Two Bernies Who Saved Aviation

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Without apologizing for being an old muser, I wonder how many passengers wheeling luggage through New York’s JFK could identify the airport’s namesake. Those unable to decode the initials shouldn’t be allowed to board anything but a tram to LaGuardia (LGA). I can understand not knowing Fiorello LaGuardia, the Colossus whose name languishes athwart one of the worst airports I’ve ever shuffled through; admittedly not recently. To refresh memories, Mr. LaGuardia was a southpaw for the New York Giants, “Pope of the Polo Grounds,” from 1934 to 1945 … or mayor of New York City. Wikipedia is unclear, but either way, it stuck.

Further west, Chicago’s O’Hare and Midway share World War II themes. In 1942 naval aviator Edward “Butch” O’Hare, flying a Grumman F-4 Wildcat, became the Navy’s first ace by downing five Japanese bombers during one mission. He received the Medal of Honor, and in 1997 the Chicago Tribune dubbed him the “prototypical top gun.” Unlike the movie franchise that won’t die, even in space, O’Hare died in combat in 1943, so in 1949 Chicago’s Orchard Place/Douglas Field—home to a Douglas C-54 plant—was renamed O’Hare, while retaining the ORchard/Douglas ORD identifier.

Rebranding airfields as war memorials continued in 1949, as Chicago Municipal Airport became Midway (MDW), honoring the 1942 Battle of Midway. For years I thought it was called Midway because it was midway between New York’s LaGuardia and Denver’s Stapleton Airport, named for Jean Stapleton of “All In The Family.” You’d be excused for not knowing that, since the sitcom went off the air in 1979, and Stapleton Airport closed in 1995, replaced by Denver International Airport (DEN), which won ICAO’s Most Boring Aerodrome Moniker award in 1997 and swallowed most available real estate in northeast Colorado.

My editor says I’m misinformed about Stapleton’s name. Initially, it was Denver Municipal Airport, then renamed for Denver’s on-again-off-again mayor, Benjamin Stapleton (1923-47), a visionary who foresaw the limitless possibilities of forcing airline passengers to pass through his city, while their luggage transferred to points unknown.

The 1929 site for Denver Muni—later renamed Stapleton after whomever—was in Rattlesnake Hollow, not to be confused with Prohibition’s bootlegging pilot, Jake Hollow. Either way, superb marketing possibilities squandered. Denver’s viper-inspired airport opened over the objections of nonpilots who saw no need to waste tax dollars on aviation ventures. Civic shortsightedness is the bedrock of our National Airspace System (NAS), but visionaries such as Stapleton—Ben or Jean—persist, and aviation survives, which segues to Nash Field (6Z6), Indianola, Iowa.

Where? Exactly.

You might think it’s named for the rustworthy Nash Rambler, like the one my father cursed on New Jersey winter mornings when I was a kid, but you’d be mistaken. Instead, 6Z6 is tagged for its founder, Bernie Nash, who in 1942, age 10, watched a P-51 Mustang buzz his hometown of Indianola, as he enthusiastically waved from a pagoda rooftop while shouting, “P-51 Mustang, Cadillac of the skies!”

OK, that last bit was from Spielberg’s 1984 classic, “Empire Of The Sun.” In backpedaling defense, I pictured the scene of young Christian Bale cheering the attacking Mustangs when Bernie, now 89, recounted that he “saw an Army P-51 Mustang come growling … fast from the south and buzz low, right over (town).” Thanks in part to 1940s Wings Cigarette Cards (like baseball cards but with smokes instead of stale bubble gum), kids like Bernie could identify “all the fighter planes of the war on sight.” After serving in the Army during the Korean War, Bernie used his GI Bill to become a flight instructor in a town without an airport, and faithful to municipal myopia, didn’t want one. Iowa’s motto: “Si non habemus, non opus est.” Or: “If we don’t have it, we don’t need it.”

Bernie and other local pilots of his generation shuttled from one temporary farm strip to another, until the Good Witch of the Iowa Aeronautics Commission floated into the county on a bubble of federal and state largesse to build a reliever airport for nearby Des Moines’ technically international airport (DSM); yours if you’ll sign here ….

Civic response? Not only, “No,” but, “No, thank you and get off our lawn!” The money slowly retreated 20 miles north to another city, Ankeny, which later opened Ankeny Regional (IKV), Des Moines’ thriving GA reliever. Left at the altar, Bernie and pilot friends bought an old road grader and without public funds, scraped out an airfield on Bernie’s farm. Nash Field, built entirely with private money and labor—but taxed unashamedly by the county that didn’t want it—opened in 1972 and remains the only public-use airport in the county.

Naming facilities after dead presidents, forgotten war heroes, or even cartoonists—such as Charles M. Shultz, Sonoma County Airport (STS)—is swell, but let’s acknowledge those who defy collective inertia to build and maintain the smaller airports where fuel, hangars, and restrooms keep GA alive (insert: Copland’s “Fanfare For The Common FBO”). When stopping at an unfamiliar airfield, instead of gasping at the avgas price, ask how the field got its name. “Scorpion Sally Airport? Why ol’ Sally crashed her Standard LS-5 biplane while landing here in 1928 when a scorpion crawled into her flying britches and stung her on the roundout …”

History is how we reimagine it. Rattlesnake International would’ve been a classier name than Denver International; picture the hoodies, mugs, and refrigerator magnets in the gift shops.

The P-51, despite sporting a Packard engine (built under Rolls-Royce license), is indeed, the Cadillac of the skies. Spielberg and I will suffer no argument … of course I’ll promote anything he likes in hopes he’ll option my Jake Hollow series. Steven, call, we’ll do brunch.

And the genius who patented rolling luggage in 1972 to revolutionize almost getting to your last-minute gate reassignment, was yet another Bernie—Bernard D. Sadow. For that reason, Denver International should be renamed Rattlesnake Bernie International. “Welcome to Rattlesnake, where the local time is 1929 ….”

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26 COMMENTS

  1. Not one to begrudge Ike and JFK their airport namesakes, my humble opinion is that we’ve lost something iconic in renaming Wichita Mid-Continent and Idlewild. Seared into my memory at the age of 12 is the name Idlewild where I stepped into a jet airplane for the first time, a Sabena Boeing 707 graced by hostesses in light blue and calming music coming out of those magical looking rectangular PSU’s in the ceiling above our plush tourist class seats.

    But what really takes the cake is the gall it took to replace an airport called Stapleton with one called DIA. That would be like replacing Candlestick Park with Oracle Park. There’s just no ring to a name like Oracle. And you were right the first time Paul, Stapleton really was named after Jean. We’ve all known that since oh, about 1970.

  2. Harry Reid, gag, International is the new name for good old McCarran in Las Vegas.
    McCarran is now Harry Reid Intentional .

    Of course the despicable County Commissioner, who has led the charge for this, promised “no public funds” for the multi-million dollar change admitted on last nights local news that they are still $3,000,000 short and are waiting for further donations. This as the destruction of all McCarran signs starts.

    Ralph Requa

  3. Delightful read as usual, Paul. However, what you ‘claim’ is true about the Midway naming is quite different from the ‘fact’ that we knew the airport was ‘midway’ between our house growing up in NW Indiana and O’Hare field that we used often.
    Always interesting to hear others’ opinions though!

  4. Glorious. It is always a treat to read you Paul, at the start of my day here in the UK. I now know better than to drink my coffee whilst reading your work (so as to spare my keyboard from the spray when I choke with laughter). I was in tears at the Scorpion Sally story. Bless you!

  5. The incongruously named “KSFZ – North Central” leaves local residents of Smithfield, RI unaware that there is an airport in town. And where are the North Left and North Right airports anyway? Funnily enough North Central moniker IS used to help identify a trifecta of fields that used to be within 6 miles of each other back in the day. The North Left airport was the “Smithfield” airport but is now under the baseball diamond of Bryant University. The North Right airport was “Berkeley” and if you know where to look along the bank of the Providence River you can see where the gravel pit scraped it away. The 1955 sectional shows that between the three airports there was a dazzling range of fuel octanes available.

  6. Meantime “The Colonel Robert F Wood Airpark” is named after Bob Wood who established the present version of the airport in a potato field just after WWII and ran a charter operation out of it. The Chart Supplement calls it “Newport State Airport” which is a promotion for Newport as Newport is just a city in the State of Rhode Island. On the CTAF we call it “Newport” to save airtime. And the town of Middletown where the airport is actually located are jealous of the billing of the bigger adjacent tourist town.

  7. Mr. Berge,

    As the founding (and currenltly only ) member of the “Search for Bertorelli Field” foundation I understand the amount of effort and funds required to name an airport for a legendary aviation contributor. I commit the effort to find “Berge Field” will commence upon completion of Bertorelli Field.
    Thank you for your patience …
    Angelo

  8. Loved this article! Another tid bit concerns an airport I flew a DC-9 into many times, KFSD, Sioux Falls, SD. It was named after a Marine ace in WW2 who also won the Medal of Honor and later became the the Governor of South Dakota. Joe Foss.

  9. But the Merlin powered Mustang was better.

    The P-51 had less drag than its British equivalent, IIRC due wasp waisted fuselage, the Merlin was a better engine. Organized in Britain which was struggling to provide escort for bombers deep into Nationalsozialistische Germany, eventually adopted in the US as well. P-51H was the ultimate version, finished after the war, achieved 410 knots.

    The Mustang was originally ordered by the British, who were actually fighting a war then. Later adopted by US military.

    (Obscure trivia from a book about advancements and smart thinking that helped Allies win WW II. Titled something roughly like ‘engineering winning the war’ but at least as much about smart procedures and leadership as about technology advance.)

  10. Love you all but …

    I don’t give a rat’s patootie about the name(s). Give me asphalt (or concrete or good turf) and call it whatever you like, if that is what it takes to keep the doors open and the grass manicured. We all die just a little when the FBO doors are shuttered and the strip becomes a strip mall.

    Ann’s Airport or Raquel’s Runway, heck yeah! I’m on final and will be in front of the fuel pump in 2 minutes. Got a vending machine? I’m hungry.

  11. John F. Kennedy International Airport was originally called Idlewild Airport (IATA: IDL, ICAO: KIDL, FAA LID: IDL) after the Idlewild Beach Golf Course that it displaced. It was built to relieve LaGuardia Field, which had become overcrowded after its 1939 opening.

  12. Thanks Paul. You forgot about actors. I got my PP through Comm. multiengine at Orange County Ariport. It’s name has changed a couple of times. At one point being named after John Wayne, even had a statue of him out front. Now a days it is Santa Ana. But whenever I have a chance to fly there again I will be calling “Orange County Tower.”

  13. A remote formerly tiny, swampy, notorious drug drop strip in the 1960’s, FD70 was licensed and built out to 3.800 feet primarily by classic aircraft fabric restoration experts Helen and Warren Hall on a mile-long mound of sand and shark’s teeth dredged up when the once meandering 134-mile Kissimmee River was turned into a 56-mile-long, 300 foot wide, 30-foot-deep, barge-navigable canal in 1970.
    It’s few, generally poor, RV-and-trailer-dwelling aging inhabitants insipidly named it “River Acres Airpark” hoping to glom off some of the prestige of the million-dollar homes at lush, paved, “River Oak Airpark” [00FL] a few miles downstream.
    The channelization was an ecological disaster: sluicing explosive Orlando homebuilding and Okeechobee cattlefarm runoff pollution directly into Lake Okeechobee and on to foul bicoastal lagoons.
    In July of 2021 the Kissimmee River Restoration Project was completed at a cost of $600 million dollars to undo the channelization and restore and expand the original meandering river…with a million-dollar bridge to the couple dozen hangars along the newly water-locked, weedy, lumpy, now only 3200 foot FD70 runway which, since then, is unofficially, affectionately, and more appropriately referred to by the cognoscenti as
    “White Trash Airpark on Flying Geezer Island”.

  14. Southeast of ICT, now known as “Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport” (whew, say that a few times…) is tiny little 71K, officially known as Westport. The locals know the latter as “Dead Cow International” allegedly due to an altercation between a bovine and a Beechcraft sometime in the dim past. Apparently the Beechcraft was the victor.

  15. The names of airports tell us more about earth than they do about the sky, and about the sense of
    place that we have all but lost in a world that aeronautics has shrunk to a point on the map (or an
    interval in space-time). Yet even in a society that is more familiar with GPS coordinates than it is
    with its own soil, and whose collective memory has been reduced to a 24-hour cable news cycle of
    endless horrors, there are traces of the past that resist fragmentation, and speak to us not merely
    as voices from the past, but as living presences, upholding tradition while embracing novelty. The
    mere mention of certain names conjures up an entire universe of discovery, profundity and beauty.
    So it is with airports–at least, some of them. Others are problematic at best, laughable at worst.
    Louis Armstrong International Airport graces New Orleans. With any luck, that will never change.
    Likewise with Leonardo da Vinci Airport in Rome, whose intimate relation with the history of flight
    (and everything else) transcends all national and cultural boundaries, as does Mona Lisa’s glance.
    In Warsaw, Chopin Airport plays upon Kepler’s harmony of the keyboard. In Havana, José Marti is
    a hero for all ages–just as he is in America, and throughout the world. In St Louis, Lambert Field
    is named for the first person to receive a pilot’s license in the Mound City, though he made a living
    (and a fortune) selling mouthwash. Conversely, Listerine might conceal the odor, if not the moral
    decay, of Ronald Reagan Airport (formerly National) in D.C., Charles De Gaulle Airport (né Roissy)
    in Paris, [Pierre] Trudeau Airport in Montréal, Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, and Lindbergh Field
    in San Diego, whose close (and persistent) ties with fascism taint his achievements as an aviator.
    Las Vegas missed a bet by not changing its act from “McCarran & Reid” to “Siegfried & Roy” Int’l.
    Even Bugsy Siegel would be an improvement; so would the Rat Pack, compared to (e.g.) Sheldon
    Adelson, Moe Dalitz, or Steve Wynn. Wayne Newton might be a compromise choice, but if I had
    my druthers, I would rename it Liberace Int’l, to honor the first headline entertainer to make the
    city his home, at a time when no one had faith in its future, except Gus Greenlee and thousands
    of miners working on the Hoover Dam. How quickly the mob prefers to forget Howard Hughes. . . .
    As for John Wayne, I can’t help but envy him astride his horse, which explains why he reached
    the gate before I did, despite having 350 horses at my disposal. Then again, he didn’t have to
    drive cattle through Orange County to get there, which is why I’m standing still in heavy traffic,
    while he’s bronzed yet on the hoof. Instead of naming them after celebrities, ersatz dictators,
    and billionaire investors, there should be at least one major hub that serves as a monument to
    scientific and technological progress. I would christen it “Frankenstein Intergalactic Terminal.”
    What’s in a name? Ask Mary Shelley. She has the copyright–Hollywood can keep the statue.