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Landing a light airplane at strange little airports round the U.S. is a gambling proposition somewhat like auto touring must have been 40 years ago. It's a nice policy to patronize the independent airports, not only to avoid congestion at municipal terminals but because the little operator can generally use the trade. In fact, he often needs it so badly that he's off somewhere pressing pants for a living and the only sign of life around the pretty little airport with the tattered wind sock is a mouse nest in a peeling fuselage.
This happens discouragingly often, and if you're lucky you have enough gas to get back in the air and head for a main terminal. Otherwise you spend three or four hours locating your host, and as darkness or weather descends he'll quote tie-down prices for the night and regale you with stories of how private flying has gone to hell since everybody and his dog quit flying at the expense of the G.I. Bill. Or it was surplus sales that ruined him, with the customers buying bombers cheaper than Navions. Or the fickle public just lost interest. Some of these guys can be so eloquent that I have to think of my own home field to keep from bursting into tears.
Home is the County Air Park near Spring Valley, N.Y., a hamlet 30 miles up the west bank of the Hudson from Manhattan; and the casual visitor might easily conclude that if tears are to be shed, this establishment merits them. The field is operated by Spring Valley's mayor, a 41-year-old ex-Air Force flight instructor named William Bohlke, who, as will be seen, couldn't have picked a less auspicious location for an airport when he started it 10 years ago with a handful of savings, a horse-drawn grader, a two-seater Aeronca and a lease on 80 acres of hilly farmland. But the County Air Park, like Bohlke, has qualities not immediately evident. It has a flavor all its own, and discouragement is not one of the ingredients.
On a gusty Sunday late last month, for example, I navigated toward the Air Park in a four-seater Tri-Pacer carrying my wife, a friend and his wife and 300 pounds of luggage and accumulated cargo. Gingerly watching through the Jersey smog for LaGuardia traffic on the right and Stewart AFB jets ahead, I had no trouble locating our destination. On weekends you just look for a swarm of small airplanes. There are 60-odd active ships on Bohlke's field, flown by 200-odd pilots (mostly Bohlke-trained) who haven't heard that there has long been a slump in private aviation.
I landed my machine (plastered it, would be a better word) on a steep, soggy hillside laughingly called the west strip. Not east-west, because if you tried landing the other way you would just keep flying. There is another runway, slightly less sloppy, more level and 1,800 feet long, with a built-in cross wind, a farmhouse and a forest at one end, and a railroad track at the other. Bohlke does not make his living on smooth facilities or appearance. His buildings sag at the corners, and the three fanciest planes on the field are a new Mooney and two old Beech Bonanzas.
His Honor himself was manning the gas pump as we taxied up, fast to keep from sinking to the hubs, dripping mud and slush from the landing. A stocky man in winter working clothes and steel-rimmed spectacles who has never in his 21 years of flying been caught wearing Wellington boots, Ray-bans or even a scarf, Bohlke watched with amused interest as I shut off the engine and the Tri-Pacer gave a sigh and reared back on its haunches, dangling its nose wheel two feet in the air.
"Welcome home," Bill said, as I unloaded and the nose wheel settled gently back to earth. "How was Nassau?" he asked.
"Now how did you know that?" I hadn't told him where we were going.
"You're all tanned; you're carrying Mae Wests, which means ocean; your plane's got a new wax job, which, knowing you, means cheap foreign labor. Besides, nothing but tax-free bottle goods could tempt you to overload it like that, and it couldn't be Cuba because you don't like rum that much."