Aircraft—Big Sandy Unicom…experimental…5…1…5…Brovo…Alpha…inbound for landing from the southwest…airport advisory please…
Unicom—We have aircraft in the pattern…please use caution and report your position inbound…winds favoring runway 3…
your first time leaving the bonds of earth and taking flight. The first time I ever flew was from Miami International Airport in a Eastern Airlines 727.think everyone remembers the first time they were in an airplane or a helicopter,
My wife Rossalene and I were in Miami on vacation in 1977 and we planned a three day trip to the Bahamas. The big shiny new Boeing 727 took all of 19 minutes to travel from Miami to Freeport, Bahamas. We had just gotten seated when we traveled the approximately 100 miles to Freeport! Our return flight was a different story.
I had used a travel agent to set up our trip, we had tickets issued on Eastern Airlines over to the islands and Bahama Air on the way back. I guess I must have gotten spoiled on that new jet on the way over because I was shocked to see the plane we were flying back in to Florida. I don’t remember what kind of plane it was but it was a high wing, propeller driven twenty passenger plane, bright yellow with island scenes painted on it; some people call them, island junipers.
On the way over I was amazed at the power of those jet engines, the acceleration of the jet down the runway. It was just the opposite taking off in the small prop plane, it seemed to labor down the runway while gaining speed, the wings seemed to flap a little after taking off, I remember looking down at all that water. It took almost an hour to make it back to Flordia and I was relieved when it was over.
Knowing a whole lot more about aviation now than I did then, I bet that plane probably did about 4 flights per day for several years and I wouldn’t be surprised to find out that plane is still flying somewhere in the world now.
Most of the planes I keep in the hangar at Big Sandy are over 40 years old, my Piper Cherokee 6 was made in 1967. I saw a documentary on TV about the Boeing B52 bomber, developed in 1950, it has been retrofitted several times and the military expects it to still have a useful life till 2050, that’s a 100 years of service.
During Airport Day at Big Sandy I got to see many people take their first flights, that was what I enjoyed most about the event. We would usually have 4 airplanes doing rides and there would be a line waiting to fly, sometimes the wait would be 2 hours or more. It was like being at Disney World. We finally started using a numbers system so people wouldn’t have to wait in line, just be there when it was their turn to fly. I especially liked talking to people after they landed, I always got the feeling they just felt like they cheated death for about 20 minutes. Eastern Kentucky’s mountains and trees looks so beautiful from a thousand feet or so, in any season the landscape is gorgeous and it is so special when you see it for the first time.
I don’t do Airport Day anymore. I started Airport Day to promote aviation in the community and to give people a chance to fly. It actually got so big I just couldn’t handle it any more. The crowds were always well behaved but with so many people wandering around on the ramp among the 30 airplanes parked and moving around, the pressure was more than I could handle. When pilots are starting a plane they can’t actually see if a child is near their propellers. Pilots are trained to yell, “Clear prop!” before starting but children and those not familiar with aviation aren’t aware of what is going to happen. When an airplane engine starts, the propeller is quickly spinning so fast, it’s hard to see.
I would usually ride my bicycle around the ramp escorting the running planes, trying to keep the crowd away but it wasn’t easy, there were just too many moving parts. On the last Airport Day, a small girl was very close to a plane when the propeller started and it startled her and it absolutely scared me to death. She ran away from the propeller and I realized I had created something that I just couldn’t control any more. The pandemic happened the following year and I decided it was time to quit. I did Airport Day for 18 years in a row, without an incident, only 1 rainout, but I worried about the liability I was exposing myself too and the pain I would feel if someone did get hurt. I had to end it.
I would estimate just over 2,000 people did plane rides, many for the first time. My favorite memories are of two first ride customers. One was a young girl from Johnson County, she signed up for a ride on one of the Cessna 172s.
I had made friends with a guy from Smyrna, Tennessee, Bill Austin. Bill had been flying a guy into Prestonsburg on an MU2 turbo prop. Bill sold airplanes, houseboats and ran a radio station, he was definitely a guy with a type A personality. If there were 500 people in a room, Bill would be the one everyone would be asking about. When Bill would fly his friend in, we would sit and talk all day. Bill heard me talking to people about Airport Day and offered to fly one of the L39s he had for sale to the airport. At the time I didn’t know what a L39 was, it’s actually a Czechoslovakian made fighter jet. The Soviet Union used to train their MIG pilots in these jets before they moved them up to the MIGs . If a pilot had a bunch of money and wanted to fly a fighter jet, the L39 was the way to do it.
I advertised on the radio and in the local newspapers about Bill’s L39 fighter jet coming to Airport Day. We always started Airport Day at noon and it was about two o’clock and I still hadn’t heard from Bill when a call came over the unicom, “Hey Gary, I would like to do a low pass over the runway, make sure there is no traffic while I fly by.”
I asked all traffic to stay clear of runway 3 and Bill flew by at about 200 miles per hour in his L39, made a steep turn and returned to runway 3 and landed. He caused quite a scene when he got out of his jet, the entire crowd gathered around Bill and he enjoyed telling everyone the history and capabilities of the L39.
A guy in the crowd asked, “How much money will it take to take me for a ride?”
Bill said, “Since this is considered an experimental aircraft I’m not allowed to charge people for a ride. I do, however, like helping out the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life raise money. If someone will set up a raffle for the local relay, I’ll take one lucky person for a ride.”
We sold 30 tickets for $10 dollars each, held a drawing and a young lady from Johnson County who had never flown before won the drawing. The man who asked how much it would cost for a ride offered her $200 dollars for her raffle ticket and she turned him down.
Bill buckled her in and off they flew. He took the L39 up to 5,000, feet put it in a steep descent and came down runway 3 at a high speed, pulled up steeply and did two barrel rolls and returned to the airport and landed. Her $10 dollar ride, the first ride she had ever taken, was one she will never forget.
My favorite memory though was the very first ride on the first Airport Day. The first Airport Day was held on the 3rd Saturday in September in 2002. I had advertised starting at noon and I had no idea how many people would show up. At 8 o’clock that morning the fog was so thick you could hardly see the ramp when I started pulling planes out of the hangar to display. When I returned to get another plane to park on the ramp I noticed a elderly woman sitting on the bench in front of the airport. I asked her if I could help her with anything.
She said, “Is this where they are going to be doing airplane rides today?”
I said, “Yes ma’am, when the fog lifts, I think it will be at least noon before the fog will lift today, are you interested in a ride?”
She pointed at the sky and said, “I’m eighty-one years old and all my life I have wondered what this world looks like from up there, and I plan on finding out today.”
I told her she could wait inside and when the fog lifted she would be the first to take a ride. As the sun slowly burned away the fog and planes started to fly in, flight instructor, Larry Short, arrived in his Cessna 172 from Combs Airport. I asked him to go ahead and take her for a ride. They stayed up for about 30 minutes and when she got back on the ground she hugged Larry, and as I helped her out of the plane she hugged me, she was so happy at what she saw. She said, “I knew this world would be so beautiful from up there, I knew these mountains would go on for ever and ever, I have always wanted to see what the birds see. Thank you guys for making this happen.”
My guess is she had always wanted to fly in an airplane. She had imagined her entire life what the view would look like from up there and she didn’t have to wonder anymore.
Larry and I were so glad we could make that dream happen for her, we stood there watching her walk away, she was one happy woman.
Unicom—Have a safe trip home…thanks for coming Bill…
(Gary Wayne Cox is airport manager at Big Sandy Regional Airport owned by Floyd, Johnson, Magoffin and Martin Counties.)