Friday, June 20, 2014

Weaving Place Authenticity With Restoration – 2 of 2

This is part two of an essay I posted yesterday attempting to trace sense of place authenticity in my life.  I’m using restored airplanes and their contribution to sense of place as an example.

Conducting a place-based inventory in Spokane, my first community marketing start-up in the mid 1970s, took me a few miles down to the valley below the steep bluff along South Hill and a grass air strip named Ox Meadows.

In his early 50s then, it was my first of many visits with Ed “Skeeter” Carlson, who as contemporary of my dad’s, had also first been intrigued by places when he saw vintage aircraft flying low across ranch and farm land to deliver mail.

Skeeter, who today is over 90 years of age, had already by then been restoring historic airplanes for twenty years. 

That day he took me up in his first restoration, a 1927 Stearman biplane, still today the oldest flying.

He also had several other aircraft in various stages of restoration lined up in an open shed along the path between his farmhouse and Ox Meadows.

In the early stages was a 1917 Curtiss JN-4, the famous “Jenny” that he was bringing back to flying condition, the oldest in America.

Maybe it inspired the huge scale model of the Navy seaplane version of the “Jenny” hanging above the landing between floors of my house.

Skeeter flew that old Stearman for forty years out of Ox Meadows before finally selling it back when he turned 85.

Today I think his old “Jenny” has been passed to a private living historic aircraft museum in north central Pennsylvania about thirty miles northeast of Williamsport.

When I arrived in Durham, North Carolina 25 years ago to begin my third community marketing startup, the initial feature inventory took me to old Farris Field, a grass airfield here similar to Ox Meadows, renamed many year ago as Lake Ridge Aero Park.

Operating since the mid 1940s, it sits on what was made into a peninsula in the early 1980s when Falls Lake was impounded, shown in this spectacular sunset landing there.

Until recently, Mike Ratty, a retired American Airlines pilot, took visitors flightseeing from there each summer and fall over Durham in his restored 1941 Waco UPS 7 biplane (pronounced wah-co,) a 1920s and 1930s contemporary of Stearman.

Speaking of American Airlines, when I arrived in Alaska in 1978 to begin my second community marketing start up, I soon learned of the restoration of a 1936 Stinson A Trimotor the airline had first owned.

It had ultimately been sold in 1942 to the Anchorage-based Ray Peterson Flying Service, a precursor to Wein Air Alaska before it made a forced crash landing and was abandoned in 1947 in the wilderness north of Mt. McKinley a few months before I was born.

When I arrived, Ray was just retiring as the CEO of the state’s largest airline.

The company had pioneered jet landings on remote gravel runways and innovated a moveable bulkhead in Boeing 737s to easily calibrate between cargo space and passenger seating.

Wein folded in the mid 1980s while I was there, a victim of a leveraged buyout and corporate raiding.

In the late 1960s, that Stinson trimotor abandoned in 1947 was saved from an inferno by BLM firefighters.  Then using a Cat, a man from Fairbanks spent eight years pulling the old plane to where it could be reached by road.

He then sold it to a United Airlines Boeing 727 pilot in Illinois who fully restored it.

Aviation in Alaska goes back to 1913 when a Gage-Martin biplane landed in Fairbanks, just two years after the first airplane landed in Durham and three years after the first one landed in Spokane, the latter two both Curtis Pushers.

For Alaska, though, it soon became more than a novelty.

This was only a decade after the first flight took place in Kitty Hawk, NC, but Alaska has always been an extremely aggressive “early adopter” as a means of leapfrogging less remote places, as it did with its own satellite for communications in the 1970s.

In the 1920s, aviation in Alaska took root in Anchorage where biplane pilots used a strip first used as a golf course and park to take off and land.

Today that strip is purely recreational open space running alongside Downtown Anchorage, but aviation, both historic and modern, was a huge part of Anchorage’s sense of place.

The state had become strewn over time with the remains of historic civilian and military aircraft over the five or six decades before I arrived there.

One of the first people to visit my office in Anchorage was Ted Spencer, a fish and game biologist and third generation Alaskan.  In the late 1960s or early 1970s, he had begun cataloguing abandoned but restorable vintage aircraft across the state as a passion.

Ted founded the Alaska Historical Aircraft Society a few months before I arrived and shared with me his a vision for an historic aircraft museum in Anchorage.

He dropped in regularly to give me updates and to get help and ideas and because his stories of surveyed wreck sites resonated with me as an important part of Alaska’s sense of place.

Many of these vintage aircraft were being looted.

This fueled an incredible sense of urgency and intensity in Ted that many people couldn’t understand but because I was involved with community marketing start ups, I could.

Not everyone grasps the fragility of sense of place, and many instead seek to undermine it, some on purpose.

A year after my near decade in Alaska concluded, Ted and others made the museum a reality, cobbling together grants and donations including an old hanger on Lake Hood, a float plane base between downtown and Anchorage International Airport.

A few months later, the museum reclaimed that now restored Stinson Trimotor.

Military units supported the museum by using the rescue and recovery of vintage aircraft around the state as training exercises including a PBY, P-40, a Stearman like Skeeter’s and many others.

Volunteers labored for decades to restore them for display, a few to flying condition.

In 1998, the museum had to part with the old Stinson A, selling it to a collector with a a private museum in Minnesota who freshened it up as shown in this blog.  I understand he uses it in movies and American Airline promotions.

Shortly after its founding as I arrived in Durham, the Alaska Aviation Museum also sold the same collector a 1928 Ford Trimotor 4-AT-B that had taken the first overland commercial flight to Alaska in 1934.

Ironically, the plane had begun its days in Spokane flying out of old Felts Field, today the home of a fleet of flying antique Stearman biplanes inspired in part by Skeeter.

Instead the Alaska Aviation Museum acquired a 1931 Fairchild Pilgrim 100B previously flown by the precursor to today’s Alaska Airlines.  Originally ordered by American Airways too, the 9-passenger aircraft was the first with steam heat, luggage racks and a toilet.

It is flown around the state each summer to promote the museum and the state’s aviation history.

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