I'd driven out to the virtual airport before dawn on a Saturday morning. It only took moments to slip into the Pilot's Lounge, load the coffee machine and push the start button, leave the box of fresh doughnuts I'd brought next to it and hurry out to where the Great Lakes was tied down. I wanted to be away before Old Hack showed up. As the airport curmudgeon, Hack is vocally suspicious of the concept of human kindness. It's kind of fun knowing that he'd probably be the first one into the Lounge that morning and he'd be the one to find a full pot of hot coffee and a box of doughnuts date stamped for today supplied by an unknown benefactor. It probably ruined his whole day.
I was flying this Great Lakes because my buddy Matt had stopped by on one of his occasional peregrinations about the country. When it came time for him to head home, the weather stunk. The forecast for the next three days was, respectively, lousy, rotten and awful. As he considered the weather, Matt also considered that I am afflicted by a condition that periodically causes me to develop the burning desire to fly long distances in little, slow airplanes. The need builds until I have to do something about it. Then, a day or so of groundspeeds in the double digits puts paid to the need for many months before the cycle repeats. Matt knew that it had been a while and that his offer to buy me the airline ticket home would probably be all that it took to get his Great Lakes delivered. He was right. Matt chose not to push the weather and left his airplane where it was, firmly tied down, with the cockpit cover attached. Saturday was the day I started out to take the airplane home.
I headed southwest with the sunrise, flying at about 1,000 feet AGL as a reasonable compromise between the headwinds and the frustratingly large number of towers and antennas that populate the landscape.
Navigation was finger on the map. My portable GPS was stashed behind the seat because I had decided to just follow the line I had drawn on a sectional chart. I am not sure why, but I just wanted to revert to the basics of travel by little airplane. Besides, the Great Lakes was correctly rigged, so in the smooth air it required only the lightest of touches to keep it pointed in the right direction. The day, the airplane and the weather just called for navigation by pilotage; the world was out there to be enjoyed and viewed from aloft and I was determined to spend my flight looking outside of the cockpit far more than in.
The late spring had brought out the most verdant of greens, crops were starting to emerge and the towns had the clean-washed look they wear before the heat and dust of summer seems to fade them. As the Great Lakes and I flew along at our modest speed, I found myself playing the game of, "Let's Find The Perfect Place To Live." I've played the game for years and the only rule is that the setting has to be perfect for me to live with the particular type of airplane I am flying at the time. For the Great Lakes, that meant something on the order of 1500 feet of level, grass field would do.
Below I saw sylvan glens that begged to be visited; a crook in a river created a tree-lined pasture that looked appealing, especially as there was a small waterfall in the river right there; my vision lingered on a few small- and medium-sized towns with vibrant, shop-filled downtowns that had not been punished by the brooding presence of a big box store out by the village edge. Over the miles I saw a couple of farms and ranches that boasted a hangar and a lovingly-tended airstrip. Each was so inviting it was all I could do not to land and see if there might be some home-made ice cream to be had.
"Hi, I'm here. I'll trade you a ride in the biplane for some ice cream." I wonder if it would work?
About 90 minutes into the second leg of the trip -- about the time the seat was feeling less and less comfortable and the question of "What in the world am I doing here?" was starting make itself known -- I saw what looked to me to be one of the most delightful villages I had ever viewed from the air. In an area of gently rolling hills, the community was built on a ridgetop, providing commanding views in all directions. Had there been a castle and walled ramparts in the center, I don't think I would have been surprised. It was a lovely setting.
The town was so striking that I made a gentle circle around it, savoring the view over the side of the cockpit coaming and wondering what it would be like to live in such a picturesque spot. There was a two-lane highway serving the town and I estimated that there might be maybe 8000 or 10,000 residents. A river wide enough for excellent canoeing or kayaking curled along the base of the ridge. Stone ruins along the river looked to have once been a flour mill. On such a nice weekend day, I expected to see folks tubing and canoeing on the river, walking beside it or riding bicycles throughout the town. I was more than a little surprised to see no one outside, despite a plethora of cars moving about. Good grief, what sort of people live here? Are they not aware of what they have? Does no one in this town enjoy the simple pleasure of being outdoors on a beautiful day?
I looked at my sectional to spot the nearest airport. I was in no hurry; this town was worth exploring even if the citizenry were oblivious to the world around them. There was bound to be a café where I could sit outside and have lunch and maybe a used book store where I could part with some cash. In fact, if there were a decent bed and breakfast, I'd be returning here with my wife to spend a weekend. From where I sat, the place looked charming.
I searched the sectional in vain. The town had no airport. There was no airport nearby; the closest was probably 35 or 40 miles away by road.
I was aghast. What foolishness reigns here? There are dozens of perfects sites for runways within a mile or so of town. What sort of community of this size is so short-sighted as to not have an airport? Does no one in this town dream? Does no one in this town wonder what is beyond the horizon? Does no one have any sense of adventure? No wonder no one was outdoors.
Rolling out of my turn I flew on southwest. Yet, for the rest of the day, through two more fuel stops, I was unable to get what I had seen out of my mind. By and large, in this country, if a town has at more than 4000 people and is more than a 45-minute drive from an airport served by airlines, then the town is probably going to have a community airport.
I felt the long-ago degree in economics start turning the gears inside my skull and I began thinking of airports in terms of money and jobs for small communities. From a cold, hard, economic sense, virtually no such community can attract any sort of major employer if it doesn't have very easy access to an airport. The ability to rapidly move people and things has been a basic tenet of successful business since the Second World War. Take the state that is the watchword for middle America, Iowa. It is not a state that one tends to equate with big business; it is rural and intensely agricultural, so most business has been tied in with supporting farming, and is therefore local. After the war, the state made sure that virtually every community that had an airport had the money to pave at least one runway and install at least a non-directional beacon so that every airport had an instrument approach. (Those airports now have GPS approaches.) It turned out that farmers and the businesses catering to them did need to move parts, documents and people fast in order to be successful. The farsightedness of the state in supporting small town airports paid off.
One of the basic ways of tracking community health in Iowa is to look at the small towns that have airports and those that do not. The ones without airports have been steadily losing population over the last three decades. (In all states, small-town "brain drain" is a serious concern, as only the lower quarter of the high-school graduating classes seem to remain in town.) However, at least in Iowa, in a time when the small community is dreadfully at risk, the ones with airports are holding their own, not losing population. The airport means that the local small-business owner or farmer can get that part or document quickly when time is truly of the essence. It means being able to have the freedom to live and work away from the crushing foolishness of a city but still get to those cities quickly when it is necessary. After all, no matter what business a person is in, when the work is all over, the only thing left is time. And that local airport means extra time and the chance to live and work where a person desires.
I couldn't help but think about Iowa City, Iowa. It is home to one of the finest universities in the nation, the University of Iowa. It has one of the oldest continually operating airports west of the Mississippi River. It was one of the few original stops on the very first transcontinental air mail route. When the mail began to be carried by civilian contractors rather than just the Postal Service, those contractors became airlines and started carrying passengers. Iowa City was front and center in the growth of the airline industry; its citizens had only to drive to the south edge of town to board the very newest and finest United Airlines could offer on its service across the country. An hour's drive away, the smaller town of Cedar Rapids sat in the shadows, just another community. It was doing OK because it had an airport, but not as well as Iowa City with its airline service and University attracting businesses.
In the 1950s United Airlines approached the Iowa City leaders asking that the runways at the airport be lengthened so their new generation airliners could continue to serve the city. In one of the great foolish moves of all time, the city said no. Cedar Rapids fell all over itself to expand its airport. In a relatively short time, the airlines that served Iowa City all moved out and went to Cedar Rapids.
Over the last half century the results have been quite startling; Iowa City has carried on as a very pleasant university town. Cedar Rapids is now larger, and has attracted the high-tech businesses one might have expected to go to the university community. What is fascinating to me is that Iowa City leaders are regularly competing with their friends in Cedar Rapids to attract businesses that will help their tax base, yet they cannot seem to understand why they are at a disadvantage and often lose out. They try to make light of the 45-minute drive to the airline airport and cannot seem to understand that they blew it years ago. Time is extremely valuable and a business choosing between two attractive communities, one with an airline airport and one without, is going to pick the former.
As I thought more about that very pretty town without an airport, I found that my thoughts moved away from the chilly economic analysis to the whole idea of what makes a place livable and attractive. I thought about the people who live in that town. What do the kids who do when they dream -- as all kids do -- of far horizons, of the big world out beyond the corn and wheat fields on the edge of town? What sort of support do they get for their dreams? What reinforcement do they have that they can make their dreams happen someday? They rarely get to see a little airplane in the sky overhead on its way to who knows where. They don't get to bicycle out to the airport and look at those little airplanes and see people they know flying them or think that those airplanes are of the size they might fly. They don't get to wonder where a little airplane might be going and what they might see and do if they were flying it.
The airliners flying by are so high that they are unheard, leaving -- at most -- a brief-lived contrail in the heavens. Is that silent contrail enough to pull the eyes and dreams of a child or a teenager skyward and outward from everyday existence? Is there anything in that town to pull the kids away from the televisions and computer games and alleyway drug sales that are now so sadly prevalent in our smaller towns? Is the contrail enough to inspire dreams of greatness, of reaching for more in life? Where does the kid who wants to be inspired go? How does that kid ride a bicycle to the airport fence and look at the runway or the windsock and dream of bigger things?
I could not help but be saddened by the stultifying loneliness a young man or woman must feel to be stuck in a town that does not show any sign of looking outward by having something so simple as an airport runway, that time-honored symbol of a gateway to adventure. Are the kids there easy prey for the beaten-down adults who tell them to quit dreaming, to quit being "foolish" and be content with what they have been given and their lot in life? Are those kids easier prey for the dealer who tells them that this here meth will take them away from this crummy town?
How can the people of a town be so insular, so close-minded and content with the mundane, as to not have the most basic of airports? My thoughts returned to my initial desire to visit the town, and I wondered whether I would enjoy the people I might meet who had proclaimed to all who cared to see that they were content and attuned to just beetling across the surface of life rather than living it fully. Would there be anyone there with any sense of creativity, of adventure, of fascination with ideas beyond the horizon? Would they be a town of risk avoiders, insurance salespeople, belt-and-suspenders wearers whose idea of a fabulous time was to go to the local bar and get blotto while watching professional wrestling on the television?
As I flew into the evening, I concluded that it was a very pretty town. Yet I suspected the people of a town without an airport might well possess other bad habits that are not so immediately observable. Life is short enough that I'm not willing to risk a visit to find out. After all, I'm not going have time to get to see all the places I know for certain I want to see.
Nevertheless, I will feel sorry for the residents of the town without an airport, especially the kids. They know not what they are missing.
See you next month.
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