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January 10, 2007

It was the summer of 1969, there was a war on, and people were wearing flowers in their hair in San Francisco. But the wind that blasted through the open windows and into the back seats of the 7-AC Champ and the 7-ECA Citabria, where I spent most of those long summer days, would have made short work of any decorating I might have done to my head.

For the most part my thoughts that summer weren't on the war raging in a place called Viet Nam, or even on what the Hippies were doing in California. My mind was occupied with the challenge of turning my flying business into a full-time endeavor, and hopefully one that would pay the bills with enough left over to feed me.

I had become an instructor a few years before and had done free lance instructing at some of the local airports for a time, but the urge to have my own place kept eating at me. I wanted somewhere away from concrete and corporations and grumpy airport managers. In early 1968 heard that an almost abandoned 1600 foot grass field in Central West Virginia was available for rent and at first glance looked like it might be the answer to my dream. I went to see it.

I knew something about this field's past and as my footsteps tracked across the dusty office and echoed in the empty hangars, history seemed etched in the walls. The airport had played a part in the training of pilots during the Second War, when a Civilian Pilot Training school had operated there, giving pilots that would later see action in the skies of Europe, their first taste of flight. After the war a very busy flight school trained returning veterans under a GI Bill that not only paid for the training, but paid the students for getting their license. When dozens of local people learned to fly, a sort of aeronautical society sprang up, centered around the airport. It became a social center for many, along with their families. Over the years I had heard many stories from older pilots in the area, about the dances and picnics held there, about the fly ins, the breakfast flights and the airshows. When the aeronautical bubble burst in the early 50's and the post war aviation slump came, the airport operator shut the business down and airport activity slowly spooled down, until the only thing moving on this cold February day was the loose siding on the hangar, slapping in a gusting wind.

Since the field was without an operator for almost 15 years, the empty space in the hangars and office had become a magnet for things no one wanted. Friends pitched in as we pitched out stored junk from the office and hangars, got the rest rooms functioning and made an apartment in the back for my living quarters. At the time I had a full-time job as a sales rep for a large company and I traveled within a three state region. My weekends and evenings were free, so my plan was to instruct when I wasn't traveling. My new aeronautical home would give me a hangar to store and maintain the airplanes in, and it could be a sort of gathering place for my flying friends. My dream had come true.

As word of the activity at the little grass strip spread, more and more students appeared, and I found myself struggling to keep up with the demand for teaching. By summer I caved in and hired a full-time instructor who could keep things going when I was traveling and help me with the weekend crush. We were using tube and fabric aircraft and our prices were about half of those of the 'normal' flight schools that were using the new Cessna and Piper trainers. Students were driving 50 miles or more to get to us, passing bigger airports and their shiny new trainers to fly up a storm in our old taildraggers. A Piper J-3 soon joined the Champ and the Citabria, then a very used 172 became our instrument trainer, and our monthly flying hours kept increasing. Even better, the old social club at the airport was reborn and the hangars once again resounded with the chatter and laughter of happy people, as picnics, cookouts and fly ins were held there. Many of the old flyers who had been part of the airport crowd in the old days became involved in aviation and the airport once again, and scores of new flyers and their families completed the airport's rebirth.

In the spring of 1969 though, the unwelcome clouds of change appeared on the horizon. The company that I did my 'real work' for notified me that I was being transferred out of state and I had 30 days to get ready to move. I appealed to them to let me stay in my present location and continue my work at the airport, but the die was cast and the move must be made. It would mean of course, the end of my little flight school and the idyllic life I had carved out at the Field.

To be continued…

Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 For a restorative vacation for both your body and your soul, consider a week on the banks of the unforgettable Tygart River, in the heart of West Virginia. Click for more.

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