Given the choice, I’d never land at a tower-controlled airport again in my life. I’m a competent pilot, perhaps even skilled. I know my stuff and I fly—and communicate—professionally.
At least I do in uncontrolled airspace when no one is around to appreciate it.
But when I fly into an airport with a tower, I go to pieces. I stumble on my words, mis-broadcast my location, and just generally make a fool of myself. I can’t tell you how many caustic controllers I’ve been exposed to.
“November three niner seven six hotel, I show you as left downwind, not right downwind.”
Crap. You’re right.
“November three niner seven six hotel, I assume you meant to say runway 22?”
Crap. I did.
“November three niner seven six hotel, did you mean to say west?”
Crap. Can I just go home now? I need a drink.
Accordingly, when we travel cross-country, I avoid controlled airports like the plague. But by doing that we, by default, are landing at smaller, less-used airports. Such airports vary a great deal in their quality and available services. Some are desolate strips of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump. Others are robust centers of commerce with swank pilot’s lounges and dozens of on-field businesses. In short, Inever know what to expect.
My Garmin Pilot app gives me some clues, and the AirNav website can be a handy resource, but if I’m planning to spend the night, there’s no substitute for calling ahead to see what things are going to be like on the ground. Are there transient hangars? Tie downs? Will any of the local hotels pick us up? Is there a crew car? Are the gas pumps 24-hour, and if not, how early in the morning can we buy gas?
Warning when crossing Texas: An astounding number of airports don’t sell gas on Sundays.
Sometimes when I call, I get a real airport manager. Sometimes, an answering machine. Other times, a guy named Hal answers the phone, “It’s Hal, what’s up?” Once when I dialed the airport number I got the local Police Department. Another time, the municipal golf course. So I wasn’t fazed in the least when the number for the Holbrook Municipal Airport connected me with the city offices.
The same can’t be said for the lady who answered my call.
“Good morning,” I said, quite chipper on my second cup of French Roast coffee, “my name is William Dubois. I’m one of the pilots coming in for next week’s air race and I was wondering if there were any hangars available for a couple of nights?”
There was a long silence. Then the lady says, “This is the municipal offices… the airport is pretty much a self-serve affair.”
I immediately imagined a desolate strip of asphalt with only a rusty self-serve gas pump.
But the city lady rallied and put me on hold while she asked around. It turned out there were hangars, but they were all full. I thanked her for her time and booted up Google maps. I zoomed in on Holbrook and switched to a satellite view. To my surprise, I could see at least 35 tie-down spots painted on an expansive ramp. It didn’t look like as much of a self-serve affair as I’d been led to believe.
Image from Google Maps
But on the ground the next week, things looked different. I’m not sure if “forlorn” or “desolate” would a better word to describe the hot, dry, wind-swept field, with its cracked asphalt runway and dirty, dingy terminal.
I taxied in, parked at the self-serve pump, heaved myself up out of the cockpit, climbed onto the wing, and dropped down to the pavement. In the back of my mind, the classic western whistle from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly played in my head. WeeWe-Woo…wah, wah, wah.
A twin engine “freighter” sat to one side, surrounded by orange plastic cones. Other than that, there was so sign of life. In the terminal, the Asian freight dog (pilot slang for cargo pilots who fly small planes to remote areas, often bringing the UPS Next Day Air packages to places, like, say, Holbrook) was sitting at a long conference table updating his logbook. He was unshaven and eating a banana. He was wearing nothing but his underwear.
Boxers, thank goodness.
I nodded politely and made my way across the grimy carpet to the bathrooms that I won’t even describe.
Following my reconnoiter of the terminal (I was hoping for vending machines, as the weather had delayed me and I was starving, but there were none to be found), I gassed up, parked Tessie, and tied her down with the chains attached to the pavement in one of the 34 available parking spots. Then I gathered up my gear for the walk to the hotel. Thanks to my research, I knew there was no hotel pick-up, no crew car, no help of any kind at this self-serve affair. It’s not the kind of place I’d normally stop for the night, but this was the starting line for the Thunderbird 150 Air Race, so I really didn’t have much of a choice. That said, it was only a half-mile walk to the hotel I had reservations at. Or it would have been a half-mile walk if I could have gotten out of the airport.
The “pass through” gate was chained and padlocked shut, and the automatic gate didn’t respond to any of the three un-marked buttons on the control box. The freight dog, barefoot and still in his undies, was now outside the terminal smoking a cigarette. “Hey, do you happen to know how to open the gate?” I called over to him.
Apparently, not only did he not know how to use the gate, but he didn’t speak English, either. I couldn’t help but wonder if he flew the twin in his underwear.
There was barbed wire atop the gate, so climbing over wasn’t an option. I could pull the gate far enough inward that I might just be able to squeeze out. Or just might get stuck for life.
I went back into the dim terminal. The dirty windows filtered the bright sunlight down to a dull glow more film noir brothel than airport terminal. There was a faded to yellow CRT monitor, sans computer, on the desk. A pile of 2014 Fly Low magazines sat in one corner. Incongruently, a brand new Charlie Bravo calendar hung in the center of one wall, properly opened to September, on this, the second day of the month. It was the only sign that the terminal hadn’t been abandoned years before.
There were no signs, no phone numbers, nothing posted about how to escape the airport.
The terminal was attached to an old hangar. Though the gaps in the door I spied two ultra lights, a low-wing piper, and a gleaming chrome Luscombe 8. Next to the hangar was a tiny house with two fairly new trucks parked in front. As I walked up, a woman came out with an ice chest. She seemed surprised to see me. I don’t know if it was because they so rarely got visitors or if it was because, unlike the other pilot on the field, I was wearing all my clothes.
I asked her about the gate and she called for her husband. I never got the story on who these people were exactly, but he told me what button to press. I walked back past the hangar and the terminal to the gate and pressed the red button. Nothing happened. I walked past the gate and the terminal and the hangar back to the house.
The husband walked back with me, pulled the cover off of the gate control, disconnected it, and pulled the gate open manually. “Damn thing only works for about two weeks at a time,” he told me. I noticed it was the same style of gate control we have at my home airport. It breaks down with about the same frequency.
By now it seemed like I’d been at the airport longer than it took me to fly to it. But at least, free from the airport’s perimeter fence, I was now slowly on my way to the hotel. As I walked up the dusty street, the airport couple zoomed by. They waved cheerfully, but didn’t stop to ask if I needed a ride.
I gotta say, all things being equal, it’s not my favorite airport of all the ones that I’ve visited.
But I’d rather go back there a hundred times than talk to air traffic control even once.