Simsbury Airport Opens Its Doors
Airports don’t seem to be as accessible nor as enticing as they once were. Now, the wonder of flight is often contained behind tall chain link fences that feature “No Trespassing” signs every few feet. I rediscovered my wonder of flight a couple of weekends ago, when the 2014 Simsbury (Connecticut) Fly-In and Car Show removed these barriers and presented a welcoming open house.
To set the record straight, it was actually the Simsbury Flying Club that presented the Fly-In and Car Show. Bill Thomas, co-chairman for the 2014 event, wrote: “Simsbury Flying Club operates our airport, and is an all-volunteer, non-profit organization. We believe we are the only airport in the country operated in this way. We get no financial support from local, state, or federal government. We raise all the funds to keep ourselves in operation. The Fly-In is one of the principal sources of our funding”.
The airport is not a large facility; its paved runway measures only 2205 feet long. Close to a dozen and a half hangars and maintenance buildings dot the field, surrounded by farmland and a few houses. Even so, the cozy field hosted 127 aircraft along with 560 automobiles! General aviation aircraft ranged from Antique Classics to factory-fresh models. There were warbirds, helicopters, and Light Sport Aircraft too.
An estimated 14,000 spectators attended the free event (although donations were happily accepted – as this is the Flying Club’s principal fundraiser for the year). One important observation was that there were many families on the grounds, out for the day. Kids and adults got to see the planes and talk with pilots, mechanics, owners and other aviation-minded enthusiasts. The day’s sights and sounds just might kindle an interest that leads to an aviation career. The weather couldn’t have been better either, with cool, crisp air and clear blue skies across Connecticut’s upper Farmington Valley.
In the late 1930s, a small sod flying field with two runways sat where the Simsbury airport stands today. Originally a civilian field, military operations quickly arrived with the onset of World War II. A Civil Air Patrol unit moved in, Army flight training commenced, and a parachute company tested equipment such as cargo ‘chutes and assemblies that slowed a bomb when dropped at low altitude. The airport was still operated by a civilian concern though. After the war ended, the Reconstruction Finance Company sold surplus military aircraft like C-47 transports, TBM Avengers bombers, and Stearman trainers from the field. Flight training for returning servicemen under the GI Bill brought business to the airport, as did the increase in aircraft operated by former military aviators.
Glider operators, aircraft dealerships, crop sprayers, and flight schools all operated for various lengths of time from the mid-1940s through the mid-1970s. Activity decreased as time went on, and by 1978, the airport had lost its private operator and had very few aircraft left on its property.
Only by chance, due to the devastating Windsor Locks tornado of 1979, did a resurgence in aviation activity begin. The flight school at nearby Bradley International Airport had to relocate due to damage from the storm; business rebounded and has since grown. In 1993 the Simsbury Flying Club (SFC) was formed, an IRS 501c(7) non-profit corporation. SFC leases the airport from the landowner, and operates it for them as well. Shortly after the new millennium, the Town of Simsbury considered purchasing the airport, but the owner declined. The SFC’s lease ends in 2017; after that, the future of Simsbury Airport is “up in the air”. About 50 aircraft are based there today; some used for business, others for recreation.
One very enjoyable part of the Fly-In was that the grounds were arranged so people could safely be close to a lot of the aircraft. You could walk in between the parked planes, and even sit down in the grass under the shade of a wing. The flying was close to the spectators; the runway seemed only a few dozen yards away, and people of all ages set their camp chairs right next to the snow fence (erected an a safety barrier) to watch the impromptu show. A trio of Van’s RV aircraft, known as the “Yankee Clippers”, flew a series of formations overhead, complete with smoke. A Life Star medivac helicopter arrived shortly after noontime, and the airport shut down for a short time while as RC modelers flew some larger scaled aircraft.
Connecticut has a rich helicopter heritage, with Sikorsky, Kaman, and Doman designing and manufacturing rotorcraft in the state. Six helicopters arrived for the Fly-In, including the Air Methods Life Star MBB BK-117, three Robertson R-44s, a Schweizer/Hughes TH-55A Osage, and a Sud Aviation SE3130 Alouette II. Interestingly enough, none of these were built in Connecticut. By far the rarest of these aircraft was the 1959 vintage Alouette II, a French designed and built light helicopter. Chuck Dufton owns and operates the turbine-powered craft, once used to train pilots in Germany. Chuck and his wife Sarah Dorina (they’re both commercially-rated helicopter pilots) flew in for the day from Westerly Airport in Rhode Island. Originally intended for a flightseeing business called “CAVU Copters”, the acronym CAVU (Ceiling And Visibility Unlimited) remains on the airframe… and was a statement of fact about the Simsbury Fly-In’s weather conditions too.
To give you a sense of the broad collection of aircraft that the Fly-In attracted, the winning aircraft in a competition for various aircraft classes were:
Grand Champion: N78168, 1946 Temco Swift, Excaliber Air Service
Best Homebuilt: N818RB, 2013 Sportsman GS-2, Russ Beers
Best High Wing Classic: N180HX, 1966 Cessna 180H, G. Hren
Best Low Wing Classic: N2249X, 1979 Piper PA-28, Andy Elwood
Best Warbird: N73HA, 1943 PT 23A, Harlan Avezzie
Best Light Sport: N83SK, 2009 Aeropro CZ, Bob Sullivan
Special Interest : N57845, 1937 Stearman, Bill Horrigan
This was the 29th Fly-In at the airport; next year’s 30th anniversary event will be treated as a special milestone and planning for it is already under way. When the Simsbury Airport opens its doors during the annual Fly-In, it offers a great opportunity for the uninformed to get acquainted with general aviation in an intimate setting. For a long-time aviation fan, it’s a great place to rekindle your wonder of flight too.
Story by Ken Kula
Photos by Scott Zeno except where noted.