“Why do you do it?” I asked.
“We’ve been in aviation since we were kids,” Carlos said. “We know the airplane’s special niche. The DC-7 can carry 35,000 pounds of freight into a 5,000-foot strip in the islands. The runways aren’t going to get any longer in most of the places we fly, because they end at the water. Right now, and probably for another few years, these airplanes are the most economical way for us to serve that market. Time’s running out, though. Then it’s on to the next gig. I’d love to just restore old transport aircraft, but I’ve got to make a living.”
On Tuesday morning, the day before the scheduled run, Walter was in the cockpit cranking the uncowled number-two engine for a ground check. The prop was turning so slowly it seemed like it could never catch, but it did, chugging, one cylinder after another exploding, belching smoke, shaking, and then settling into a smooth idle. After the oil had warmed up, Walter increased the power. The 18-cylinder Wright R-3350 Cyclone wrapped into a serious roar unlike the sound of any other airplane at the airport, and the airplane rocked back and forth in its chocks.
It was still dark Wednesday morning when the DC-7 took off for the Bahamas, all four full-throated engines turning as smoothly as the day they were born. George Riley, about the same age as the airplane, was in the left seat today. “I gave up flying a DC-8 and an apartment in Paris to come fly this thing,” he told me.
Martin told me the -7 was due back around 2 p.m., so at 1:30 I waited outside the airport fence on the approach to runway 27 Right. Sure enough, at 1:55 there it was, an unmistakable elegant shape, still too far away to hear. As it grew larger, gear down and full flaps, I could hear those engines, the same stirring, throttled-back rumble I heard often as a child at the airport fence in Denver.
B AYPORT AERODROME IS A 2,740-FOOT grass strip 50 miles east of New York City and four miles south of Long Island MacArthur Airport. This rare airport would have been a housing development years ago had it not been for Peter Cohalan, an enlightened Islip Town supervisor, his board, and local citizens. A developer was set to begin bulldozing, but the neighbors decided they would rather have an airport next door than yet another development. Would that all airports were so fortunate.
My connection with Bayport began 33 years ago. The first owner of my 1962 Super Cub was the Long Island Soaring Association, based at Bayport, then called Edwards Field. When the club was trading the ’62 in for a new Cub in 1967, I bought it. The airport has hardly changed since, except for two new rows of metal T-hangars on the northeast end of the field. A small museum and some beautiful aircraft live in those hangars; among them are Cubs, Stearmans, a 1931 Aeronca C-3, an Aeronca Champ, a Fleet 16B, an N3N-3, and a rare Waco UBA, one of six known to have been built. On almost any nice weekend some of them will be flying.
D’Angelone Aviation, the fixed-base operator, is owned by Frank D’Angelone, who 30 years ago was my commercial and multi-engine instructor. D’Angelone, an FAA-designated examiner, is an affable man who loves to fly and teach. Affable, that is, unless you operate an airplane in a sloppy manner. Bayport is surrounded on all sides by trees and lies underneath MacArthur’s busy airspace in a special corridor. Since there is not much room for error, it is best to call ahead or drive by for a briefing if you haven’t landed there before.
Steve Martin (not the actor) was giving rides in his Fleet biplane every time I stopped by Bayport. “I hung around airports as a kid,” he told me, “but no one ever gave me a ride. I made up my mind then that if I ever had an airplane, I would give anyone a ride who asked.” His brightly colored Fleet, with “El Conquistador del Cielo” painted on the side, is popular indeed.
With no commercial traffic, there are no security gates or tall fences. Bayport says “come in,” not “keep out.” Children, properly supervised, are welcome to watch the airplanes come and go and see them up close. I didn’t meet a pilot there who wouldn’t be happy to chat or answer a visitor’s questions. After all, that’s probably how they got started: kids at airport fences who grew up and stepped inside.