The 16-year-old boy trundled the well-seasoned Cessna 150 across the paved runway and to the end of the grass runway. Plenty of rain that northwestern Pennsylvania summer kept the grass green and dense. The flight instructor/mechanic/groundskeeper had spent the previous day mowing the runway, its maintenance a source of local pride. Today, the instructor lounged in the tractor seat next to the FBO. Ball cap, as always, perched on his balding head; a freshly lit cigarette between his fingers. A handheld radio on his knee, he had a clear view of the runway.
The boy spun the airplane around, took a deep breath, slid the throttle forward, and lightened the load on the nose gear with a tug of the yoke. Before reaching the crossing paved runway, the little Cessna clawed skyward. Without the 200-pound instructor on board, the deep green grass fell away at a rate the boy had never seen before and as it did, an entire world seemed to open up to him. Horizons expanded. Limitations went away. Anything was possible.
Thirty-three years after that, my first solo flight, I still get that same feeling of unlimited opportunity with each takeoff, but especially if it is from a grass runway. With a choice of grass or pavement at little Greenville Municipal Airport, instructor John Julian and I used whichever one served the purpose of a particular lesson’s needs. Need a crosswind, pick the appropriate runway. Soft-field practice—make it realistic on the grass. Short-field practice? Actually, the paved runway is shorter than the grass one.
So when the day for solo finally rolled around, the grass runway was just another runway. The winds favored it that day and away I went, with only a little coaching by John on the radio.
There really is something magical about landing on grass—or most surfaces other than pavement. Over the years, I’ve landed in a soybean field—with permission, to photograph the Pezetel Wilga with its face that only a mother could love. Another trip had me touching down in a Cessna 170 on a dry lake bed in Nevada, the sun-baked surface as smooth as any pavement. Stepping out of earshot of the pinging from the cooling engine, the only noise in our ears was the wind. No sign of another human for as far as we could see.
Water landings, of course, are another matter altogether, presenting their own challenges and rewards. Landing a lumbering Cessna Caravan on amphibious floats on the East River in New York City is quite a different thing than landing a Cessna 180 on straight floats in Ontario’s Georgian Bay. There, we tied down and stepped out of the airplane onto a rock and walked to a sleepy restaurant perched on the same rock overlooking the water for a walleye sandwich. Meanwhile, I nearly slipped off the Caravan’s towering floats and into the East River, perhaps a fate worse than death.
Sometimes grass runways are more than just a romantic notion. Tucked into out-of-the-way places, they offer real utility. Novelist Stephen Coonts built a beautiful grass runway on his farm in West Virginia. The carefully crowned surface stretches along his valley, tucked next to a treed mountainside he also owns. The nearest public-use airport is many miles away, yet when he extends an invitation for us to come visit, it’s a quick flight in our Bonanza to his grass haven. Minutes later, the kids can be on his four-wheeler exploring the many old logging roads crisscrossing the mountain, or strapped in behind Steve as he gives rides in his favorite ride, a Breezy.
Last summer, my daughter was scheduled to attend a church camp along the banks of the Chester River near its mouth into the Chesapeake Bay. Poking around Google Maps, I was not relishing the three-hour drive, including a trip across the notoriously congested Bay Bridge. Upon finding the camp’s location, I realized that it was not far from Pete Bedell’s family farm, which has not one, but two grass runways on it. Pete is a regular contributor to our publications, former staff editor, and now an airline pilot. A quick call to Pete confirmed he would be at the farm that weekend. With the promise of a car to borrow, we made the 35-minute flight, skimming a notch in the trees and touching down on one of the runways. The car was sitting next to the tiedown area and minutes later we were driving the remaining five miles to the camp—and back at Pete’s for an afternoon on the river and his mother’s locally famous crab cakes.
Over the years, I’ve touched down on probably thousands of paved runways. Fortunately, most of the landings have not been remarkable. My landings on other-than-paved runways are many fewer, and each is memorable and distinct in a positive way.
This summer, I encourage you to go beyond the pavement, and build your skills and your memories at some off-the-beaten-path runways. Take an instructor along if it’s been a while since you’ve done any for-real short- or soft-field landings. The experience will serve you well and recharge your enthusiasm for the sheer joy of general aviation flying.