Bigger than life: The world needs more characters like John Thun

My wife and I were cleaning out some boxes stuffed with old photos when we came across some pictures of the late John Thun. The pictures really set my mind whirling as I thought about this bigger-than-life character from the Tacoma, Wash., area, where we have made our home since 1970.

When I mention John, who died last September at 89, as a bigger-than-life character, I mean that in a positive, friendly manner.

His history and that of the Pierce County Airport, which folks who have been around here for any length of time still refer to as Thun Field, is what makes general aviation such a unique entity. The airport was originally started in 1944, but didn’t make it financially, so John bought out the originators in 1949.

Interestingly, he wasn’t a pilot at the time of buying the field, but learned to fly shortly afterward. He figured that the airport property would be a great place to raise a family and some chickens.

Well, he raised a family out there but never got around to the chickens. He became too engrossed with the flying business.

Under his efforts, the airport continued to grow. He sold it to a group of businessmen in the late 1960s and it sputtered along until Pierce County bought the property in 1979. Under the county’s ownership, federal grants were obtained to improve the facility, new hangars were built by private entrepreneurs under long-term leases and the place was kept neat and orderly by the manager – Bruce Thun, John’s son, who grew up on the airport.

Today Thun Field — excuse me, Pierce County Airport – supports around 300 jobs, provides $21 million to the local economy, is base for a number of general aviation-related firms and flight schools, and is a cog in the national aviation system.

The airport made it because one individual got the flying bug. It survived those early years without city, county, state or federal aid because John and his friends loved airplanes, aviation and everything to do with flight. John never got into the business to make a fortune – and he didn’t. He raised a family at the airport and everyone helped do the chores that had to be done to keep it operating. His friends knew they could always find a cup of coffee and a willing ear for those “harrowing” tales of their most recent flight across the mountains.

Unfortunately, there aren’t very many John Thuns left today to establish, develop and manage small town airports. The opportunities for folks to establish a grass field outside of town are hampered by shortsighted local politicians and NIMBYs (not-in-my-backyard). Regulations from local, state and federal agencies have made general aviation an endangered species as much as the spotted owl. Unfortunately, there’s no federal agency that has been established to save this endangered species. (If you think the FAA is a federal agency that is out to save these neighborhood airports, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.)

The good side of the story is that despite all the travails, even with all the regulations, ignoring all of the people who think they are crazy, there are still a few John Thuns out there who keep trying to start airports on their farms or ranches. They are doing it without much support from their communities, certainly without any financial assistance, but with that indomitable love of flight that continues to beat in them.

Whenever someone asks me about the future of flying, I like to point out that as long as there are birds in the sky, kids are going to look up at them and have the desire to join them. Out of that group I suspect there always will be a few more John Thuns — and thank heaven for that.

Dave Sclair was GAN’s co-publisher from 1970-2000.

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