A Labor of Love: How One Website is Keeping the History of Yesterday's Airfields Alive

8:13 AM

By Dan Pimentel,
Airplanista Blog Editor

In this grand community of aviators I call our aviation family, the vast majority of pilots do something on a volunteer basis to help GA thrive because we are all in this together. And while it might seem overused or even cliche to say we are working to keep the dream alive for future generations, that is really the foundation of all this philanthropy.

We Airplanistas serve GA in all sorts of ways, from the tiniest of acts sprucing up the airport at the edge of town, to giving financial support to important groups like AOPA and EAA to fund their missions. But while all of this generosity and sweat equity is meant to shore up the future of aviation, one private pilot based in Ashburn, VA has been quietly choosing to cherish the past by keeping the memory of long-closed airfields alive.

Paul Freeman is the founder of the Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields website, a treasure chest of historical information contains descriptions and images of 1,636 forgotten airfields in all 50 states. The site has been on the web since 1999 and from April, 2002 until February of 2013, it has had 1,705,100 visitors. I have been one of those visitors, and can attest that this site is somewhat addictive if you are into aviation history.

In his day job, Freeman works for ITT Exelis on the national rollout of ADS-B, the next-generation air traffic control system. When not flying rented Diamond Eclipses from Leesburg VA or spending time with his family, it's a sure bet you will find him scouring the Internet for tiny bits of trivial information that might help connect the dots on exactly where an old abandoned airfield was located, and what it might have been like in its heyday:
"The site has been operating continuously since 1999," Freeman explains. "I work on it probably 10-20 hours per week, and is absolutely is a labor of love. I get dozens of emails each week with submitted material, but there are a number of collaborators who have contributed amazing amounts of material over the years, including Jonathan Westerling, Brian Rehwinkel, John Voss, Ron Plante, and Chris Kennedy. Once I get started on a tip, I cull information from the web, and collect more information from my occasional travels. The vast majority of research materials is submitted via readers of the website, most via email, but some via hardcopy."
Freeman got the idea for his Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields website when technology finally caught up to his own curiosity. "In the late 1990s, I realized that the availability of aerial photos over the web gave me the ability to examine what remained at the locations of abandoned airfields sometimes depicted on aeronautical charts," he said. "I typically look through my archival material, and do Google searches to accumulate information for the starting point for a new write-up. Once it is posted, the write-up typically 'snowballs' as readers send in more material."

An August 1964 photo by Jim Allen of the T-Bird Airpark
maintenance hangar, with a variety of general aviation aircraft.
One of those "write-ups" was for Willamette Airpark / T-Bird Airport, a long-lost airfield in Eugene, OR. I discovered this old field on Freeman's site, and sure enough, when I returned to the location just 2NM from my home, you can still see the remnants of Runway 12/30. Here's some excerpts from Freeman and his collaborators after doing some sleuthing on this field:
"The earliest reference to this general aviation field was in the 1947 Oregon Airport Directory. It described Willamette as being managed by a Robert Bevans, who operated Bevan’s Flying Service from the field. The runway configuration consisted of a 2,500' northwest/southeast gravel strip & a 1,900' north/south sod strip. Willamette Airpark gained a paved runway at some point between 1953-59, but the runway length at Willamette had been reduced by 400' within the next year, according to the 1960 Jeppesen Airway Manual. Reader Jay Flitton recalled, “Between 1962-1964 Willamette Airpark went by the name 'T-Bird' Airport. My dad, while going to graduate school at the University of Oregon, flew out of 'T-Bird' a lot. My mom started her private pilot lessons there. That is where I had my first airplane ride in a Cherokee 140. T-Bird had a beautiful log terminal building with a giant picture window overlooking the airport. The whole terminal looked more like a ski lodge or maybe something that should be in Yellowstone National Park. It was a beautiful little airport with a lot of activity. Too bad it is gone.” And reader John Tucker recalled, “I learned to fly at T-Bird in the 1960s. It was a wonderful place for a young boy to learn to fly. I was offered a job mowing the grass around the airport. Then I progressed to fuel and line boy. Of course I traded every hour against flying time. They had a couple of Champs, one N81967, two Piper Colts, a Cherokee 140 & 180, a Champion 7402B, a Shinn, and a few others."
Freeman is always looking for more material to post on the Abandoned & Little-Known Airfields website, and that's where you, my Airplanista readers, come in. There are two ways to directly help him keep this site going:
Materials submission: If you have pictures or other historical information to help tell the story of these airfields, please send them. For photographs, JPG format usually works the best, and higher resolution photos are generally better. Please specify the year the picture was taken, and the photographer (if you know that information). Other items which can be used to expand the website's coverage include old aeronautical charts or airport directories. If you have items such as these and would consider donating them to the website please contact the author at: paulandterryfreeman@gmail.com.

Financial Support: Freeman devotes "thousands of hours" to this wonderful and interesting site, hours he could be spending doing a thousand other things. The results of this work are always presented free for you to consume. To keep the site healthy and growing, readers can make contributions using a credit card via the PayPal donate button on the site, or email Freeman here if you would like to arrange additional financial support or sponsorships.
As I researched this story, I found myself becoming lost in the history of these old airfields. Each one of the 1,636 on Freeman's site has a colorful story to tell, most so enthralling, it does not take a wild imagination to literally ride a time machine back to re-live the glory these great patches once held.

Recently, on the drive home from working on my Cherokee 235 at KEUG, I stopped at the northwest corner of West 11th and Danebo Streets in West Eugene just to walk out and stand in the knee-high grass in the middle of where the old runway 12/30 was at Willamette Airpark/T-Bird Airport. It was quite surprising how fast I could let my imagination go wild, and soon the airfield was buzzing with traffic! Old biplanes appeared in the pattern, Champs and Cessnas were on short final. My mind's eye created such an intense scene, I could almost smell the aviation gas, and hear the sounds - a beautiful symphony of bygone airplanes coming and going. Looking to the southeast, to the approach end of three-zero, I easily visualized an old biplane on final, crabbing into a stiff crosswind coming out of the west. My imagination followed that old crate all the way to touchdown near the "centerline" where I was standing...and I quickly turned to "see" it roll off the runway to taxi up to the "terminal" and let a smiling passenger off. It was as if I was living a part of history.

And this brief time machine ride was all made possible because Paul Freeman and his many collaborators painted such a vivid scene in my mind on the website. I urge you to go to his site soon, find a forgotten field in your area, soak in every luscious word of historical information, and then go stand where the runway used to be. Clear your mind of the day's troubles, and enjoy the show as the old flying machines and the sights and sounds of the airfield come back to life all around you.

I promise you it will be awesome.

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