March 13, 2002

I used to enjoy flying down to the airport in Towanda, Pennsylvania. Whether you follow Cayuta Creek and the Susquehanna or fly a straight line right over Elmira, it is a scenic trip. It is far enough that you feel like you have been somewhere, but close enough that it doesn't take too much time. Most pleasure flights are made on the flimsiest of excuses, and the excuse for going to Towanda is the nearby diner.

I have seen a picture of the airport that was taken perhaps 50 years ago. It was a long and broad meadow with a hangar at the northeast corner, closest to town. There was another hangar area on the south side of the field. There were plenty of little airplanes, mostly around the corner hangar. In later years a ribbon of asphalt was laid through the meadow, but a grass runway was preserved alongside it.

The airport had struck a nice balance between style and functionality, with a paved runway for all- season use, especially by the heavier nosewheel planes that had become common by the late 50s. The grass runway was preserved for us folks with the older planes which are better- mannered when on turf; the wheels have less "bite" and the flight controls are effective for more of the landing roll.

The hangar in the northeast corner has disappeared without a trace, and the airport office has been on the south side for a long time. Folks going to the diner though, taxied to the extreme northwest corner and parked in the grass. From there, it was a short walk along the railroad tracks, over a creek, and up a narrow road past a dairy farm to the diner.

The airport has been improved again this past year. The modest strip of asphalt was removed, re-graded, lengthened and widened. Gone is the grass runway, and gone is the parking spot in the corner. Us simple folks can now be accommodated by parking in the "proper"area and walking an extra half mile. We lost the grass runway and the convenient parking so that business aircraft can now use the field. Probably they will, some day.

The FAA funding package for the airport improvements came with enough money for a chain link and barbed wire fence for the entire airport perimeter. The fence wasn't required, but how many public administrators can turn down free money? The fence fits well with the "fiefdom syndrome" that administrators so readily fall into; it is the white picket fence that surrounds their turf, and all who come must abide by it.

There is still a passage through the fence where it crosses the creek on the path to the diner, although it is rumored that it will be closed off. If that happens, yet another small airport will be lost as a casual destination, but so what? Why should the world care about a grumpy old man and his ragwing airplane anyway. All the hamburgers he and all his friends might buy wouldn't feed a flock of crows.

Like so many things around us, mainstream aviation is tech- heavy. Faster, more payload, less fuel, quicker turnarounds, and more electronic automation to save on crew costs. Aviation is a tough business, and little advantages are aggressively pursued. Placing recreational and business aviation into a perspective, the value of my 1946 Commonwealth plus all the other Commonwealths in existence is less that the cost of the smallish turboprop engine at the front of the plane I fly at work.

Since its inception, aviation has been the way of the future, and it is my fear that it still is. I forsee a day when the sky is deemed "too valuable" or "too strategic" to have regular folks flying through it for no good reason. Much like the old Joni Mitchell song, they'll pave paradise and put our planes in a museum. The essence of freedom is what you can do, not just what you actually do. Freedom allows you to aspire or to just dream contentedly. We all aspire to different things, but every time that the brightness of someone's ambitions are snuffed out, the world becomes a grayer place for us all.

With the sky reserved for approved uses only, and nobody flying just because they find it to be inspiring, I suppose we could simply pick pilot candidates from some politician's list, and train them specially for the airlines or the military. That sort of system has worked acceptably well throughout the totalitarian world. Piloting could become just like factory work, an occupation without a passion.

Speaking of the totalitarian world, haven't we made remarkable progress on the retail side of aviation? There seems to be no delay too long, no inconvenience too great, and no indignity too base to be required in the name of "public security" A faceless administrator speaks with the force of law, and our only option is compliance. I see it as a testing ground for the civil application of administrative law, where guilt is assumed and penalties are decreed.

As I said before, aviation has often found itself with one foot striding into the future. If you want more aspects of your personal life to follow in aviation's footsteps, all you need to do is nothing. Don't pay attention to what is going on around you, and stand silently while someone else's ox is gored. Sit in front of the TV and watch Jerry Springer and his clones. Watch the neatly packaged Action News while our individual freedoms silently erode.

I feel a bit like my wife's wiry old grandmother, who chased an agent from the State's new sales tax bureau from her country store in the 1950s. He never returned because he knew that she would never change her old ways, and he knew that she didn't matter much anyway.

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