Airports of Call

The choicest sites for airplane watching.

Air & Space Magazine

I   FEEL AT HOME WHEREVER AIRPLANES ARE. When I travel, either in my own airplane or on an airliner, I take a look around the airports at my destination. At major terminals, of course, you’re restricted, though you can usually find a good vantage point for watching the activity on the runways. But at smaller ones, if you’re not a nuisance, you can quietly explore, looking through open hangar doors, meeting people and their airplanes, and watching them fly. Add a day onto your next trip to seek out a small airport. You’ll almost surely see something you’ve never seen before. Let me introduce you to a few places I’ve visited recently.

Several years ago on a long cross-country flight in my Piper Super Cub, I saw a curious sight southwest of Spokane, Washington. It was one of those super-clear days that makes you keep checking the chart in disbelief because you can see so much farther than usual. Ahead, two very large airplanes were doing touch-and-go landings on a giant runway in the middle of nowhere. I grabbed my sectional chart. This was either a mirage or Grant County International Airport at Moses Lake, a small town in southeast central Washington that is for some reason served by an airport with a 13,503-foot runway. Closer in, I could see they were Boeing 747s going round and round in a tight pattern.

“Grant County tower, Super Cub 7789P.”

“Cub 89P, Grant County.”

“89P is 15 to the east at 2,500. We’d appreciate traffic advisories, and, ah, what are those 747s doing?”

“They belong to Japan Air Lines. JAL trains here.”

I learned that Grant County International was formerly a Strategic Air Command base—Larson Air Force Base—and B-52s flew from that long runway. In fact, Boeing delivered all the B-52s built in Washington to the Air Force at Moses Lake. But as the missile age dawned, some SAC bases closed. The little town was left with a magnificent but vacant airport. For JAL, however, Moses Lake was the perfect place for its Heavy Jet Aircrew Training Center. The airline has been in town now for 34 years and currently operates a 747-200 and 747-400.

I stop in Moses Lake whenever I’m out that way. I’ve watched those graceful hippos whistling down the chute in the rain, at night, and at dawn, big tires screeching against asphalt in billowing clouds of rubber smoke. I’ve seen the rudder kick way over as the instructor yanks back a thrust lever to simulate an engine failure just as the airplane is poised on its hind feet for takeoff. I can imagine the student stretching his leg hard against the rudder pedal, trying to keep his aircraft straight.  Sometimes, both 747s will use opposite ends of the same runway to save time in an alternating ballet of taking off straight out, wracking over into a teardrop turn, and coming on around to land in the reverse direction.

Moses Lake Port Authority has great hopes and big plans for its airport. With long runways and a rural location, Grant County Airport would make a fine international freight hub, according to its supporters, and the Authority recently made a deal in which McChord Air Force Base in Tacoma can use Moses Lake as a training facility for its C-17 Globemaster IIIs. Long-term planners even envision this as a port for space shuttle replacements that can take off and land on conventional runways. For now, though, the 747s are enough to satisfy any airport bum.

LOCATED 35 MILES EAST OF DOWNTOWN Los Angeles and just six miles south of Ontario International Airport, Chino Airport was established in 1940 as Cal-Aero Academy. Thousands of U.S. Army Air Forces pilots were trained here by civilian instructors under government contract. It was the first civil school built in the form of an Army post, and was commanded at one time by Captain Robert L. Scott, who later wrote God Is My Co-Pilot. Many of the original wooden buildings still stand.

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