Suffolk airport makes an impression

Published 12:00 am Sunday, June 30, 2002

We’ve lived in Suffolk since 1979, attended many Peanut Fests, drove down Carolina Road a zillion times, and never noticed we had a genuine airport. Then came this brochure from the DOT, Department of Tourism, listing 33 places and things to do in Suffolk. Among the 33 were two or three that intrigued me enough to vow to see them: vintage airplane restoration, skydive, and a gun museum. Shortly after came the piece mentioning that a Flying Fortress would be at the Suffolk airport over the weekend and that is when I discovered we had our very own flying field.

Like a lot of people I thought our airport was near Bowers Hill on 58 and that was as close as you could fly to our city. I’d been there several times to see the vintage World War II plane fly-in, and get close to that old DC3 that sits there facing Highway 58 looking rather lonely and forlorn. Back in 1944 I flew from California to Michigan in a DC3, which then was the main domestic commercial passenger plane. And in 1994 we flew in one from Puerto Rico to the Virgin Islands, cockpit doors removed and plenty of Twistems holding things together on the instrument panel. But it still flew, if a bit shaky. Could a B17 be airworthy after nearly 60 years? The brochure stated that the genuine Flying Fortress was but three miles south of town south on Carolina Road, the Suffolk Executive Airport, touted to be the Gateway to Hampton Roads, Virginia. Surely the westernmost gate.

I was both surprised and impressed with this crown jewel in Suffolk’s economic development plan. This was no dirt runway for crop dusters and the like. There are nearly two miles of concrete strips enabling planes, including a B17 and bigger, to land in any weather. The airport has full service fueling services and meals available at the Tailspin Restaurant in the terminal. A visiting pilot can call home, park the plane in one of the 54 general aviation hangars, and have a taxi deliver him and guests to any of many nearby motels. One day there will be a motel near the runway. It is easy to visualize this growing airport competing with Newport News and others in the vicinity. And it is vital to the continued economic growth of this very large city of Suffolk.

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At the airport is the Cardinal Pilot Shop, which provides pilot training, pilot supplies, aircraft rentals, sales and maintenance. It includes an engine shop and hangar space as well as tie down services (539-0600). And a place called the Fighter Factory, associated with Tidewater Tech. These professionals specialize in recovering and restoring World War II-era propeller driven aircraft. They have a collection that includes a 1942 Navy Steersman, a 1943 British Spitfire, a 1945 Corsair, (it flew off the early carriers) and others well worth your viewing.

For the courageous there is Skydive Suffolk, Inc. Certified instructors offer tandem and accelerated freefall from your first step our of a plane at 14,000 feet, all the way to your expert license. I was told that one instructor, built like a wrestler, brought past President Bush safely down when he wanted to jump one more time. You can reach them at 539-3531. I dare you to call; that instructor has me about convinced to try it, but the bride and offspring say, &uot;Don’t be stupid, you’re too old and too brittle.&uot;

The Great American Flyers Festival over the weekend drew hundreds to our airport and I’m sure all were favorably impressed with what they saw. I guess a 14-year-old girl would think it peachy keen that the little town of Suffolk has a genuine airport. At 77, I feel the same and I must admit it gave me a sense of pride. After all, the tiny dot on the landscape called downtown is almost lost in the 430 square miles of vastness we call Suffolk and you could hide it in a corner of the 600 acres of airport. So the connection is one of great importance, the airport is not just a part of our space, it is an essential part of our commercial growth, a vital link to the future. It must grow or the city won’t.

And that B17 was there as advertised, not like the ones I rode in back in 1944 because they were camouflaged to look like the ground from above and the sky from below. This one was rightfully named the &uot;Aluminum Overcast.&uot; Everything else was identical. I’ll tell you about it next.

Robert Pocklington is a regular columnist for the Suffolk News-Herald.