The Public Nature of Private Aviation

In addition, the war caused the construction of an amazing number of airfields around the nation, the majority of them located in the Southwest and run by the (then) Army Air Corps Training Command. After the war, many of those newly abandoned or partially used rural airfields became municipal airports for nearby communities, and around that core of public airports grew what might be thought of as the stereotypical "local" airport, an entity principally differentiated by the presence of a paved runway and at least one business featuring a gas pump and hangar and known esoterically as an FBO (fixed base operation).

With military airfields converted to civilian use and thousands of additional single-runway airfields created, by the late '50s and early '60s private aircraft small and multi-engine were increasingly moving around the nation, supplementing commercial airline services and doing everything from flying paper checks between banks at night to simply providing a place for private pilots to alight.

Locally-owned private aircraft proliferated at such small airfields, their owners needing to be close to fuel pumps and certified mechanics. And as Cessna Aircraft Corporation in Wichita (among others) began cranking out new airplanes by the dozens to meet the growing demand, a generation of former military pilots and their sons and daughters bought such planes as the venerable, four-seat Cessna 172, secure in the knowledge that most anywhere they wanted to go, there would be at least one suitable airport nearby.

And that's where the public interest in having enough private airports to use in breeding pilots comes into play.

Aviation Addicts

There are two types of pilots, by the way. The vast majority are Type 1: a male or female desperately in love with flying and characterized by an incapability of reaching a state of boredom when talking about flying or committing any premeditated act of aviation.

Type 2s, by contrast, view flying as merely an interesting challenge -- much as a corporate golfer might view the game as an interesting but occasional means of spending time with clients or the boss. But it is we Type 1s who have propelled the freedom to fly and seen it through decades of misunderstanding and even the increased national security required in the post-9/11 world.

Type 1s born in the postwar years share a tight bond with their local airport and one-hangar flight school. It was the tiny local FBOs on rural airports that gave so many Type 1s their first aviation job, pumping gas, sweeping hangars, and otherwise doing anything legal to be close to real flying machines and the daring souls that flew them.

Type 1s learned early how to sit quietly in the grass at the end of a rural runway, their heads cradled in their hands, watching rental pilots run through before takeoff checks a few yards away and hoping against hope for the pilot to cave, open the door, and wave the kid over for a ride. Those employed at FBOs routinely traded paychecks for flight lessons, and between such thrills spent too much time inhaling the scent of hangared Cessnas, Pipers or Beech aircraft.

There were, you see, so many little fields around the country that an almost endless array of starstruck, would-be aviators could be accommodated in their endless quest for the next flight. And the beauty of all this is that we're not talking nostalgia: most of that system is still in place and kicking at your friendly local one-runway airport.

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