Wednesday, March 25, 2009
Fasten your seat belt: The ups and downs of Pittsfield's airport
Presented to the Club in 2001 by William A. Selke
While we may not be in a position to influence the outcome, those of us in South County are not completely disinterested in some of the issues on which the citizens of Pittsfield have not displayed unanimity. We certainly would attend performances at the Colonial Theatre, probably go out to the ballgame, wherever it may be played, and might possibly fly from an enlarged airport. The progress reports on the Colonial Theatre and the baseball field have shown some of the characteristics of weather forecasts — some days sunny, some cloudy, and too many it seems, stormy. But we can reasonably hope for happy endings.* The proposed expansion of the airport has not received as much attention, but it is not without its critics, who cite both budgetary problems and disruption of the neighboring area. So, it, too, may yet encounter storms.
The history of the Colonial Theatre has been related most generously, and we’ve been told of some of the great ball-players who have faced the setting sun at Wahconah Park, but little has been said about the history of the Pittfield Airport — on the service provided there over the years. It has not been suggested that scheduled passenger air service would commence with the lengthening of the runway. The expansion is aimed at making the airport more accessible to “general aviation”, i.e., private and chartered planes. But if we wonder whether an enlarged airport might attract a scheduled airline, we might look back at what has happened in the past.
Pittsfield’s flying wasn’t always done at its present location; on July 4th, 1919, there was an air show at the field on Allen Farm. Back then, planes were small and were slow. Any breeze at all would be significant relative to the speed of the plane, so the takeoffs and landings had to be headed precisely into the wind. The surface of a hayfield could support the light craft. So flying wasn’t from runways; they were flying fields in those days. For an airport to receive an “A” rating from the Department of Commerce in 1928, it had to be at least 2,500 feet square. If the turf wasn’t firm enough, it could have runways paved with gravel or cinders or asphalt, but there must be at least four of these runways, crossing at the middle of the field, allowing taking off or landing in eight different directions.
The needs of airplanes changed rapidly. As built in the late 1930s, LaGuardia airport had four runways. By 1945, two of these runways had been were abandoned, but the runways which were retained were lengthened, widened, and given deeper foundations.
And so, in the 1930’s when the airport was built in Pittsfield, it had a single, paved runway, 3,500 feet long. In keeping with the new age, in May 1938 air mail service was established. The route was to Westfield, and then on to Boston. For that inaugural flight, mail from South County was flown from Gt. Barrington to join the main volume. Airmail service was discontinued during the war, although, we will hear, was started again and again, each time with great fanfare, in later years.
During the war, tens of thousands of young Americans had been taught to fly, and many more had learned how to service aircraft. Aviation was an area of exciting business growth. Air travel was the future. Thus, it is not surprising that in September of 1946, experienced veterans of the Air Corps started the New England Central Airway System. Pittsfield was included in its routes. There were three flights each day to and from Boston. How could it be anything but successful? Probably some of the same enthusiasm that more recently supported dot-com ventures provided capital for these new investment opportunities. Unfortunately, there just weren’t enough customers; it failed within the year.
At that same time, some other veterans saw how air service could be profitable carrying valuable and perishable freight. The Strato Freight company. based in Pittsfield, put a war-surplus C54, the military designation of the DC-3, into service flying newborn chicks south from Connecticut and returning from Florida loaded with gladiolas. A crash in Florida in 1947 killed the pilots, and that company.
A later freight service, Wiggins Air Express, started in 1951 using a smaller Cessna plane. A photograph in the Berkshire Eagle shows the airport manager, John Heaton, loading the plane with fifteen packages, totaling 221 pounds. There were bundles of silk thread from A.H.Rice destined for Los Angeles, Wichita, and San Antonio, some G.E. parts, and Glix-(GLIX)Brand pajamas and women’s housecoats, evidence of the diversity of manufacturing in Pittsfield.
The plane used by the ill-fated Strato Freight company,, the DC-3, played such a starring role in our story that it warrants a diversion in the chronology. This plane is universally recognized as the greatest plane of its time. And some argue that, since it was the plane with which air travel became a regular part of our lives, it is the greatest of all time.
Its origin goes back to 1933, when TWA – then Trans Continental and Western Airlines - invited bids for three-engined planes bigger and faster than the old Ford tri-motor. This requirement of three engines was for safety. Engines, then, weren’t very dependable. Twin-engined planes could be bigger than single engined ones, but both of those engines had to be operating for the plane to stay aloft. Some of you may remember that in his book “We,” Lindbergh related how some of his backers urged him to buy a twin-engined Bellanca plane with more comfort and capacity than the Spirit of St. Louis. Lindbergh reasoned that since the Bellanca could not fly on one engine alone, and the engines were then the most unreliable parts of airplanes, having a second engine doubled the chance of failure. And so,he chose the single-engined Spirit of St. Louis. To achieve safety with larger planes, the solution had been the tri-motor design, since it could fly with any one of its engines dead. This was the state of the art in 1933.
Even though the airline had specified a tri-motor, Donald Douglas designed and built a twin-engine model which could fly on one engine. To prove it, he flew it over the Rockies with one of its engines turned off. This plane, called the DC-2, instantly became a favorite of the airlines. This led to the DC-3, when American Airlines wanted a somewhat larger plane, a sleeper. The result was one which could be fitted with fourteen seats which could be folded down to provide seven berths and seven more berths folded down from the ceiling. A great publicity coup was achieved when Shirley Temple, then aged eight, was a passenger on the first transcontinental sleeper flight on December 17, 1935. In 1936, the day-plane version of the DC-3, carrying 21 passengers — in two seats on one side and one on the other — became the standard transport plane, and by 1939 that model was carrying 90 % of America’s passengers. Ultimately, over 450 were bought by airlines and 10,170 were produced for military use by the United States and Britain — where they were called Dakotas. Over 800 of the craft participated in the D-Day invasion..
There are a few hundred DC-3s still in use; I’ve seen them during the 1990s in airports in Asia and South America. My last trip in one was when visiting a sisal plantation in the north of Haiti. Martha and I flew from Port-au-Prince on a Haitian Air Force DC-3 which took paying passengers. It was landed on a strip between rows of sisal — century plants — with apparent competence. However, we hired a car for the return trip.
All this talk about DC-3s is to establish the significance of what one would see at the Pittsfield Airport in during the mid-1950s. The activity there is graphically clear in a newspaper clipping in the collection of Gilbert Desautels, proprietor of the Elm Street barber shop, who has made a hobby of collecting pictures relating to aviation in Berkshire County. That photo shows DC-3s of two real airlines of the day — Mohawk and Northeast — taxiing to and from the gate, respectively. It is a busy scene. Pittsfield was a crossroads of air travel. Northeast arrived from New York, via Hartford, and went on to Keene. Mohawk came from Boston, via Worcester and Hartford, on its way to Albany, Utica, Ithaca, Rochester and Buffalo. This was before the New York Thruway or the Massachusetts Turnpike were completed, so flying should have been than driving, despite the many short hops..
But soon after establishing the service, those airlines displayed unhappiness. In those days, before deregulation, once service started, federal approval was required to stop it. In 1955, the two airlines joined in a request to eliminate Pittsfield from there schedules, citing that the length of the runway, which limited their service to fair weather. This had little effect. In 1958, Mohawk petitioned Mayor Haughey for his support of their request to the Federal agency. They averaged only two passengers per day to Pittsfield. In winter, the early sunset limited flying to a short day. Lights were not installed until much later, in1972..
In 1962, Northeast finally was able to wriggle out of its obligation to Pittsfield, resulting in another hiatus in airmail service.
One must wonder whether having the mail take to the air directly from Pittsfield really added much speed, anyway. With any of the airlines we will encounter, the flights to or from Pittsfield were likely to be canceled in bad weather. What happened to the airmail then; was it put on a truck with the plebeian first class, or was it held at the airport waiting for fairer times? A cynical view would be that the principal charm of air mail lay in the subsidy it provided to the airline, rather than in speed of transit.
The runway of 3,500 feet, which would have sufficed in the big leagues a few decades earlier, was becoming an inescapable limitation. The local airport commission, headed by Harley Jones, finally received approval and financing for a new 5,000 foot runway, extending over Barker road. Aware that completion of this longer runway would weaken their case for discontinuing service, Mohawk pushed for release and received it in 1965. The new runway was ready for use in 1969.
Mohawk continued to serve Albany. Some of you may remember that several senior managers of GE, Pittsfield were killed in a crash of a Mohawk plane there. Very shortly after that accident, the Mohawk name disappeared completely, from the schedules and from the aircraft, as though it had never existed, replaced by the name of U S Airways, which had acquired Mohawk earlier. This was effective public relations, reducing association with that tragic accident, so that people flying the former Mohawk planes would not feel concerns for their safety.
Professors at business schools could use the ventures in the period from 1963 to 1985, as illustrative examples of misdirected entrepreneurial spirit, undampened by the failures of predecessors. When we look a this now, we may be surprised by such a dismal record. But similar histories may be less uncommon than we think. We are aware of those businesses which thrived and survived to serve us now, and we may even know about their origins and growth. But we may not be as aware of those that failed and disappeared. I allude to the attempts to provide scheduled air service for Pittsfield.
The first of the series of what the federal government designated “third level carriers” was probably the most successful. (Readers of the local paper were never informed of the distinction between first and second level carriers, but, passengers from Pittsfield would be certain that there could be no level lower than what they encountered.)
Yankee Airways, a subsidiary of the Greylock Airways, was headed by John Heaton, who was clearly Mr. Aviation of the Berkshires. It operated DeHaviland Dove aircraft to New York. As fitting for a third level carrier, it did not go to the main terminal, but to the “Marine Terminal,” the original one, built by the WPA. The “marine” in that name probably comes from the service provided for the Pan Am Sikorsky flying boats — the Yankee Clippers — for pre-war travel to London. The architecture and decoration of the art deco Marine Terminal building was recently the subject of praise in an article in the New York times.
With Yankee, air mail again left Pittsfield by air. Passengers boarding the evening southbound flight were made aware of this when they would find most of the seats occupied. In them was a mail bag, with the seat belt strapping it neatly in place. Upon arrival at the Marine Terminal, the pilot would dash out and return minutes later with a small truck, into which he and the co-pilot would throw the mail bags before driving off, speeding those urgent letters on their way. Before taking off in Pittsfield, I recall having the captain say over the speaker to the cabin, “Please fasten your seat belt,” the use of the singular reflecting attention being paid to the number of the seats occupied by animate passengers.
When, in 1970, John Heaton finally gave up on Yankee, a hopeful group, called Executive Airways, started strong, flying their Twin Otters on five trips to New York, and once again, a daily trip to Boston. This soon dropped to just three to New York. In little more than year Executive ceased its service.
The next to try was Command, with some Twin Otters, presumably bought from their predecessors, and Beech 99s. Robert Allardyce, who used to travel to New York regularly to work his evening flights to Europe, wrote me “I recall one losing an engine during climb out of LaGuardia. For a moment or two I wondered if the pilot was going to get the nose down far enough to recover airspeed.” Apparently the pilot did, since Mr. Allardyce wrote that this October. Command gave up in 1979.
When Command withdrew, the oddly named Precision Airlines , filled the gap with stops in Pittsfield on the route from their base in Rutland , Vermont, to New York. With great fanfare, they added two daily trips between Pittsfield and Boston. The Berkshire Eagle reported that while two passengers boarded the inaugural flight eastward, the plane returned empty that evening. In 1980, their first summer, they reported that they didn’t have a steady level of adequate business. In those few times when they had a surfeit of customers, the Eagle stated – without answering the several questions that it raises, that “the co-pilot would give up his seat for a passenger.”
When they ceased the service to Pittsfield, after less than four years, they mentioned that they had been able to complete only 70 percent of the scheduled flights.
Failure to complete flights clearly reduced the income the airline received. But, more importantly, knowledge of the limited reliability of the service figured rather heavily in the judging by the traveler as to whether he should fly or drive. The fact that some of us can remember finding ourselves stranded at LaGuardia once reflects on the airline. When we can recall its happening more than more than once probably reflects more badly on our own judgment.
It usually was early evening when they would announce to the few waiting that the flight to Pittsfield was cancelled. Immediately, necks turn, as the intended flyers look over the fellow victims, guessing whether any of them were going to be part of a solution. “I’m renting a car, anyone want to share it? “Where are you going?” “Pittsfield.” “Becket” “Becket?!?” “ I’m going directly to Great Barrington.” One man slips away. Driving alone is better than being stuck taxiing around Berkshire County. Or maybe he decided to spend the night in New York. In any case, collective action isn’t universally appealing.
One winter night, only one other prospective passenger stood there hearing the unwelcome announcement. The woman, twenty-five or thirty, somberly dressed, seemed stunned. Almost frantically, she blurted out, “What can I do — how can I get to Pittsfield?” She didn’t look like she would be renting a car, or, for that matter, for sharing the price of one. I immediately feared, that she would need to be delivered to Cheshire, Lanesborough. I wanted just to sneak away, but I couldn’t really hide from her the fact that I was going to drive northward. So I gave her a defined and limited invitation: she could come along to Stockbridge, but not a mile beyond there that snowy night. While I rented the car, she telephoned her parents in Pittsfield and arranged for them to come down from Pittsfield to pick her up.
As we drove from the airport, I felt it unlikely that this forlorn person would stimulate sleep-fighting conversation. But away from the lights of the city, covered with the anonymity of the darkness, she began a confessional monologue which turned out to last the entire trip. It did keep me awake; indeed, when we finally arrived in Stockbridge, I was gripped curiosity over of what would unfold.
She had been a member of a cult, living in Virginia for several years. The little communication she had had with her parents conveyed their deep disapproval. A letter from her mother had expressed some sympathy — but a strong wish that she would turn from that path. Her father was unforgiving. This trip to attempt a reconciliation was precipitated by the decision of the master of the cult that the time had come for her to marry; to marry a member he had selected for her.
And so, in our driveway, at eleven that night, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the family members as they greeted each other, the hesitation, the hugging, the tears, before they drove away.
Drama, yes, still, that is not one wants from air travel.
Precision’s replacement, Air Vermont, the last provider of scheduled service from Pittsfield, was bankrupt in less than a year.
But while the airport has been a poor spot for airlines, it has served private planes and special visits. John and Ted Kennedy, flew here during John’s campaign for the senate. The funeral of [longtime U.S. Congressman] Silvio Conte brought several jets full of government notables. WWII bombers, a B-24, and later a B-17 came through on tours. The largest plane to have landed here is believed to be an Air Force C-130 transport, coming to pick up a five man rock music group and take them to their next gig in Pensacola. Corporate jets of various sizes use the airport, although apparently the larger ones can do so only in good weather.
And so the city faces the extension of the 5,000 foot runway to 6,000 feet, as well as the provision of 1,000 feet of safety zone at each end. While this project is expected to cost $20,000,000, the bulk of that will be come from the state and federal governments. Pittfield’s share is expected to be about $1,000,000.
Driving up Barker Road, one can see that extension at that end will have significant impact. Extension to the east would seem to be limited by topography, but a lot of mountain can be moved for $20,000,000.
Pittsfield’s budgetary problems have been cited against the cost of the project. A letter to the Eagle pointed out that the value of a big new strip wouldn’t be realized unless the snow was plowed promptly, and a new instrument landing system wouldn’t be of any use unless it was manned and maintained. There will be that continuing cost. The proponents of the project feel that the money would be well spent.
But if they build it, will they come? If passenger service resumed, would you use it? Are there corporations which will choose Pittsfield for its plants or offices or laboratories if their planes can land there more dependably? However, even if one grants that this could be an economic stimulant, it must compete with the other options.
If you had to choose among a baseball stadium, the Colonial Theatre and the lengthening of the airport runway, would one, two, or all of them win your favor?
*Editor's postscript: As it turned out, since this paper was presented in 2001, Pittsfield has seen the complete restoration of its historic Colonial Theatre, and the airport's runway lengthening project is still slowly advancing — construction is scheduled to start in 2010 and is expected to take two to three years. On the other hand, the dreamed-of baseball stadium was never built, and regular passenger service by air to Pittsfield was never resumed, nor have any major corporations added new facilities in town.