Saturday, October 23, 2010

Grass Roots

Date Aircraft Route of Flight Time (hrs) Total 
  Oct 2010
N21481 5G0 (LeRoy, NY) - N38 (Wellsboro, PA - DSV (Dansville, NY) - 5G0 2.1 879.4

Airports come in many flavors.  Say "airport" to the average citizen and they will no doubt conjure a mental image of heavies launching from the vast asphalt maze that is Chicago O'Hare or John F Kennedy International.  In truth, airports cover a continuum from the world's busiest commercial hubs to sleepy rural airfields that see very little activity.  In a world where smaller airports are threatened by economics and public opinion, some places still harbor an unquenchable spark of life where "grass roots" flying still exists.  Pilots are drawn to these places.  One such pocket is the Wellsboro-Johnston Airport (N38) in Pennsylvania where the grass roots spirit lives within manager Wes McKinney.  Pilots don't come much more "grass roots" than Wes.  If asked, he'll proudly tell you that he's not qualified to even land on pavement.

The most brilliant of fall colors were retired for the season when I arrived over the impressive hills of northern Pennsylvania's "Grand Canyon".  Reds and yellows still dominated the landscape, but the color saturation was a bit "lean of peak".

On the ground at Wellsboro, I was met by manager Wes and his four-legged assistant managers Pratt and Whitney.  I gave Pratt (or was it Whitney?) a scratch behind the ears as Wes introduced Jerry.  Wes was doing some electrical work on Jerry's airplane so, in return, Jerry was acting in the capacity of line boy for the day.  Under Wes' tutelage, Jerry set up the fuel pump for me, stopping short of actually pumping the gas.

"THAT," Wes explained with a grin, "would cost me an extra two cents per gallon in liability insurance."

When I asked for an update on his Murphy Moose project, Wes proudly announced that the aircraft had just passed its FAA inspection.  Unfortunately, the FAA misspelled Wes' name on the airworthiness certificate, effectively rendering the aircraft unairworthy.  After all these years, I should not be amazed that we live in a world where bureaucracy can trump physics, but I found this to be somewhat mind boggling.  

Wes invited me into his hangar to admire the large, radial-engined bush plane that he had spent the last eight years building.  In the back of the hangar lurked Wes' T-6 Texan.  I asked him if he had it flying again and he shook his head.  "Naw, that engine hasn't been right since it was last overhauled.  It's quit on me ten times, and that's just one time too many."

The Murphy Moose is aptly named; it's a BIG airplane, a high wing taildragger that would dwarf my humble Warrior.  While Wes showed me some of the modifications he had made on the design, our discussion was interrupted by the sound of a turboprop passing overhead.

For the next ten minutes, Wellsboro was a rather busy airport.  A twin turboprop resembling a Mitsubishi MU-2 landed and parked adjacent to where Whitney (or was it Pratt?) was dozing in the grass, completely unperturbed by the noisy turbine aircraft.  Shortly thereafter, a battered Cessna Skyhawk touched down and made for the fuel pump.  While Wes directed the Cessna to pull beside Warrior 481 for fuel, a low wing aircraft entered the pattern.  As it turned final, it resolved into a beautiful V-tailed Beech 35 stopping for fuel en route to Fort Myers, Florida.  Throughout this parade of arrivals, a light sport aircraft continued to practice in a low altitude right traffic pattern from the unofficial grass runway adjacent to the pavement.

As the ramp began to fill, Wes hollered jovially at Jerry, "at this rate, we're not going to get any work done on your airplane today!".  Jerry shrugged without comment.  While not as outgoing as Wes, he nonetheless seemed to enjoy the activity brought on by all the new arrivals.

Wes helped me push Warrior 481 back to make room for the latest fuel supplicant.  I thanked him for his hospitality while he enthusiastically shook my hand.  Indeed, grass roots aviation is alive and well in Wellsboro and my brief visit there was balm for a cynical soul.

When one launches from runway 28 at Wellsboro and clears the end of the pavement, the ground abruptly drops away into this canyon.  Check out the faded orange carpet - was this place last redecorated in the decade of Ford Mavericks and those awful, yet oddly ubiquitous, rust-brown refrigerators? 

Warrior 481 hung motionless in the air as the world rolled slowly by underneath.  From northern Pennsylvania to Rochester New York, I passed from town to town, each surrounded by rusty hills like the ones around Canisteo NY above.

My hunger for grass roots aviation was sated, but I realized that I need lunch.  I diverted to Dansville NY, which remains a curiously vibrant pocket of fall color, even under an overcast.  So I got to see some brilliant fall color after all.  

No comments:

Post a Comment