Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Pasture became Ontario's airport

Glenn Gages, Lee Gages, Paul Gages Sr. and Emily Szrki stand in front of 31 Travel Air 4000 plane.

ONTARIO -- In the early days of aviation, the sound of an airplane engine would bring folks outside, craning necks to scan the sky.

Some were envious, most were fearful for those men aloft in those early frail aircraft. Once an early female pilot made a forced landing in a cow pasture way out Park Avenue West. That was really something to remember.

Paul Gages Jr. of Ontario recalls his father telling of how he took the stranded young woman to Mansfield in his milk truck so she could get help. That event sparked Paul Gages Sr.'s interest in aviation. A short time later he turned his dairy farm cow pasture into an airport, Gages Field.

Gages was an enterprising man. He farmed and had a milk route until 1924-25, when he started building houses and laid out a planned development named Maple Grove Allotment -- along what is now Ireland and Scotland Boulevard in eastern Ontario. Building houses and running the airport continued until 1928, when he moved the airfield further west to Beer Road on the level ground just south of the General Motors building.

A tree line still marks the location of the field, which was sold to GM in 1955.

The senior Gages' first plane was a 1917 Lincoln Standard with an OX5-90 horsepower engine. He owned the airport and loved to fly, but never did so solo. He always took a licensed pilot with him. It seems remarkable that a man who owned planes and an airport never held a pilot's license.

By contrast, his youngest son Paul Jr. took his first plane ride when he was 2 and was flying solo around age 12. His 18-year-older brother Glenn held a top-rated transport pilot license (able to haul charters) and was a licensed instructor. One of Glenn's charter trips took Richard Martin of Ingram and Martin Oldsmobile to Canada on pheasant hunting excursion. Martin came back with a live pheasant in a crate and let it loose in Mathews Tavern on South Park Street.

Legend has it the locals made fun of him, his lack of hunting ability and the whole foolish trip. Gages said the bird flew all over the place -- knocking over bottles and drinks and creating havoc. Martin was quite a character and once rode a horse into the Graystone Night Club on Fourth and Walnut Street. Paul Sr. had loaned Martin money to get started in business, thus the friendship with the Gages family.

Paul Jr. said his father put on an annual air show in the 1930s and attracted several thousand people. There were aerial acrobatics and parachute jumps by his brother Glenn and others. One stunt involved dropping a bag of flour and as it hit the ground young Paul off in the tree line would set off a stick of dynamite.

Tragedy struck in March 1938 when Glenn Gages and his student pilot, Robert Crum, were killed in a crash near the field. The two had just climbed to 3,500 feet and put the plane into a series of spins, which was a requirement for a license. As they leveled out the engine quit, according to witnesses. Gages apparently attempted a dead stick landing in a field hemmed in by woods but the plane nosed over on a hillside and both were killed. Glenn had recently married and was one of four pilots in the family, known locally as "the flying Gages." Young Paul Jr. had been taking lessons from his older brother and was a few days away from his 12th birthday, when he too could solo for his license. No air shows were held after 1938.

During World War II, all pleasure flying was banned and the government forced Gages to remove the propellers from his planes. Paul Jr. remembers they had been buying gasoline for 21 cents a gallon and selling it for 28 in the 1940s.

He went to the Air Force in 1944 as a night navigator on a P-38 and their missions took them over Japan. He said there was little resistance as the Japsanese didn't have much left. On their last mission they were told not to fire. They didn't know it at the time but the atomic bombs had already been dropped.

He was discharged after 28 months of service in 1946 and came home to run Gages Field. Sadly, his father died in December that same year.

One of Gages' three hangars caught fire in September 1947, destroying five privately owned planes. Three were valued at $800 each, one at $1,000 and another at $3,500. The administration building and offices also were destroyed in the $12,000 blaze, whcih started when a faulty extension cord was dragged across a plane being repaired.

Neither old Ontario nor Springfield Township had a fire department, but Mansfield sent four men and a truck, as did Crestline. There was little they could do except prevent the spread and watch it burn. Friend Richard Martin brought the firemen a tub filled with pop and four bottles of liquor. Gages said by the time the fire was out at 2:30 a.m., so were some of the firemen.

In 1955, General Motors wanted the field for a new plant site. Although Paul resisted, the business was part of his father's estate and his brothers and sisters voted to sell. The field and five plants Paul owned were sold and he worked the next 40 years at the sheet metal trade. He still cherishes a family scrapbook and an amazing picture collection of old planes the Gages family and others owned. Other photos are of his P-38 World War II experiences.

Few of the old small air fields remain. The Bucyrus and Ashland fields still exist, as does Mount Vernon's Wynkoop airport and grass runway. Talk to old pilots and they will reminisce about the old Galion airport, Bellville's Bender Field, Steam Corner's Ross landing spot and the Gages Field. They get a special faraway look in their eyes as they recall them and some of the good times or crazy things they did.

There's something special about being aloft at the controls of a small, single-engine plane one never forgets. Their troubles are left on the ground.

Original Story and Photo: http://www.mansfieldnewsjournal.com

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