by Budd Davisson

So Many Runways, So Little Time

This time it was a naked dirt scar running along a tree covered ridge somewhere just south of the Oregon border. The rugged mountains ran out to a fuzzy horizon with snow caps sticking up to remind me winter was on the way. I had no idea how far away they were. From 25,000 feet in tourist class, distance doesn't mean much. The runway below, however, did.

As I spotted the tiny strip, I instantly projected my mind down there. In my imagination I stood at the approach end, studying the way the fir covered slopes ran down on all sides, giving me a view of the valleys beyond. As I watched the runway coast past at 500 mph, I asked myself why was it there? What kinds of airplanes used it? What did its presence say about the area?

From miles above, I could barely make out scattered reflections of houses, minor smudges of civilization, scattered here and there in the trees. They were nearly hidden in a sea of green. The runway said someone there had tired of trying to make their way to the outside world via the almost invisible roads which snaked through canyon bottoms and clung to mountain slopes. Although I could probably see 100 miles in all directions, there wasn't a single major highway or city in sight. Getting from here to there, where ever "there" maybe, via roads would be undeniably beautiful, but terribly frustrating. That answered the reason for the runway. Someone wanted solitude, their own world away from the world. But the real world still had to be close at hand. Enter the airplane as a necessity, not a luxury.

I squinted at the runway, trying to pick out the tiniest details until it disappeared from sight under the leading edge of the 737's wing. I was frustrated. I should be down there on short final, flaps down, eyes fixated on the end of the runway, mind already exploring the neighborhood.

I go through that frustration a lot. I make a lot of imaginary landings at those hundreds of tiny runways I spot on my entirely too frequent airline travels. I criss-cross the country almost weekly and, regardless of which way the nose is pointed, I'll be looking down, searching for the tell tale traces that aero-man has been there. Each time I see a runway, I imagine the approach and what I'll find when I magically drop out of my aluminum people hauler into my favorite imaginary back country investigation tool, an Aviat Husky. If I'm feeling especially flush, I'll be flying an imaginary Sherpa.

The runways that frustrate me come in a wide variety of flavors and environments, so the treasures to be found at each also vary wildly.

Small towns in the midwest tempt me with airports I image as being tolerated, not supported. Yeah, I know that's a broad generality, but from 25,000 feet I can re-make the airport into what I want. I most often imagine them as a barely maintained grass strip with leaning hangars which hide a past generation's flying machines. The airport is ignored or forgotten by the locals as are the treasures within. Is there a mouse-infested Staggerwing or Monocoupe 90AL just waiting for me to discover it? It's owner, a wizen old man long since grounded by age and misfortune, leans against the hangar in a weathered oak chair, soaking up the sun. As I alight from my imaginary bush plane, he is so glad to see someone showing an interest in his airplane, he insists I take it home with me. His kids don't care about that part of his life. They don't understand why he doesn't just junk the winged derelict. He sees me as a good home for the machine that still connects him with his youth. I'm glad to oblige.

In the high deserts and mountains of the west, the tell tale straight lines which run at an angle to everything else in the area may foretell something entirely different. Maybe a rancher still depends on a Super Cub to help manage his spread. Or maybe, after The Redhead and I climb out of our Husky/Sherpa, we'll be met by a desert brown junk yard of old mining equipment and we'll finally find that illusive ore car we've been searching for. Or maybe we'll be dropping in on a reclusive old couple anxious to share their hand built, adobe home with a pair of new faces. The old man and I will talk arrowheads and Winchesters. The Redhead will collect a fabulous recipe for an unnamed delicacy which each time she serves it, will remind us of that remote runway and a smiling old couple.

When you're a low and slow type of personality, flying high and fast can be frustrating. Just as we love driving two lane roads, tasting the dust, the food and the junque shops that characterize an area, Marlene and I love dropping into strange airports. Or we would, if our lives would slow down just long enough to give us the time. I can't think of anything we'd rather do than jump in the Desert Dog and takeoff with the intention of landing on every out-of-the-way runway that's within striking distance of our intended course. Or maybe that zig-zag line would become our course. We'd simply draw a series of short lines on the sectional that terminate on every tiny runway indicated. We'd also make it a goal to at least make a low pass over every private runway or unmarked runway we see.

One of the ugly truths of life is that there are too many runways and too little time.