Budd Davisson, Plane and Pilot, Jan 2003
The Great Aviation Dream

Home, home on the runway, where the deer and the Piper Cubs play

We were over the hill country west of Austin, Texas. America West Flight 971 was whistling along at 30,000 feet at 500 knots and my nose was pasted to a window in tourist class doing my usual thing—looking for runways. Especially private ones. And I saw them. Lots of them. And it was irritating the hell out of me. Or, at the very least, it was making me jealous.

Down there nestled into quiet, pastoral valleys, laying along flat top ridges and cutting across farm fields were the unmistakable marks made by people who have made airplanes a part of their live style. More than that, it looked as if the airplane had defined that life style by allowing them to pick where they want to live with minimal thought given to the inconvenience of distance: some of the solitary ranches and houses looked to be at least twenty miles from civilization, which in this case, is defined as a larger paved runway with a small town attached. They are living the Great American Aviation Dream and just about everyone in aviation, me included (especially me) envies them. Or maybe I’m wrong about that. Let’s check.

Everyone who has ever thought about living in the country with a grass runway as your backyard and your (insert name of favorite airplane here) on the other side of the back door out of the kitchen, put your hand in the air. See! I told you so.

The dream is simple, although, depending on our level of imaginary wealth, it can certainly attract highbrow trappings. But not mine. I don’t need a runway with a house that overlooks the ocean or snow capped mountains. I don’t even need a lot of land because, among other things, my imaginary runway isn’t huge. 2000 feet will do it, although it’s likely to be at 5,000 feet MSL, so maybe 2500 feet would be smarter. The Bearhawk has big wings but the Pitts doesn’t.

Mostly what I want is solitude. And grass. And the heavy scent of pine trees. And an absolute minimum of neighbors. It’s okay if they’re a few ridges over, but in my mind’s eye, as I stand in front of the hangar and scan horizon to horizon, all I see is country. No structures (a nice little crumbling Indian ruin on a ridge would be nice, though), no roads, no nothing. And I hear nothing, save the occasional screech of an Eagle. Or a coyote laughing in the distance as he reminds the world that he’s smarter than all of us put together.

My little haven is in the west, where grass runways are rare, primarily because grass is rare. But for most folks their haven should be where their mind is. All over the east coast, I’ve seen verdant little runways carved through the forest, a house barely reflecting through the trees. One of those, which I’ve actually flown into, was a stretch of green velvet in Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The owner lived in one of those big old, quarried stone farmhouses and his hangar was a matching stone barn. And he populated it with the right kind of airplanes, most of which were biplanes. That only seems right.

I suppose there’s no reason a Bonanza or some other Spam can wouldn’t be just as happy in that situation as any other airplane. Which is good because everyone’s dream is going to be different. Right now, close your eyes and picture yourself walking around the corner of your imaginary hangar. The sun is barely twenty minutes old and shadows lay long across the runway. You’ve just set your hangar door in motion and, as it opens, the nose of your beloved aerial mistress comes into view. Quick now, without thinking—what kind of airplane is it? Don’t give yourself time enough to start thinking about loads, speeds, required mission or anything else rational. Let your heart instantly project the image of the airplane on you mind’s eye before your brain has time to apply logic. What is it? A C-182. Oh, a C-180! Good choice. A Staggerwing? Yeah, why not? This is a dream right? Dreams have no pre-determined size so why not dream big? I love it!

There should probably be one constant to all of these dreams, however—there has to be a Cub on the premises. A pastoral runway without a Cub is like a clear, fast running stream without trout. ‘Just ain’t natural.

The more you think about this dream, the more you’ll start to customize it. In mine, there are a couple of horses, two dogs and a half-dozen cats. The back of the hangar has a separate work area with machine shop, both an airplane and a car under construction, and a clean room for antique weapon restoration. There’s an extremely cool, slightly funky, bunk house/apartment above the shop for guests who drop in. The house is a warm amalgam of logs and quarried stone. High ceilings, humongous fireplace, antlers and artifacts all over the place. My old artillery piece sits across one end of the den. The Arizona Redhead has a kitchen the size of a small state and my office looks like the Smithsonian’s storeroom.

Austin to Phoenix is a little over two hours via airliner and, as the countryside became coarse and dry with random mountains, the little runways never disappeared. It seems that as long as there is open country there will be people with little airplanes out there living their dreams. From six miles up, I’m sharing that dream with them. If it can’t happen to me, at least I’m glad it’s happening to someone.