, putting off their lessons for a chance to look at AOPA’s 2009 sweepstakes airplane. Pilot Dave Hirschman gave the grand tour and answered questions. Photographer Chris Rose immediately hoofed off to begin photographing the Cirrus and the field, and I started playing my role as intrepid reporter, wandering around the field sniffing out a story. I didn’t have to go far. I’ve got a passion for good food and I somehow immediately discovered the kitchen door into the Philadelphia Aviation Country Club where the chef was preparing the day’s lunch—yes, that was lobster bisque simmering on the stove.

The Philadelphia Aviation Country Club, a farmhouse on the grounds of 217-acre Wings Field, is the first—and now last—aviation country club in the United States. It’s quietly stately, in an oh-so-Main-Line-Philadelphia sort of way. The dining rooms are in the former living areas of the farmhouse and banquet and meeting rooms are upstairs. Historic photos from the country club’s heyday adorn the walls. Outside is a swimming pool and tennis court.

In 1939, when AOPA was founded here, aviation and the nation were on the brink of war. But the passion for flying and living the good life were present. Spending summer days swimming in the pool, picnicking beside the runway, and watching aircraft take off and land must have been gracious living at its best. Today, General Manager Joseph H. Case Jr. oversees a thriving business—there are more than 500 members of the club who pay $475 yearly to dine and participate in country-club activities. In the 11 years that Case has managed the club, its reputation for fine food and gracious dining has grown. He also repaired the swimming pool and is in the process of enclosing the sun porch with removable windows. Enclosing the porch will make airplane spotting more enjoyable when the wind is up.

‘We’re a little family here’

FBO Owner Tom Dougherty is a little surprised when we show up in his hangar. His hands are covered in paint and Airport Manager Jay Kontra is holding the culprit, a spray gun with a blocked valve. This is a typical day at Montgomery County Aviation—or maybe it’s atypical. Basically, Dougherty says, every day is something new coupled with the same old thing. “We deal with hangar doors breaking, airport issues such as noise, aircraft repairs, and our flight school—we have eight instructors,” Dougherty rattles off. “We’re one operation inside of four.”

Dougherty once owned the largest Mobil service station in the country. When he sold it, he tried retirement. You don’t have to spend much time with this man to know that he wouldn’t do retirement well. “I got bored,” he says. “But now there’s too much to do here.” His wife Diane works in the flight school, which is five times busier now than when Dougherty came six years ago. “We went from four aircraft to 17. We have a student base of 2,000. We have 140 based aircraft and have expanded from a 2,675-foot runway to 3,700 feet. We’re busy.”

It’s a kind of busy Dougherty and Kontra obviously thrive on. Kontra is on the job just as much as Dougherty, usually early morning to mid-evening. And Kontra’s seen a lot of change at Wings Field; he’s been working here in some capacity for 17 years. “We’re a little family here. We’re a team,” he says.

“Energy is the key,” adds Dougherty. “People want to be taken care of. Our people know what the customer means to their pay.”

Saving an airport

In 1994 Paul Heintz drove around the airport he’d called home for more than 40 years taking photographs. “I thought it would be the last time I saw it as an airport,” he says. Wings Field’s then owners no longer had an interest in running it as an airport, and encroaching development around the 217 acres was tempting. The owners asked $10 million for the property. Heintz, a lawyer and AOPA trustee, organized a group of local pilots to attempt to raise the money to buy their beloved airport. They first approached the businesses that were using Wings Field as a base of operations for their corporate helicopters—Aetna US Health Care, Merck, and Unisys. Aetna ultimately provided $3 million and Merck and Unisys $1.5 million. Then individual tenants were approached and eventually Wings Field was sold to Wings Field Preservation Associates L.P.; its 60 shareholders own the airport to this day.

Dougherty is one of those shareholders, and Heintz credits him with a significant accomplishment—“This is the first time in its history that Wings Field is self-sustaining,” says Heintz.

Weather coming in

Montgomery County Aviation has purchased several Cirrus aircraft to round out its flight school operation and is ordering more. Dougherty is a big fan of the Cirrus design. In fact, as Hirschman returns to transport us back to Frederick, Maryland (a 37-minute flight), Dougherty jumps in the SR22 and the two “talk Cirrus.”

As our Cirrus fans sit on the apron, one of the three Eclipse 500 jets owned by charter company Blue Bell Air, LLC lands. Just as Wings Field in its heyday was the spot for everything new in aviation, today’s new very light jet design—and the many Cirrus airplanes tied down—continue to mark this field as a leader. Blue Bell pilot Jack Lawrence bounds into the small Wings terminal with enthusiasm. The business is doing quite well based at Wings and Lawrence sees nothing but positive things for the future—even though Blue Bell Air bought three new Eclipses just last year and the aircraft manufacturer faces liquidation.

It’s the first day of spring here at Wings but it’s snowing. Traffic has been sparse all day. It’s time for us to leave. As usual the Let’s Go Flying Cirrus gets looks as we taxi out. Heintz has told us that it’s often hard to get an IFR departure clearance from Wings by radio and, sure enough, Hirschman has to pick it up with his cell phone. Once airborne, we glance back at Wings Field and see not just a historic airport, but the possibilities of the future.

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Aero Club of Pennsylvania

On December 17, 1909, Arthur T. Atherholt, the first licensed balloonist in Pennsylvania, assembled 14 Philadelphians with the plans to form a new aviation organization. The Aero Club of Pennsylvania was formed with the merger of the Aero Club of Philadelphia, the Ben Franklin Aeronautical Society, the Aeronautical Recreational Society, and the Ben Franklin Balloon Association. The club’s original logo depicted a witch on a broomstick portraying the general public’s belief that aviation required trickery and witchcraft.

In its promotional brochure in 1909, Solving the Problem of the Air, the club explained that it formed “with no qualification other than a curiosity to find out how the aviators of the world were accomplishing the wonderful things they saw constantly recorded in the newspapers…to become enthusiasts, completely captured by the fascinations of the most entrancing science in the world.”

Celebrating its 100th anniversary, the Aero Club of Pennsylvania is the oldest active incorporated organization of its kind in the United States. The club was instrumental in establishing the first training site for pilots in the first World War; was active in opening Philadelphia’s first air mail service; and was instrumental in the establishment of Philadelphia International Airport. Members of the club over the years have included the founders of both Eastern Air Lines and USAir; founders of AOPA and Wings Field; and the first commandant of the Naval Aviation School in Pensacola.

A celebration of the anniversary will be held in December and will feature airline captain Connie Tobias, the first woman to successfully fly an exact replica of the 1903 Wright Flyer. The 1909 Wright Flyer simulator will also be featured at the event. For more information, contact Nancy Kyle.

—JSW