I’d Rather Be Mowing


When reflecting upon the mythical glories of flight it’s easy to ignore the unsexier aspects that rarely leak into print. Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s Wind, Sand and Turf ©, a treatise on North African runway maintenance in the 1930s, was an exception but found an embarrassingly limited audience, mostly in Wisconsin, the state that spawned EAA, and where lawncare is sacred, second only to beer and often inseparable. When the first green shoots poke through melting snow in the upper Midwest—June 15 or 20 at the latest—grass-lusting pilots fling open hangar doors, inhale the earthy blend of warming soil and avgas dripping from faulty gascolators and sing, “Gotta mow!”

Some pilots don’t consider grass to be an integral part of the National Airspace System (NAS). Runways to them are unforgiving surfaces with white stripes and arcing skid marks, evidence of landings gone astray. As a student, the paved runway was a merciless judge of my arrivals and the thing I could never seem to find but routinely tried to cross without permission. It’s plowed in winter by persons unknown and sprayed in spring with chemicals to dissuade vegetation from reclaiming the farmland sealed beneath it. It’s rock to my scissory gear legs. In short, I don’t much like it. Make mine grass.

You know the adage: “Give a thirsty man—or woman—a glass of water and he—or she—will be thirsty again in an hour.” But: “Buy either a beer, and you’ll never hear the end of how better turf is than pavement.”

Those of us in the tailwheel realm adore the soft, forgiving quality of a verdant runway, but let’s euthanize one notion. Grass doesn’t forgive you for side-loading a landing, but it does mute your mistakes. Screw up a touchdown on concrete, and the whole airport hears your squealing incompetence. Slide sideways across dewy sod, and no one—except possibly the DPE beside you—knows that you haven’t a clue how to keep the nose straight with rudder and avoid drift with opposite aileron.

Grass imparts unearned mastery and grace to our sport. Can you imagine if PGA tournaments were played on the asphalt parking lot at Pebble Beach instead of 2-4-D-soaked fairways?  Granted, they’d be a lot less boring with golf balls ricocheting off classic Bentleys, but my tortured point holds grass as a surface of sublime refinement, but to maintain that illusion someone needs to mow it—a lot. And when that someone is you, it quickly becomes apparent that spending a summer afternoon communing with acres of aerodrome green is crushingly dull.

It takes about four hours to mow our little airfield, using a wheezy Toro diesel, pushing an eight-foot deck. Each run from approach end to departure takes ten minutes. Doing the math—which there’s plenty of time to do while mowing—that’s 20 minutes per round trip with seven round trips just for the runway. Clipping a runway light, because you fell asleep, adds another two hours for lamp and blade repair.

A nod to safety, of course, is paramount. For that reason, pilots are encouraged not to buzz or toss water balloons at the mower—fun though that is—unless trying to get the driver’s attention to clear the runway, so they can land. Our mower once had a portable radio, but it fell out of the cab in 1998, was run over and never replaced. We’ve tried issuing NOTAMs, “Mowing In Progress,” but face it, nobody reads those things. Arrivals often key the CTAF three times to bring up the runway lights, indicating the driver should clear the runway. An offset low pass to run the airplane’s shadow over the mower serves the same purpose. Assuming, again, the mower operator hasn’t been numbed into a zombie stupor by the noise and heat inside the un-airconditioned cab and fails to notice. Luckily, there are rules … sorta.

Regulations state that an aircraft on final with a PIC that really has to pee has right of way over a mower that refuses to clear the runway. Airports with control towers usually have vast expanses of grass that need to be mowed, but the tower provides a semblance of control over who uses what surface.

Given the hassle of mowing acres of NAS-incorporated runway, ramp and taxiways, is it really that important? Let’s buck 21st Century convention and consider the facts. Tall grass provides cover for a range of suicidal animals with deer being chief among the miscreants who love to play chicken with air traffic. Chickens, oddly, rarely play themselves. Several days ago I had to yield (not making this up) right-of-way to a mud turtle the size of a ‘57 Buick hubcap as it plodded across the runway from one hay field to another, begging the question, “Why did the turtle cross the runway?” Answer: “I don’t know, ask the damned chicken.”

What grass giveth it also withholdeth. Deconstructing that lisping shibboleth, says grass will reduce a landing roll when compared to landing on a hard surface. Now, before you point to FAA exam questions supporting the opposite, be aware that even though a good stand of grass will shorten your rollout—weeds grabbing your airframe will do that—if you stomp the brakes, the locked-up tires will likely slide. Conversely, according to my 1946 POH, the takeoff roll from grass will be lengthened by “a fair amount,” depending, again, on the quality of the turf and pilot’s inclination for panic. Calculating runway distance requirements is swell in the classroom, but sucking the wheels from an unknown density of green fiber takes true seat-of-the-grass-stained-pants skill.

So, whenever you’d rather be flying off a grass strip in the sunny uplands, instead of from heartless asphalt, remember those of us who’d also rather be slipping surly bonds and are, instead, condemned like Sisyphus (Betty Sisyphus, CFII and airport manager at Hadestown Muni, WI) to mow for all eternity, knowing the grass will just keep growing behind us.

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  1. While I am totally convinced Bertorelli is still king of the practical, well reasoned, calculated and many times satirical pilot prose, Berge is truly a poet with smack of Dick Starks and Dave Barry thrown in. His art is to be savored.

  2. Great piece. I love to mow the private field here that friends make available to other GA aircraft owners. Can’t put a price on that demonstration of generosity, so paying back with time on the tractor is just the least that one could do.

    I find the drone (not a pun) of the tractor and mower to be positively meditative and enjoy the late afternoon clouds and eventual colors of a setting sun more than words can say. The end result is immensely satisfying and reminds me of my growing up days where I managed nearly an acre of yard with just a push mower. My Great Uncle bought a John Deere ride-on mower with a 6 foot swath the summer before I left for university. A seven hour job was cut to three.

  3. For those of us muscling a push mower or jockeying a lawn tractor, this “Avweb Insider” feature may also be found under the heading of “Avweb Outdoorsman”…

  4. You nailed it about grass mowing being an offshoot of some religion in Wisconsin. I think it’s the same religion that reveres the Packers as demigods, too? Cheese and beer are used in the celebratory chalices in their respective sanctuaries each Sunday.

    I established a summer home 35 mi west of Oshkosh 16 years ago and am always amazed at how pristinely mowed even run down farms look when I’m driving around the area. John Deere must certainly love Wisconsin? In fact, I finally broke down and bought a rider the other day The second thing I looked for was the beer holder … after a hydrostatic transmission.

    Our airport has a grass runway (sometimes used for DC-3 training) so the place always is kept up; it takes two days to mow the place with two mowers operating. Prior to EAA, everyone tidy’s up every corner of the place for the hundred + airplanes who choose to stop in for the last easy gas near Ripon. I even keep an old mower in my hangar so that the grass around it is kept up if the contract mowers haven’t been around in a while. It’s unsightly to have high grass around your hangar, don’t ya know. Can’t go flying until the grass is perfect. I even keep a bottle of defoliant around … always at the ready near the door.

    Each and every time I come down the road where the vista of our airport unfolds, I think, “If God had a GA airport in heaven … it’d look like THIS!” It quite literally takes my breath away. With barely 50′ of fence around the FBO only, the visual is breathtaking to a GA pilot. NOW add a visual of your idea of throwing a roll of toilet paper out of a Cub and chasing it to the ground over the grass and … don’t get no better’n that. It’s why I’m here. You’d have to live in Wisconsin to understand it all fully.

  5. Don’t tell the wife, but I only pretend that mowing is a chore. It’s better than yoga for your afternoon zen.

    Weed eating on the other hand…

    • We should all write a book … “Zen and the Joys of Mowing the grass at your Airport”

  6. The owner of the airport where I live used to spend much time mowing around the runway with an ancient tractor pulling a bush hog. One year he fell prey to aging, and had a hip replaced. As you know, however, the mowing must go on, so I volunteered to run the tractor as needed. I got a tutorial from the owner, which included a brief–and wholly inadequate–warning about the tractor’s clutch. It was obvious that this thing came off the production line long before lawyers began advertising their services on radio and TV.

    Depressing the clutch pedal required approximately 743 lbs of foot pressure (not really, more like 80), which required a tight hold on the steering wheel and lifting my derriere off the seat every time. You had to fully depress the pedal to get clutch disengagement, but re-engagement occurred only in the last inch or so of travel as you released the pedal. In your average manual transmission car, if you release the clutch too fast the car lurches a bit, and you kill the engine. Lose your concentration for just a second and release the clutch too fast on this homicidal tractor, however, and you got an immediate lesson in the meaning of TORQUE. The front wheels would come off the ground about a foot or so as the tractor instantaneously accelerated to walking speed. The only thing that kept me from being thrown off the seat backward was the death grip I had on the steering wheel.

    Thanks again for the morning smile, Paul. Reading your columns always increases my happiness by a fair amount.

  7. I bought a ’40 TCraft way back to learn in.
    I made it a point to make T & Gs on grass so as NOT to wear out MY tires?

  8. I read a couple sentences of your witty article to my wife (who is not an aviator but a hardcore book junkie) – we both thoroughly enjoy your brilliant writing style.
    I still won’t land on grass as my concern about invisible rocks and potholes has now been hardened by the addition of turtles – I had no idea!

  9. I think that Betty was in my graduating high school class.

    LOVE grass, but… One bummer event:
    I taxied our Traumahawk into – and instantaneously out of – a freshly-mowed-level pothole at Plumb Island. Result? An enviable ( ? ) reverse-Q-tip prop. NOT happy. I implored airport management to repair – or at least to mark – the well-camouflaged crater. That, or open a prop shop!

    One of the few negatives about Tomahawks and Mooneys: insufficient propeller ground clearance.

  10. Jim said it right at the start of the comments. Paul Berge is hilarious, but Paul B is funny too, as well as practical. It’s obviously a Paul thing 🙂

  11. Right on Paul!
    I own WN39 and when folks say “wow that’s pilots dream, to have a grass airstrip and hangar next to their house” I reply with ” I spend more time on the mower and snow plow than I do in my plane most years”.
    Luckily, I’m also an IA so I can justify the 30 hours a year I put on my plane with “free” rent and maintenance. 🙂
    I do get 300-400 a year in turbines for work though.
    Thanks for the hat tip to us sod busters,

  12. Thank you Paul. And for the very reasons you stated above, I loved flying (not mowing) off a grass runway in my old Cessna 170A. It covered my mistakes so well.

  13. I actually enjoy mowing the runway where I live in Oklahoma. Some of the homeowners share mowing with the tractor and brush hog mower. Whoever doesn’t have anything to do when mowing is needed jumps in. Would really like to have a mowing system like those used for a golf course fairway but way too expensive.

    The only problem I have is whenever I’m on the tractor the theme from the TV show “Green Acres” runs in my mind and I can’t get it out until the mowing is finished. Please make it stop.

  14. Paul,
    I really, really enjoy your writing!

    As a former airport manager in North-Central Oklahoma, I spent plenty of tractor time mowing the 55 acres of airport property including our very cool 900ft turf runway, that was located between the taxiway and asphalt main runway. I became a very adept tractor jock learning first the art of starting a propane burner, John Deere 730 two lunger. Once started, it was a lot of interesting footwork in addition to braking and steering of this very heavy yet torquey mowing machine. Normally, this was a full two day job in the Oklahoma summer heat. By the end of the summer I looked like Raisonette.

    The Air Force practiced “zero” thrust emergency landings in their T-6II’s. Normally on CTAF, they announced their position “high key” and “low key”. But the 730 did not have a cab, nor did I carry a handheld radio because I couldn’t hear a thing over the engine chugs, the clatter of the Bush Hog, and the ever present Oklahoma wind blowing across my cab-less mean green mowing machine. So, this gave the AF the opportunity to buzz the runway, after buzzing me. As you well pointed out, there is something meditative about all of this combined noise, and smells making one get into a mowing sort of zen. Since these airplanes are turbine powered, and relatively quiet coming up from behind was their modus operandi, which usually not only startled me but caused me to do all sorts of indescribable gyrations in full display. Once buzzed and thoroughly shook up, the next pass was down the runway, with a grinning, saluting, backseat instructor clearly seen under that bubble canopy. And I mean low passes. This was followed with their normal, almost touchdown followed with a go-around ( since the runway was less than the AF regulation 4,000 feet). They had a hoot yanking me out of my zen-like stupor and I enjoyed the subsequent low pass and salute. Mutual respect between the tractor jock and the kerosene burners.

    Thanks for the memories!

  15. Thank you Paul for another great article. Like others, I enjoy your style as well.

    I am a “younger” pilot (meaning 45) but I have been extremely fortunate to be taught by my Dad (who is the best pilot I will ever know, no matter who I have met) and mowed lawns. I enjoy your perspective of characterizing grass strips as “…muting your mistakes…” My Dad routinely uses the word “forgiving” when describing grass. However, in practice, he has taught me (and the various fields I have flown in have taught me) exactly the way you describe those strips…”muting…” That is the best description I have heard to personify what a well cared for field does for the plane and pilot.

    Also, thank you for the nod to the mowers. We don’t mind the water balloons…when we know about them!