On your way someplace else, how many times have you passed a sign pointing to a small town airport? The more important question is how many times have you followed that sign?
With the potential for unknown delays between the sign and your intended destination, and the unlikely reward of aviation serendipity, of finding something interesting at a small airport in these aviation depressed times, you probably drive on by. Yeah, me, too.
But not this year, or in all the years to follow. Finding something special is worth the minutes it takes to follow the airport sign and make a drive-by inspection. If there is nothing that captures my curiosity, I’ll be on my way. But if it is taken prisoner, what else can I do but surrender to it?
A visit to the municipal airport, with a single 4,400-foot runway, that serves the 11,639 residents of Urbana, Ohio, planted the seed for this change. Had I been traveling and not touring the National Aviation Heritage Area, I would have missed something truly unique, the Champaign Aviation Museum, which calls this small town airport, also known as Grimes Field, home.
What makes the Champaign Aviation Museum unique is not the B-17, named Champaign Lady, it is restoring to flight status by connecting the parts of five different Flying Fortress airframes with new construction. Nor is it the company of volunteers who are doing this good work. What’s unique is that museum visitors can watch them work, up close and personal.
At most aviation museums, if the restoration shop is open to the public, admission is usually an added fee and visitors are kept at a distance. At the small museum at the Urbana Municipal Airport, the restoration shop is the primary exhibit. Open Tuesday through Saturday, there is no admission, period.
Naturally, there’s much more to the museum, but what captured my curiosity was talking to the volunteers doing the work. From one I learned that one of the B-17’s sections was a set for the 12 O’clock High TV series, with big holes cut into it so cameras could film the waist gunners. The tail came from a B-17 drone the military flew through radioactive clouds after nuclear weapons tests. And the nose section came from the B-17 Allison used as an engine test bed.
NAHA-89And if I had driven by this small town airport, I wouldn’t have met Irv Bence (I hope I got your name right), a volunteer since 2008, who was building wooden ammo boxes for the tail guns. An engineer, he started work at Rockwell International in Columbus, and during his career he worked on naval aircraft, including the A-3 and A-5 Vigilante. Our far ranging conversation about this aviation era was priceless.
So from now on, when I see a sign for a small town airport when I’m driving somewhere else, I’ll will follow it for a quick look-see. This decision has enriched my anticipation for two trips planned for 2016, one to the East Coast and another, on two wheels, to the West. And I’ll be looking for more than alluring attractions and interesting people. What I’m most curious about is the state of small town flight training. Does it still exist, and what are flight schools or independent instructors doing to maintain its viability? Rest assured that I’ll share what I find. – Scott Spangler, Editor