So, apropos of nothing much, here's a little story about a little airport.
Here in Millinocket, we have a municipal airport, imaginatively called Millinocket Municipal Airport. It was built back in the '30s by the Civilian Conservation Corps, which was a New Deal make-work/personal-improvement agency for young men—unskilled labor in the great out-of-doors, healthy character-building toil, that sort of thing. Like many things here, the airport seems ever so slightly out-of-scale for what the town is now; it's not a controlled field with commercial service or anything, but it has two paved runways, lights, a proper fixed base operator, all that good stuff.
When I was a little kid, the airport was a happening place. The town's sole large industry, the late and much-lamented Great Northern Paper Company, had a small fleet of aircraft it maintained in a hangar there, and in the summer the Maine Forest Service would station a flock of spray aircraft there to conduct operations in the state's then-raging war against the endemic and economically disastrous spruce budworm. I'm not talking about your garden variety agricultural applicators here, either, I mean serious spray planes, the kind converted from World War II military aircraft. B-25s, TBF or TBM Avengers, C-54s (the military transport version of the DC-4 airliner), that sort of thing. (This was presumably my first exposure to WWII-vintage aircraft, which were not so very old in the late '70s!)
Things have quieted down a bit over there since the company folded and the budworm ceased to be such a high priority for the Forest Service, but it's still reasonably active by small-town airport standards. It's the kind of facility where the ancient art of hangar flying is still a thing—the old-timers sitting around swapping war stories and reminiscing about planes they used to have.
In the spring of 2003 or 4, while I was working for the local newspaper, the airport's master plan came up for review by the FAA. This is a document that spells out the airport's capabilities, intentions for future development, and so forth, and it has to be updated every few years, if for no other reason than to assure the FAA that the organization running the facility is on the ball. In Millinocket, the airport is municipal government property, but the town passes responsibility for the master plan off to the FBO as part of the contract, or at least it did back then.
I happened to know the person who was running the FBO at the time, we'll call him Jeff because that's what he's called, and he invited me to join him and the representative from the FAA when they met to discuss the Master Plan updates. This was, if I'm honest, not a hugely absorbing occasion even to an aviation wonk like me, and was probably of relatively little interest to most of our readers, but there was a moment near the end that has stuck with me all these years.
The FAA man, who was a federal bureaucrat straight from central casting—not the William Atherton raging asshole kind, but very buttoned-up—and Jeff talked for an hour or so about how much the town planned to spend on mowing the grass around the field in the upcoming summer, who owned the adjoining land, whether there were any noise complaints from the neighbors (no), general traffic levels, what renovations were planned to the fixed base (IIRC, they were going to modernize their fueling system that year), and that sort of thing. At the end, the man from the FAA made a couple of recommendations.
First, he suggested that the town look into the possibility of extending Runway 11/29, the longer of the airport's two runways, from its present length of just over 4,700 feet to 5,000 or more. Jeff and I glanced at each other in faintly exasperated amusement, as we'd both been bugging them to do that for the better part of a year by that point. We knew just why the FAA man was recommending it: Aircraft insurance companies like 5,000-foot runways a lot better than they do 4,713-foot ones. If 11/29 were 5,000 feet or longer, the airport could attract traffic that isn't allowed to stop there now for insurance reasons—particularly small business jets, if any happened to be in the area.
(I already knew this because I had considered trying to organize an air show at MLT the previous year, and had run aground on the fact that the theoretical centerpiece of the program, the Collings Foundation's B-17, couldn't land there. The very nice man from the foundation I talked to agreed that it was a daft rule—B-17s operated from far shorter fields during the war, and 287 feet is not very far—but their insurers simply wouldn't hear of it, and so the whole idea died a death.)
Point two, the FAA man advised that the small ridge in between the two runways needed to be cleared to comply with a new regulation that the center point of one runway at a two-runway airport must be visible from the center point of the other one. This was going to take a little doing on account of the town did not actually own that little wedge of raised land between the two runways, but evidently they sorted it out, because the job was done a few years later.
"Most importantly, though," said the man from the FAA, "what can we do about that hill at the south end of 11/29?"
Jeff and I looked at each other, baffled. What hill? There's no hill within at least half a mile of the south end of 11/29.
"Uh... what hill are you talking about?" Jeff finally asked, awkwardly.
The FAA man looked equally puzzled that he had to ask. "The one right across the road," he said.
Again, Jeff and I were stumped. What one right across the road? The only thing right across the road from the south end of 11/29 is a vacant lot, and then a little gully, and then the perimeter fence of the town cemetery, which is well back from road and could have no conceivable bearing on the approach to the runway, and anyway is not a hill.
Seeing that we had no idea what he was on about, the FAA man gestured for us to follow him and we all went outside.
"That hill," he said, pointing to what was indisputably a dull brown prominence just across the street. He seemed nonplussed, to say the least, when Jeff and I couldn't help but laugh. After all, he was quite right, there was obviously a hill over there, and a fairly substantial one at that; so why had we, the editor of the local paper and the operator of the damned airport, professed ignorance of it and then burst out laughing when we had it pointed out to us?
"That's not a hill," Jeff explained when he could breathe again. "It's snow."
That only baffled the FAA man further, since it was late April. "Snow?"
"That's where the town crews dump the snow they plow off the roads in the winter," Jeff explained. "Takes a while to melt 'cause there's so much of it. It'll be gone in a couple weeks."
The FAA man considered this, regarding the mound thoughtfully. To be fair to him, it really did look like a hill; it was brown, the way plowed-up snow piles look in the spring when the outermost layer has melted and all the road sand and gravel and crud is on the surface. There was no white showing, just dirt. To be fair to us, we'd never thought of it as resembling a hill, even though it plainly did, because it was just a transient feature. We knew there was no landform over there, and so genuinely had no idea what he was talking about when he mentioned one.
"Well," he said at length, "it's still too close to the glide slope."
Epilogue: The town crew still dumps the snow there, but nowadays they dump it a bit farther back from the road and try to spread it out a little more. That seems to satisfy the FAA.
And they still haven't lengthened the damn runway.
Benjamin D. Hutchins, Co-Founder, Editor-in-Chief, & Forum Mod
Eyrie Productions, Unlimited http://www.eyrie-productions.com/
zgryphon at that email service Google has
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