The Grass Strip

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Mark H. Goodrich – Copyright © 2017

It was clear at altitude. Visibility below was restricted only by the characteristic haze at low altitudes, and the once familiar landscape of Iowa was beginning to unfold as they crossed the Mississippi River westbound with the morning sun behind them. Brad wished he had a sectional, or even a road map, as he tried to recall the names of the small towns that he had known by heart some thirty years earlier. He found himself recalling a few specific flights from among the many days and nights that he had crisscrossed the state in a variety of singles and light twins on the panoply of missions that made up the on-demand charter business of the early 1960s. If only they were 35,000 feet lower, he could check the town names painted on water towers, or on rooftops with an arrow and distance to the nearest airport, as had been the normal custom and practice when the best equipped airplane on the ramp had only a Narco Omnigator Mark II and ADF-29. He smiled at the fact that he still recalled the model numbers on radios he had not seen in several decades.

His first officer was the “pilot flying” today. The Performance Management System showed 1,419 nautical miles remaining to San Francisco. All four engines were running smoothly and the engineer’s panel was normal. It looked like there would be little for him to do for the next three hours except talk to new controllers every twenty or thirty minutes. The first officer was taking care of the flying, and the engineer was taking care of systems and the first officer. Brad turned in his seat so both could hear him. “Boys, I’m going to tune Comm-Three to Unicom for a while. I’ll continue to monitor ATC, but back me up. Unicom can be pretty intense at this altitude. We’ll be hearing everybody over a half dozen states”.

He switched to 122.8 MHz, expecting to hear a hundred transmissions, and instead heard a handful. What a difference from earlier times, and proof that small airports were indeed dying. Brad had stopped at a dozen or more on a drive across the middle-west two summers before, and found the same situation from each to the next. Once vibrant airports with ramps and hangars full of airplanes had become ghost facilities. The fixed-base operations had evaporated. No lessons were being given. Maintenance shops had been abandoned. Twenty-bay hangars were half empty, and more occupied bays held motor homes and boats than airplanes. The silence on Unicom was just further proof of the reality.

Brad remembered the summer when the CEO of a manufacturer for which he sold airplanes told him that they could make more money manufacturing turboprops and jets, and would be getting out the “little airplane business”. The executive’s predictions had been that “the cost of small airplanes would increase by a factor of ten over the following decade”, “most models would cease to be produced”, and “general aviation would mean mostly corporate jets in twenty years”. Brad had asked how the company would ever justify such action to hundreds of thousands of customers, and was told quite bluntly, “We’ll blame it on the lawyers – that’s always an easy sell”. At the time, Brad did not believe any of that was even possible, but within months parts prices had doubled. By that fall, announced prices for the next year’s models had also doubled, a decline in business from the escalating costs was already evident, and Brad knew that he would soon be on the way to the airlines.

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A change in sector and a new controller with Chicago Center brought a request for a deviation north of the airway and an assigned heading. Brad realized they would be flying over a small airport that he once managed, and began to strain for a glimpse of it. As the old field came into view, Brad was stunned to see the longer runway at 6,000 feet of pavement with adjoining localizer and glide slope shacks. But there were no cars in parking, no airplanes on the ramp, and no transmissions on Unicom. He could not recall exactly when he had last flown over it, but vividly remembered the ramp of thirty years earlier with twenty or more airplanes tied down, and a traffic pattern alive with training activity.

It was as if Brad had been transported back in time. He remembered the year quite well when the field had been expanded. The paved strip had been much the same as when first laid out in 1928, and later paved in 1946, until one day some fifteen years later, local businessmen began to press the city council for a longer runway. As the airport manager and fixed-base operator, Brad agreed that the 2,400 feet of pavement at only forty feet wide left little margin for error on takeoff and landing with even the retractable-gear singles, much less the twin-engine types that were becoming more of a fixture on the airport every year. But he knew the economic relationship between the airport and city council would be problematic for any discussion of increased spending.

Airport budget requests had always led to contentious arguments, even for inexpensive items. His requests for runway maintenance equipment – not new, but merely newer than the twenty-five year old farm tractor that had been rigged with a mower and snow blade – had been routinely rejected by the city council. His explanations that failure to seal cracks in the asphalt would shorten the life of the runway itself were ignored without comment. There was even pushback to his request for replacement bulbs to keep the runway lights and airport beacon operating, until the owner of a small local manufacturer complained to the council that half the lights were not working. Exaggeration or not, that complaint had more effect on the council than Brad’s pleas, notwithstanding his position as airport manager.

Like most things political, the wind blew from a different direction when people living in the new subdivision and running businesses with big payrolls became interested. Suddenly the city council, always difficult to convince for even modest expenditures, began to talk about “when” and not “if” a longer runway would be a good investment for the municipal airport, and asked Brad to brief the council on what would be required.

There was an instrument approach procedure to the airport using its 25-watt non-directional beacon, and participating federal money had been accepted in 1952 to build a terminal and lengthen the runway from 1,800 to 2,400 feet, with agreements set forth in a ten-year contract between the city and agency. The old CAA had recently become the FAA, and with a year left on the agency contract, involvement of the airports branch within the new federal aviation regulator would thus be required. In the way of such things, development of an airport master plan would be the first step. After only a week of investigating the process, federal and state transportation officials, a local civil engineering firm, a local contractor and a very expensive airport development consultant were already involved. Not only would the purchase of additional land be required to extend the existing runway, but a national highway and a paved farm-to-market road bordered the ends of the existing runway, requiring that state and federal highway officials also become involved.

To say that the city council went into “sticker shock” was a dramatic understatement. The consultant wanted to turn the place into Kansas City Municipal, even though the town had a population of less than 20,000 people, and fewer than forty based airplanes. In addition, his bill for master plan development would exceed the entire airport operating budget for the previous decade. The FAA wanted 6,000 feet of runway, new taxiways with concrete thick enough to allow for the operation of the new jet airliners, and an instrument landing system, even though there were fewer than a dozen pilots based on the airport who held instrument ratings and no potential for airline flights. The contractor wanted to pour as much concrete as possible, which Brad thought odd. The man was some sort of leader in right-wing politics, never missed an opportunity to rail against redistribution of wealth under left-wing political leadership, and often expounded on how President Roosevelt’s New Deal Plan of the 1930s had started the country on a path straight to hell. It was clear that he was more flexible about the redistribution thing when it was through the vehicle of concrete for roads or runways, rather than food, jobs programs or rent assistance for the poor.

Brad felt as though he was in the eye of a political hurricane, and was relieved when the state and federal highway officials stopped what was quickly becoming a runaway train. Neither the national highway nor the farm-to-market road would be moved – period.

Things settled down for a couple of years, but discussions about it between attendees at the Sunday morning hangar-flying sessions – “airport church” as they were known – continued until one morning when news came that the farmer who owned the land immediately adjacent to the airport’s south boundary had died. The man had been a pilot since World War II, had owned several airplanes over the years, and had always been an airport supporter. His will included a devise to the city of land and easements on condition that they be used to expand the small crosswind runway to at least 4,200 feet in length.

The existing crosswind strip was the original airport landing area from the 1920s. It was grass and short in length at some 1,600 feet. Within a few days, Brad was once again summoned before the city council, and once again tasked with a project to investigate and report on possible alternatives. Still bearing scar tissue from his previous encounter with the moneyed and governmental interests, he decided to take a different tack. He quietly met with a local civil engineer who was also an airport tenant. “What”, Brad inquired, “would be necessary to extend the grass runway without pavement, and what would be the cost of the engineering work to accomplish the design details”? The response gave Brad a whole new idea about runway expansion. A local pilot, the engineer was pleased to provide his services without fee, as a measure of his support for the local community. Brad next visited the power company, which was willing to install runway lighting at cost. His initial effort to find a contractor for grading and drainage was more problematic. He was turned down by the first contractor, who was more interested in making money than in supporting his community, his status as an airplane owner and airport user notwithstanding. But Brad soon found another who was willing to install a new base and drainage under the extended grass runway on a no-profit contract.

The FAA Airports Branch showed up, first eager to help with “free federal money”, and then resorting to threats of regulatory coercion in order to extend into the decades following its power to regulate a variety of otherwise local issues, such as zoning, noise, hangar use and tenant leasing. Absent an agreement to accept federal money for something, the agency held sway over nothing. How ironic that the federal government had come up with a scheme to collect tax money, launder it through the federal treasury, condition its redistribution on the relinquishment of local rights, and then have the sand to characterize it as “federal money”. Brad quickly realized the Airports Branch was without ability to condition or prevent the construction of a new runway unless federal money was accepted.

That didn’t mean Brad was without challenge from the city council to accept money from the FAA, until he demonstrated that his plans to develop the new grass runway with no federal participation would cost less in total than its 20% co-payment under the agency’s grandiose scheme to over-build, and to over-pay for the privilege. His “local plan” was approved. Two months later, work was complete but for the establishment of the turf, and in the following spring, the best grass runway in six states was open for business.

For the years that Brad continued to manage the airport, the grass strip proved itself repeatedly. The drainage system and storm sewers kept it solid despite even heavy spring rains. It’s departure path over farmland meant no complaints for noise. It was easy on the airport budget, and required no sealing or resurfacing. With a little over-seeding in the spring, and a pass with the mower every two or three weeks, runway maintenance was complete. It was easy on tires and made all landings seem smooth. At 200 feet wide, it was the perfect laboratory for teaching crosswind landings, as even ground loops were mostly suffered without damage to landing gear or wing tips. Everyone loved the grass strip.

Even the early business jets used it with no difficulty, save two mostly humorous events. One August afternoon, a Sabreliner crew sat in position for 30 minutes trying to raise center, finally dried out all of the grass behind the engines and set the field alight. Brad drove out to extinguish the fire and tell the crew that center was easily reachable at 1,000 feet after takeoff. And one winter day with a direct crosswind of nearly 40 knots, Brad’s suggestion on Unicom to an arriving Learjet crew was eschewed. Explaining that winter turf was pretty much like ice, he encouraged the crew to consider that the strong winds were directly down the 2,400 feet of dry asphalt. The terminal building emptied as all went outside to watch. First the Learjet crew failed to use any crosswind landing technique, and then exacerbated their situation by trying to save the day with thrust reversers. Losing all directional control as the thrust vector went negative, the airplane weather-cocked north and drifted south in a furious cloud of everything the reversers could kick up. To everyone’s relief, the only damage was bruising to the ego of the landing pilot.

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A call from Center jolted Brad’s attention back to the instant flight. He acknowledged the return to course and the new frequency, and watched as his view of the old field was lost into the up-sun morning haze as they flew across it to the west.

Brad could not shake an almost overwhelming sense of sadness. A vibrant industry had been lost to the greed of an expanding corporatocracy. The abandonment of small airplanes in favor of jets had indeed made the general aviation manufacturers into targets of opportunity for merger and acquisition by conglomerates. A few executives had become wealthy. But in the wake were millions of losers. Small fixed-base operations dried up and blew way in the winds of what became known as trickle-down economics, turning upside down the livelihoods and lives of pilots, instructors, mechanics and others. Salesmen and small businesses could no longer afford to purchase and use airplanes. Pleasure flyers found they could no longer afford to maintain and operate their personal airplanes enjoyed for decades before. Young people looking for an entry to careers as pilots or mechanics no longer had a local airport at which to start their journey, meaning such opportunities were restricted to those with the economic ability to attend a university with aviation curricula. Small cities across America were saddled with airport development bonds used to construct airports for which there were now few users, and yet required to continue maintaining those airports to federal standards for decades into the future under the original construction contracts with the FAA. In some cases, those under-used airports were nonetheless required to maintain managers, fire stations, crash trucks and emergency staff. Other cities lost jobs when the local manufacturers of general aviation airplanes, engines and equipment were closed, even as the surviving conglomerates hosted bidding wars in a race to the bottom between other cities vying to become the new location for manufacturing on a greatly reduced scale. Winning communities were required to gift land, underwrite the construction of factories, and abate all taxes and utilities, just for the opportunity to see the possible – but not guaranteed and too often illusory – employment of a few hundred employees earning wages so little above poverty levels that they qualified for federal welfare assistance. At the other end of the spectrum, average taxpayers would foot the bill for enormous tax breaks that supported the purchase and use of business jets – often larger and more expensive than could ever be justified as reasonable – by even the largest and wealthiest companies, ensuring enormous corporate welfare to the very conglomerates that first profited from their selfish decimation of general aviation.

It was impossible to ignore that general aviation had been just another political casualty of an ever-larger corporatocracy focused only on its unfettered expansion, without concern for its employees, customers, nation, or enormous economic damage in its wake. Brad switched Comm-Three back to 121.5 MHz, pretended for a few minutes that he was reading a checklist, sighed, wiped his cheek dry, and turned back to the business of flying to San Francisco.

Mark H. Goodrich – Copyright © 2017

“The Grass Strip” was first published in the February 2017 Issue (Vol 14 No 1) of Position Report magazine.