Katama still beckons for fall flying

Summer has ended but great fall flying beckons. One of America’s best summer places also shines in autumn, so pilots in the Northeast will still make their way to Katama Airfield on the Massachusetts island of Martha’s Vineyard. The air is now clear and cool, the tourist hordes are gone and the prices — thank God — are now at least off-peak.

Katama by air, photo by BT McKinley

There’s no better use of an airplane than to get away to an island. Martha’s Vineyard was my escape from late 1960s college life in then-dingy Providence, Rhode Island. Just a few miles off Cape Cod, “The Vineyard” was clean, pastoral, authentic and down-to-earth. Moreover, it was only .5 on the Hobbs from KPVD. In fact, if the meter clicked over to 1.1 for the round trip, I was in trouble for lunch money. With three college friends, that $20 per hour C-172 could deliver us there and back for $5 each!

Early trips were to the “big” mid-island airport with its concrete runways, control tower and some airline service. But calling to me was the grass flying field at the island’s southeast corner. I first mastered the easy turf runways at Katama (Kah-TAME-ah) to get my Swedish girlfriend someplace more like her own home “turf.” (She was here, finally, but suffering terrible culture shock.) Soon, sadly, that magic day (and the girl) was just a memory. As living in Vietnam-era America got tougher for her, she begged me, “Let’s go back to the island.” The real world, as it does, got in the way.

On later trips, I would meet the man behind Katama, Steve Gentle, who had stepped in to run this old Navy auxiliary field after the war. He ruled it for four decades. In the mid-1980s, I was thrilled to fly backseat with him in his shaky old Shinn (predecessor to the Varga Kachina.) Some locals said I was brave to fly with the aging octogenarian; I thought the honor was worth the risk.

Later still, I engineered an AOPA donation to help fund the airport and its unique deal with The Nature Conservancy for a combination airport and nature preserve. The town kept its airport, busy only seasonally. Non-sympathetic locals and environmentalists got their acres of ecologically important Katama Plains, open and undeveloped. (You, too, can help preserve this treasure through the Katama Airfield Trust.)

Can’t fly there? Try the (seasonal) biplane ride! Photo by Kyle Wagman

When you land at Katama, you transition immediately from “real world” to island pace. Just saunter across the grass and join the crowd on the airport restaurant deck. Grab the bus trolley right there for a short mile-plus jaunt past Walter Cronkite’s harbor-side mansion to my favorite old whaling town, Edgartown. Or do something mighty rare in aviation: Taxi to the south end, park where indicated and just cross the dune. Airplane to beach, 100 feet!

During a Vineyard autumn, one avoids the aging yuppies and noisy Gen-Xers, the “swells” and the vacationing kiddies to experience an authentic fall crispness that is New England, its hearty people and way of life. For flyers throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic, it’s a relatively short and absolutely fascinating flight. Long Island and its Sound, Narragansett Bay and Newport, or the stunning Cape and Island geography, it’s all a sightseer’s joy. For the shortest overwater exposure, follow the Southern New England coast all the way around Buzzards Bay to Wood’s Hole, then cross over along the ferry route.

Longtime visitors bemoan the island’s ever-widening popularity, having grown from traditional New England summer spot to Mecca for wannabees chasing lifestyles of the rich-and-famous. After President Clinton started vacationing here, crowds swelled even further — and prices climbed even higher. It’s been a long, long time since my $5-a-night off-season hotel room or $25 boarding house accommodation. But for me, it’s worth almost anything just to be there.

Even if budgets are tight, I hope East Coast flyers can still put MVY on their list. For others, it could be a “life list” flight. If not, at least find YOUR personal “Katama.” Fly someplace special and make it yours. It’s right there on the chart, somewhere. As a pilot, such places can be “closer,” more accessible and farther from the everyday. And those advantages are your privilege as a pilot. Celebrate that, next time you can.

Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He also headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.

Story © 2012 Drew Steketee All Rights Reserved

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *