It was the day after Halloween last year, but that had nothing to do with it. The place was just Plane damn spooky. But I’m not sure why. Even the most down-on-their-luck airports usually have a vibe that appeals to pilots.
Of course the day didn’t get off to the best start with our GPS not working. And that day it mattered, because we were flying into KFSU, an airport that lies under the shelf of a huge area of military airspace called an MOA, that (in this case) starts a mere 500 feet off the ground. Access to the airport through this MOA is via a one-way horseshoe-shaped corridor of airspace seven miles wide and eleven miles deep.
Needless to say, I didn’t want to get off course and blunder into an area where military jets were practicing low-level maneuvers at 0.9 Mach. Ercoupes and F-18s: A bad mix in any airspace.
Outside the Plane Tales Hangar, I futzed around with the Dual Electronics GPS antenna for about 15 minutes. Unplugging it. Plugging it back in. Unplugging it again. Rebooting the iPad three times. Punching vainly at the power button. All to no avail.
Finally Rio came to the rescue by saying, “Can’t we just use dead-reckoning?”
I glared at the GPS one last time for good measure, threw it back on the dashboard, and reached behind the co-pilot’s seat for the paper sectional chart. I unfolded it, then refolded it to a manageable size with our target area in the center. I studied the boundaries of the access corridor. If I kept Highway 84 on Tess’s right wingtip, I’d be flying just to the west of the corridor’s center line. Simple enough.
I shrugged my shoulder. OK. Yeah. Sure we can. Let’s go. Hand me the startup checklist.
We took off and headed southeast until we intercepted the highway and then flew along it, being alert for cell phone towers. Honestly, I’m surprised there aren’t more crashes involving these things. They sprout up like mushrooms after rain and are hard to spot from the air.
How’d we do without the GPS? Truth be told, there’s a lot of joy in just flying along a line on the ground rather than a magenta line on a glass screen. We did just fine.
KFSU was built by the US Army Air Corps at the start of World War II. Initially it served as a glider training base, and later became a major site for basic multiengine flight training for bomber pilots. By the end of the war, aircrews in B-17 Flying Forts and B-24 Liberators were training at Ft. Sumner, and the site also housed a POW camp.
I initially got interested in the airfield while researching an article on Transcontinental Air Transport, the first company to offer rapid commercial coast-to-coast transportation. It was before the Great Depression, and TAT flew passengers in Ford Tri-Motors by day and moved them by Pullman trains by night.
Some of the literature, wrongly as it turns out, reported that the airport at Ft. Sumner was built by TAT. It wasn’t, but that’s a Plane Tale for another day. So even though visiting the field wouldn’t help out my story, I still appreciated the irony that a field that was once a bustling military post had so fallen from grace that it was literally overshadowed by military airspace; and I was keen to fly the unique horseshoe into this remote island-like airport. Plus, we’d never been there before, and we’re working on a long-term project of landing at every airport in the State of New Mexico. We have a state aeronautical chart on a bulletin board on the wall of the Plane Tales Hangar that we use to track our progress.
After shooting down the horseshoe, we overflew the KFSU at 800 feet to get eyeballs on the wind sock, which favored runway 21. The airport is service-less. It has no automated weather radio. In fact, while a handful of airplanes are said to be based there, there isn’t even any fuel for sale at the former bomber base.
We banked right and over-flew the town to get lined up for landing, with Rio fretting all the while that we were getting too close to the boundary of the MOA.
We’re fine, I told him.
“I don’t want to be met by helicopter gunships,” he grumped at me.
I think you are confusing MOAs and TFRs, I told him.
“Oh… So what happens if you go into an MOA, then?” he asked.
We might get run over by a jet.
“Yes, of course. I can see where that would be waaaaaaaaaay better than the armed helicopters,” he said, rolling his eyes.
Now back over the airport, we ran our pre-landing checklist on the downwind leg, then turned onto final approach for the faded and cracked runway. We were way too high. Never a problem in an Ercoupe. I cut the power completely and the Plane Tales Plane obediently dropped like a brick. For a plane that sure seems to like to fly, Tessie relies more on her engine than her wings. Power-off, she has the glide ratio of a crowbar.
Down we came. I glanced at our vertical speed indicator, a simple dial that shows how fast you are going either up or down.
150 feet per minute down…
250 feet per minute down…
500 feet per minute down…
The ground loomed up.
I nudged the throttle forward to arrest the descent and pulled back on the yoke, raising the nose and “flaring” the little blue and white plane. The vertical speed indicator snapped to neutral, I chopped the power and held her level right above the asphalt to bleed off my speed. When we slowed enough that our wing lost its aerodynamic magic and stopped producing lift, we dropped the remaining several inches onto the runway.
Looking at the satellite image on Google Earth during our pre-flight planning, KFSU looked like an impressive facility with three intersecting runways and acres and acres of concrete apron. Funny thing about satellite images. They almost always make things look better than they really are. One of the runways had trees growing out of it. Literally.
And on the ground the giant apron is so cracked and overgrown that it’s almost unrecognizable. The taxiways are so degraded I couldn’t recognize them and had to back-taxi on runway 21 for takeoff when we departed.
But SFU isn’t all old and decrepit. In the middle of this crumbling wasteland stands a three-story-tall white monolith with the bold red logo of NASA down the side. What? Rockets? Here?
Nope. NASA has adopted Ft. Sumner as its home base for high-altitude research weather balloon launches. And in addition to their massive new building, they’ve also retro-fitted the one remaining WW2 hangar with modern high-tech air-conditioning.
But on the day of our visit there was no one from NASA on site, nor anyone from anywhere else for that matter. It was eerily empty. But not quiet. All of the NASA gear was alive and noisy, functioning just fine in the absence of its masters.
Rio and I disembarked to explore.
The east end of the big hangar, where we parked Tessie, was locked up tight. As were all the doors along the sides, but peeking into the gaps we could see it was full of trucks and campers, not airplanes. Support equipment for the twice-yearly balloon launches. The west side was open and the gapping short end of the hanger housed a single Piper Cub with tundra wheels.
It was the only flyable plane in evidence. In a forlorn hail shed, covered in bird droppings, sat a decaying Cessna. Its tires were flat, crumbling to dust, and its windscreen and side windows were sun-faded to pale yellow. Inside, a lightweight coat and a pair of headsets waited for the pilots, as if the plane had been flown yesterday and would be flown again tomorrow.
With enough time and money, any plane can be made to fly again, but I’m not optimistic about this little bird’s future.
But the whole site was eerily post-apocalyptic. And the longer we explored, the more the uneasy feeling grew. There were no people to be seen. Parked on the edge of the apron was a city truck, with the keys in the ignition. There were fresh hotdog buns in a shed next to a picnic table, along with three empty refrigerators. The hum of the giant air conditioners, lined up like dominos along the north side of the WW2 era Quonset-hut style super hangar, filled the air with noise like robotic crickets.
It was, frankly, creepy as hell. In the end we nearly ran for our plane.
And it remains one of the few airports we’ve never returned to.