Today is not a typical day of flying. We are nearly 6,000 pounds under maximum takeoff weight. In a Lear 40 with a basic empty weight of 13,232 pounds, that is really light. The airplane’s TFE 731-20 turbofan engines each put out 3,500 pounds of thrust, giving us a thrust-to-weight ratio of 1:2. Following the maximum performance takeoff checklist, we hold the brakes, push the throttles to the takeoff indent and wait a few seconds for the FADEC computers to get the engines operating at MTO (maximum takeoff thrust). Then with the airplane shuttering slightly, we suddenly release the pressure on the brake pedals. Particularly at sea level like we are, the sensation from all of this is akin to being launched from a sling shot.
When the brakes are released, the airspeed comes alive almost immediately. And nearly as fast as I can call out the numbers, the airplane accelerates through 80 knots then V1 and Vr (rotation speed). By the time the tires leave the ground, we are already going through V2. As the wheels come up and lock with a firm “clonk,” we pitch up to maintain V2 as the airplane climbs out at over 5,000 feet per minute. We pass through the crosswind turn at 500 feet AGL in 10 seconds. In order to stay halfway close to the traffic pattern, we then roll into a left hand 45-degree banked turn. At 1,500 feet AGL, we cut back the throttles to keep the speed legal and pitch forward to arrest the climb, which produces a contradictory feeling of rapid deceleration and a slight sense of weightlessness at the same time. We make another steep left turn to keep the downwind leg close in. At the speed we are flying, our position reports on Unicom at this non-towered airport are almost continuous, yet we have the whole airport to ourselves.
We are flying this way because we are performing a demo flight as part of our local “Airport Day.” Below us is a large crowd gathered on the ground watching our every move. Unbeknownst to me, the announcer even plugged his PA system into the Unicom frequency, so all of my airborne transmissions were heard loud and clear by everyone below…yikes, I wish I had known he was going to do that.
Though the majority of U.S. airports are publically owned and we as pilots utilize them frequently, we often are unaware of their individual history or what their owners (the taxpayers) actually think about them. Truth of the matter is, pilots commonly think about airports the same way truckers think about rest stops on the interstate: a public convenience that has always been there and is therefore taken for granted. However, the important difference is that virtually all members of the public have a driver’s license whereas a miniscule amount of the population has a pilot’s license. The majority of citizens are not aware of the benefits local airports brings to their community. As a result, general aviation (non-airline) airports often exist in financially precarious and politically controversial circumstances, with the local taxpaying voters having little knowledge of how they came to be, or how the airport benefits them personally. In a democracy, this does not bode well for the future of many airports.
Given the above problem, the airport I am based (KBVS) decided several years ago to put on an annual community aviation event, or just plain “Airport Day.” Once a year, the entire facility is open to the public so they can freely wander around and learn more about aviation and the happenings at their local airport. Special programs are put on for kids (as most of those attending are families with children in tow), speeches are given by local dignitaries, aircraft are put on display and demonstration flights are conducted to show the capabilities of various aircraft.
During our flight described above, there were more than 1,500 people watching as we demonstrated what the Lear can do. The most enthralled are usually the kids, wearing their free aviation paper caps, faces plastered with sunblock and all staring up in the sun as we fly by. In between looking upward as well, the parents chat with neighbors or friends, pointing out the relative merits of one aircraft over another (often with a surprising level of recently acquired knowledge). Folks also eat hot dogs from the mobile stand operated by one of the local service clubs, or examine the wide variety of aircraft sitting on the ramp; everything from WWII fighters (normally only found at the local Heritage Flight Museum) to a mix of general aviation airplanes including business turboprops and jets like the one we fly. While sitting on the ramp, all aircraft are available for the kids to see and touch; their faces reflected on the shiny fuselage surface, while their proud parents take creative double image photos with their cell phones. As part of the event, the adults also watch a variety of informative programs about the airport’s history, and what it contributes to the community on a daily basis.
Our airport, KBVS, has a history that is fairly common among the community-owned airports in the Pacific Northwest. It is about 50 miles north of Seattle and is a former WWII auxiliary fighter base. It was built in less than a year during the 1940s when there was a perceived national threat. Following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the fear was that the U.S. West Coast was going to be invaded from the sea by the Japanese, with the invasion being led by fighter attacks. Because of this perceived threat, fighter bases were built all along the West Coast, often just 25 to 50 miles apart; a distance which was considered appropriate for the combat range of fighters at the time. In the Puget Sound area alone, this type of airport was built at Bellingham (KBLI), Skagit Regional (KBVS), Arlington (KAWO), Paine (KPAE), Shelton (KSHN) and Olympia (KOLM); all of them within 15 minutes of flight time from each other. This was in case of any dire situations such an injured pilot, a bullet-damaged aircraft, dog fights or fuel shortages. Events that fortunately never occurred but the public readily relates to today.
People also find it interesting to learn the details surrounding how and why these facilities were designed the way they were. Most former WWII fighter bases along the West Coast have a classical triangular runway layout, which is why they use up a large, relatively square patch of land compared to something that might be built today. The purpose of the triangular pattern was to make certain the novice 200-hour fighter pilots could safely land their heavy, hard-to-control taildraggers without any more of a crosswind component than absolutely necessary. The three runways are typically 5,000 feet each with an angle of 120-degrees from each other; the principal runway being lined up with the prevailing wind. Alongside this runway, various Quonset hut type support buildings were constructed – some of which are often still present today.
At that time, reliable information about the winds was not often available so a technique used to determine runway compass orientation was simply to walk into the nearby forest and count the number and direction of fallen dead trees. No fancy science or expensive studies necessary. Just old fashioned logger wisdom. Learning this kind of history gives non-pilots a sense of appreciation for how and why their airport came into existence in the first place. The next question usually is, how did it become to be owned by the local community?
After the war ended in 1945, the U.S. Army and federal government were uncertain as to what to do with the many triangular shaped military airports they had quickly built all over the country, particularly along the West Coast. In England, many of the WWII secondary fighter bases had the concrete torn up and were returned to their original status as farmland. But land in the United States was plentiful, and money required to return the site to its original condition was in short supply. So instead, ownership was commonly transferred to the local community as a type of gift (something not always totally appreciated by the local taxpayers). Typical of a government “gift,” it came with strings attached, one of which was very wise in hindsight. The airport’s title transfer came with the condition that in perpetuity, the location must always be used as an airport, and any surrounding land included in the transfer, must be used for activities that contribute financially to the airport. This little bit of bureaucratic history is very helpful in conveying the message that regardless of its naysayers, the airport will never go away.
Often in the 1940s and 1950s, when these title transfers occurred, the local community did not realize the economic value of a functioning airport, so they neglected the facility. But with the passage of time (particularly following 9/11 with the advent of TSA awkwardness at Part 121 airports), business aircraft began using local airports more frequently, making it more evident that the facility has a big economic impact on the community. In addition to business aircraft use, other examples of the airport’s value readily understood by the public include FedEx air cargo operation. Today, just about everyone receives packages delivered by FedEx. The fact that it arrives via air right to their local airport onboard a “small” single-engine Cessna (Caravan), and is quickly transferred to a nearby van is a personal benefit they can readily appreciate.
Another notable benefit is the use of the airport by a local air ambulance service. It is surprising just how many people have had a friend or relative flown somewhere urgently for medical treatment. Knowing that there is a local facility available for this purpose contributes to their sense that the airport provides personal value to them. Naturally, on Airport Day, the aircraft involved in activities such as these are present for all to see.
Now, you might think with the heavy emphasis on airport history and value, Airport Day should be a time when airplane demonstrations are flown with great conservatism; we have not found that to be the case. There is a certain magic in flight that especially comes alive during events like Airport Day. That is how we found ourselves in the Lear showing off for the crowd on that sunny day, having every bit as much fun as the kids watching.
My only regret is if I had known my Unicom transmissions were going to be broadcast over the PA system with 1,500 people listening, I would have dropped my voice an octave to sound more like the proverbial old, grey-haired, 30,000-hour airline captain we all try to emulate when the mic is keyed.