Bay State Challenge: Road Trip 2

This is the third part of a multi-part post. The series starts here.

Because Independence Day fell on a Saturday this year, the day before was a semi-official national holiday. Some people had off work, others didn't, but nobody got much done. My own schedule was wide open: no TWiV taping, no looming deadlines. It was also a gorgeous day, with clear blue skies and light breezes, perfect for flying around exploring airports. Unfortunately, the Cessna 152 I'd planned to rent for the trip was out of service with a broken windshield.(1)

Instead, I turned to my trusty 2001 Volkswagen Beetle. This raised the small problem of navigation. Remember the traveling salesman problem I mentioned in the first post? Here it is. Armed with a list of nine airports I hoped to visit that day, I reached for my chalk and developed an optimized nested Monte Carlo algorithm that ... okay, fine, I Googled an answer. Sure enough, some folks much smarter than me have already put a handy tool online for this. At the Optimap page, I entered the list of airport addresses and was rewarded a moment later with the shortest Google Maps route through the whole set.

With my lunch packed and a full tank of gas, I set out for the first destination, located directly in the middle of the Cold War.

Field of dreams

Mutually assured destruction. Duck and cover. B-52s idling on a Christmas tree apron. A secret bunker under the mountains. Though it's been rebranded as Westover Metropolitan Airport, signs of this Chicopee field's past life as the biggest nuclear bomber base in the country are impossible to miss. The Air Force Reserve still flies massive Lockheed C-5s from here, and occasionally other large birds with dull plumage come to roost as well.

After passing a row of car dealerships, strip malls and chain restaurants, I turned onto Airlift Drive and drove past warehouses surrounded by tall chain-link fences. At the Westover Metropolitan terminal building, it was as if the neutron bomb had fallen after all.

Large, carefully built airline infrastructure stood everywhere, ready to handle throngs of passengers and lines of big jets. There was nobody around. The last airline with service to Westover went bankrupt several years ago, but the facilities remain, waiting for better times.

I parked beside the only other car in the lot and looked at the terminal. Behind a sturdy fence, acres of vacant tarmac extended to the horizon. Passing the empty baggage claim shelter, I walked into the terminal. The usual nylon belts held between tippy waist-high pylons directed nonexistent passengers through zig-zag lines to a long, unstaffed ticketing counter. An office off the main waiting area stood open, and I walked in.

"Hello? Anyone here?"

No answer.

I passed a few desks looking for the airport stamp, but didn't see it. Thinking it would be unwise to rifle through drawers in what is probably still a TSA-monitored facility, I walked back out. A selfie beside the terminal's entrance sign would have to do for the Challenge.

Down on the farms

Leaving Dr. Strangelove behind, I headed out to the turnpike. The directions to 8B5, Tanner-Hiller Airport, read like a country-western song. I exited the interstate, then turned off the state highway, went down the two-lane road, and followed the one-lane blacktop to the dirt road. Kept a-goin' past that trailer on the right, and there it was.

The stamp at Tanner-Hiller is in a letterbox behind a defunct gas pump, right near the porta-potty. As I was stamping my passport, Bob Burchard, manager of the airport, came out of the house next door to say hello. A few ultralights buzzed slowly around the traffic pattern above us, and he explained how a group of ultralight and hang gliding enthusiasts sets up camp on the field on summer weekends. The adjacent mountains provide good ridge soaring conditions.

Three lonely Cessnas at Spencer Airport, MA.
I bade farewell to Bob and took a few more rural byways over to 60M in Spencer. This tiny airstrip in the woods is even more bucolic than Tanner-Hiller. I found the stamp behind the leg of an abandoned fuel tank, then sat eating my lunch in the car and listening to the gentle breeze blowing across the clearing. Three lonely-looking Cessnas occupied tie-downs in the grass, under a clear blue sky.

City airport, country airport

The bigger and busier an airport gets, the more generic it becomes. At a major international airline hub, it takes conscious effort just to figure out what country you're in. Perhaps these places start to belong less to the ground and more to the air.

In Worcester, the homogenized architecture and culture of global air travel have largely erased any sense of the airport's place on the ground. I made three laps around the little loop road - because all major airports need a loop road - before deciding that there probably wasn't a better place to park than the gated lot on the lower level. An airline employee near the taxi stand told me where to find the Rectrix FBO, where the airport's Challenge stamp was supposed to be. Rectrix runs a chain of FBOs that primarily serve the private jet crowd, and sure enough, when I walked in the lady at the desk was on the phone taking down a catering order.

When she finished I asked about the stamp. She said it hadn't arrived, and asked me if I knew who she could talk to about getting it. I gave her the number for Northampton Airport, which is one of the places spearheading the program, and she wished me luck with the rest of the Challenge. On the way out, I snapped a selfie in the waiting area, being careful to include the "Welcome to Worcester" sign. Without it, I could've been anywhere.

A short drive to Sterling, home of 3B3, put me in a place that couldn't have been mistaken for any other. The little FBO resembled, and perhaps once was, a private bungalow. Just beyond a waist-high fence, weeds poked through the asphalt under a fleet of Pipers and Cessnas in varying states of repair. Chairs sat out on a deck for those who wanted to watch takeoffs and landings, and a few flight lessons appeared to be underway. A fellow with the distinctive accent of the Bahston area helped me locate the stamp behind a dusty computer monitor on the office's front counter.

Fences and good neighbors

I've flown over KGDM several times, and from the air it looks like a typical small local airport. From the ground, it looks like a prison. Passing through overgrown fields on a no-outlet road, the first structure that looms up is a ten-foot-high fence topped with barbed wire. After that is a large hangar with its own gated entrance. Officious signs warn of dire penalties for trespassing.

The gates and fences continue to the main entrance, which features separate key-coded portals for cars and people, all in the construction style that screams "This Was Built According To A Detailed And Officially Sanctioned Specification." Indeed, they're exactly the same gates and fences that surround other major airports. Airports can get Federal and state grants to build these things, and clearly that's what happened here, but at Gardner they look far more menacing. It's probably because they enclose an aeronautical ghost town.

Fortress Gardner.
A handful of small airplanes sat at the tiedowns, behind a security system that certainly cost more than their total value. A knock on the FBO door met with silence, unsurprisingly; the FAA lists its hours of operation as "IREG." The stamp is supposedly inside the fence, next to the wingless hulk of an old Cessna Cardinal, but of course I couldn't get to it. One of the "No Trespassing Gardner Municipal Airport" signs provided a handy background for the requisite selfie.

The road approach to KFIT is an entirely different experience. Driving past Airport Auto Parts, the Airport Business Park, and several similarly named operations, it becomes clear that the folks in Fitchburg are proud of their landing strip. And why wouldn't they be? The MassDOT-issued fence around it is a carbon copy of the one at Gardner, but here it's almost invisible. There's too much other stuff going on to notice the gates.

The 'tower' at Fitchburg.
Though Fitchburg doesn't have a control tower, it looks like it does; an observation deck atop the FBO allows spectators to watch the field's operations. On the main floor, a busy diner serves breakfast and lunch seven days a week. Of course there's also a flight school. The fellow at the FBO desk was happy to see someone doing the Challenge, and we talked for awhile about flying versus driving to the state's various airports.

My next stop was 6B6, Minute Man Airfield in Stow, which illustrated that the feeling of a place seeps through even when nobody is around. A sign on the FBO door said they'd closed at noon because of the quasi-holiday, and the restaurant was also shut. Technically it was a lot like Gardner: fenced in and devoid of people. But there's a difference between empty and deserted. It was obvious I could go back to Stow on a different day and find it humming with activity. If I go back to Gardner, nothing will have changed.

The short field

There was one more stop on the agenda, and it was a place I definitely wouldn't be flying into. Marlboro Airport, 9B1, claims to be the oldest continuously operating commercial airport in Massachusetts. Built when Charles Lindbergh was still flying the mail, it occupied a rural field and had a generously sized runway by the standards of its day. Times have changed.

Now crammed into a built-out suburb behind a busy commercial street of big box stores, Marlboro's 1,600-foot landing surface is less than the gross weight takeoff roll of even some fairly small modern aircraft. I jockeyed my compact car into a cramped space just off the road. When I got out, there was a woman standing three feet away from me in her own suburban back yard. Her small lot shares a property line with the airport's ramp. I didn't strike up a conversation, and even if I had the roar of a Robinson R-22 helicopter hovering over the ramp a few yards in front of us would've drowned it out.

Entering the little FBO from the pahkin' lot, I found a shortage of space and "r"s inside. Several Bostonian-accented people filtered in and out, and a cheerful lady at the desk was happy to stamp my passport. We talked a bit about flying. Airport staffers tend to be touchy about their facilities' accessibility, so I told half the truth: I'd driven today because my regular rental airplane was in the shop. She immediately perceived the real reason. Gesturing at a middle-aged fellow who was lurking around the office with a downcast face, she lowered her voice and said "it's just as well you drove, considering he hit the fence this mahning."

(1) Not my fault. Someone else got the pleasure of experiencing a bird strike.