Not Quite the Future of Flight by Mark Stone
May 2012. Each Mother's Day weekend, weather permitting, we are treated to an unofficial air show out of South Prairie Airport. South Prairie airport is a fly-in community with roughly 30 aircraft based there, including a stunt plane, two biplanes, and a restored P-47. Sitting on our deck watching a biplane do loop the loops overhead is big thrill for all of us, especially Nathan.
But South Prairie Airport represents something more. Fly-in communities are a nostalgic reminder of a by-gone era when the technology of flight seemed both more personal and more accessible. By their rarity, these communities are also a reminder that not every arc of technology lands successfully; sometimes science and economics conspire to bring us well short of our aspirational destination.
A bit of background: Fly-in communities sprung up around the country primarily in the 50s and early 60s. The community would be centered around an airstrip, often (as in the case of South Prairie) a turf strip. Each home in the community would have a hangar in addition to a garage, with the hangar facing the airstrip. Often these communities are located in resort / vacation spots where activities like fishing or golf would be a major attraction.
When fly-in communities were at their peak in popularity, small aircraft flying was less carefully regulated, fuel was much less expensive, and small aircraft themselves were considerably more affordable than they are today. World War II had left us with a bump in the number of pilots per capita in our population, and a consequent boost in interest in flying and aircraft ownership. These demographic effects lasted for a good 20 years after the end of the war. For a time it seemed that small aircraft would offer a viable family or commuter travel alternative to the automobile, dramatically extending the radius of residential communities accessible to America's upwardly mobile boomer generation.
It is worth contemplating for a moment the America that almost was. While owning and operating a small aircraft was always going to be more expensive than owning and operating an automobile, in that moment the cost difference was small enough that it seemed like it could be justified by improvements in quality of life, convenience, and standard of living. Imagine being able to raise your family in a quiet, rustic community, with all the advantages of small town life, none of the disadvantages of homogenous suburban drudgery, and without having to give up your high earning career in a major metropolitan area. Imagine, on the weekends, having any destination within a few hours' flight as your playground. This vision is really one ultimate expression of a particularly American notion of freedom, independence, and rugged individualism. It captured the imagination of thousands of aspiring pilots in that post-war era.
Indeed my father-in-law was one whose imagination was fired up with this vision. Having lived his professional life to that point in either Los Angeles or the Bay Area, and having worked for the technology start-ups of his generation (companies like Ampex), he moved his family out of Silicon Valley to the Sierra Nevadas town of Sonora, thinking to continue his high tech career commuting by plane out of either Columbia Airport or Pine Mountain Lake. He got his pilot's license, and bought a share in a small plane.
Many years later, when I met him, none of that vision had quite come to pass. Hard economic times had limited job possibilities in Silicon Valley, and he had settled into technology consulting and accounting work in Sonora. The cost of owning and operating a plane had gone up dramatically. He had sold his share in the plane, and at some point stopped keeping his pilot's license current. And in any case, the big airlines, partly sensing a competitive threat, had insisted that the FAA subject small plane pilots to much more burdensome regulatory oversight that made it both more difficult to maintain pilot license certification and more difficult to register and fly routes.
His experience was typical. New fly-in communities are no longer built; interest in and occupancy in fly-in communities has dropped off. And in a post-9/11 world, we no longer associate flying with freedom and independence. That bright, imaginative moment in American history has faded, leaving only a glimmer of what could have been.
Here in the Pacific Northwest fly-in communities have fared somewhat better. Boeing's influence looms large over the region, and the people drawn to the Pacific Northwest are more likely than most to have a passion for flying. Geography also helps. The Puget Sound, the Olympic Peninsula, and the San Juan Islands all present secluded destinations that become much more accessible with the benefit of small aircraft. And so fly-in communities like South Prairie Airport remain active. Any sunny day on a weekend the hangers buzz with activity and the skies above our house become a playground of small craft. And once a year, Mother's Day weekend, we get the full display with loops, stunts, and vintage aircraft; a colorful reminder of an America that almost was.