As pilots of a “certain” age, we look back on airports that were part of our lives. This series starts with three. My first was a little grass field in New Jersey. Twin Pine was down home, midway between the state capital and Princeton, the college town. I started as line boy there in ’65. Ten hours of runway mowing got me one hour dual in a ‘46 Taylorcraft, just like a thousand other line boys and future pilots.
It was great: 2,600 feet of grass flanked by broken-down hangars. Even more colorful was the owner’s trove of junk planes and military surplus. A Culver Cadet was always to be rebuilt “this winter.” A Korean War H-5 helicopter appeared one day (just like Mickey Rooney’s egg-beater in “Bridges at Toko-Ri.”) What was THAT for? Decades later I did a video there for BE A PILOT, threatening that if we don’t do more to promote flying, all of GA will look like this! That day, owner Bill Weisner and his cronies were still sitting around a ramshackle office — and the Korean War H-5 was still outside, untouched for 36 years.
The pilots then were mostly down home, too. They flew rag-wing taildraggers and were damn proud of it. They bad-mouthed Spam Cans – like the 172 that waxed my tail in our pattern as it headed to Runway 24 at Trenton. “The Outlaws” at Twin Pine recommended the “true believer” organization somewhere in the Midwest. It must have been EAA but in 1965, these Easterners couldn’t recall the name. I was disturbed by the “us vs. them’ attitude, not knowing it would be an enduring characteristic of the genre.
Flying was initially terrifying. Taildragger handling and pre-headset cabin noise were a handful. Most scary was a literal “spider web” of AT&T radio telephone V-antennas under short final. While understanding the need for pre-satellite international telephony, we speculated on an engine-out into that maze of wires (which someone eventually did.) I got my first 10 hours there, then soloed a modern Cessna at “the big airport” and its franchised flight school. Although proud of my past in “grassroots” aviation, I now pondered the promotion of modern light planes to the affluent mass market of 1960s lifestyle-seekers without dirt under their fingernails.
The Twin Pines “authentics” fascinated me. There was just one “Princeton guy,” memorable for his fetching girlfriend. I caught myself staring at her from the cabin of the Staggerwing as manager Bill Smela gave it a ground run. “See, over-square,” he intoned. I fought to catch his explanation of manifold pressure vs. rpm while focusing outside on the Ivy Leaguer’s blonde. I anticipated being a college boy real soon. Others at the airport? They were of another generation and another world.
Then there was Mary, office manager and Bill’s wife. She spoke her mind, even to my very formal father. “You’re holding the boy back!” she advised. Secretly, I thanked her. But 30 years later, she renewed the argument (without skipping a beat) when I brought Dad out from the nursing home! I winced.
Last month, I returned again to my first “field of dreams.” Not so long ago, my old T-craft trainer was still there, in tatters. Not now. The airport was divided into play fields by horse fencing. Soccer goals were midfield on the runway. It’s all now a county park, albeit one with tumbledown hangars and occasional airplane detritus. Ironically, a nearby parcel boasts a RC airplane flying field.
I knew this was coming, had been for years. I guess I’m glad it’s not just another housing development or shopping center — the fate of so many airports. But I also reflect on why most kids today find their young dreams on a soccer field like the one Twin Pines is now … and not at the local airport it was.
I have a few ideas. I hope to share them with you from time to time.
NEXT: Another airport, another county park. But here, aviation lives – I think.
Drew Steketee was president of BE A PILOT, senior vp-communications for AOPA and executive director of the Partnership for Improved Air Travel. He headed PR and media relations for Beech, GAMA and the Airport Operators Council International.
Story and photos © Drew Steketee 2010 All Rights Reserved