Sunday, August 20, 2017

Freedom of flight: Cleburne Regional Airport (KCPT)

Inside Stuart Nielson’s hangar at the Cleburne Regional Airport is a piece of aviation history.

It doesn’t look like much now, but once the 1946 Taylorcraft single engine plane gets restored, Nielson will have — for the second time — a ready-to-fly classic on his hands. He bought the plane recently after having sold it years ago.

By several accounts, during the ’30s and ’40s Taylorcraft planes were some of the most common available for personal and commercial use. One version, the L2-M, was used as an observation and spotting aircraft in World War II.

Currently, Nielson’s plane is just a frame of steel tubing, cables and bicycle chains awaiting a sock of monofilament fabric to cover it. Once that’s done, he and his son will install its wings, which sit in the back of the hangar, along with the landing gear, nose cone, engine and propeller.   

“It’s kind of like a big puzzle,” he said of putting the plane together.

Nielson and his wife, Fran, moved to Cleburne 25 years ago after he retired as a pilot with Republic Airlines. Since then he has been involved with the airport in a variety of ways, serving on the airport board for two terms and flying vintage historic planes, from the Taylorcraft he’s building now to a World War II era C-46 transport plane to a classic DC-9 jet airliner.

“It’s kind of been my second home,” he said about the airport.

The city-owned airport first opened in 1960 with a 3,000-foot by 40-foot runway, according to city records. That runway now extends to 5,700 feet by 100 feet, which allows a variety of commercial and private aircraft to take off and land there. Planes range from single-engine prop planes to heavyweights like the Gulfstream V or “Gee-5” passenger jet.

Vestiges of the original airport can be seen on the north end of today’s airport where the old office still stands. It also used to house the Civil Air Patrol and their old building still stands as well.

Although plenty of single-engine prop planes and private jets travel the tarmac, business jets fly in executives and other representatives of Johnson County’s major businesses and industries from Wal-Mart to H-E-B to First Financial Bank, said Airport Manager Sharlette Wright. It also draws traffic from flight schools in the DFW area.

The airport’s major source of revenue is fuel, she said, but they also provide maintenance, hangars and tie-downs for planes.

 It also draws out crowds at various times of the year for events like the Grand Texas Air Show that was held on July 1.

The municipal airport wasn’t the first airport in Cleburne, according to a master airport plan the city put out a few years ago. Since the 1920s Cleburne and surrounding areas have had plenty of mostly private airstrips, many of which were just grass or dirt landing fields.

Slats Rodgers

Cleburne stands tall not only in the county’s aviation history but also in the state’s history, thanks to one lanky railroad man, Slats Rodgers.

Floyd “Slats” Rodgers — people say he was thin as a bed slat — came to Johnson County as a teenager from Georgia and settled in Keene with his family. It was about this time, while flying kites, that Rodgers became fascinated by flight. He also spent hours poring over what he could find about aviation, some of it written by aviators Orville and Wilbur Wright.

His fascination was spurred further when he went to work for the Santa Fe Railroad in Cleburne, where, according to writer Clay Coppedge, he “enjoyed the speed and thunder of a locomotive, but thought it was a real shame that engine power was devoted to something that stayed on the ground.”

So obsessed with flying was Rodgers, he decided to build his own flying machine, first building a model that he stored on an engine tank at the depot until crowds coming to see it got so thick he was asked to move it. Which he did — to a theater, paying the theater owner $75 to display the model inside the theater. That move seeded airplane fever in town even more.

From that publicity, Rodgers took it upon himself to build the real thing in 1911, just eight years after the Wright brothers made their historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The plane is reputed to be the first ever built in Texas.

Still, Old Soggy, as the plane came to be known, was pretty primitive, closer to the Wright’s plane than some of the sleeker designs being developed internationally that would fly over the trenches of France three years later in the First World War.

Moreover, Rodgers was no pilot and Old Soggy’s first flight in 1912 came about accidentally: taxiing the plane through a field, Rodgers forced it into the air to avoid a ditch. The plane flew about 200 feet before it came down in a crash that broke off the wheels and tore away the right wing.

Fourteen years later, Rodgers finally got his pilot’s license, the first in Texas. He was also the first to lose it — for accepting a challenge to successfully fly between two downtown Dallas skyscrapers.

Most of Rodgers’ life was caught up flying, including barnstorming with the Love Field Lunatics in Dallas, a reported front for smuggling whiskey during Prohibition. He died in McAllen, not as a pilot, but as owner of steak houses in Bandera and McAllen.

Although Rodgers’ history is colorful, Johnson County has firm roots in aviation history beyond his exploits. In the 1920s, a German immigrant to Cleburne, Adolph Schad designed a single-engine plane that burned a combination of gasoline and castor oil. He patented the design and sold the patent to the government in 1929.

Fly-in bank

In the 1960s, the county boasted a unique financial institution in Rio Vista. While most banks have drive-through windows, Lowell “Stretch” Smith’s Cow Pasture Bank in Rio Vista — a First State Bank located in a former cow pasture — had a fly-in feature.

Smith and his father owned an airstrip behind the bank building.

“We financed a lot of airplanes, the bank did,” Smith said. “It was an easy way to let people fly in and we would look at the airplane and that sort of thing and decide if we wanted to finance it.”

It was an unusual offering in those days, he said. “Banks normally didn’t do that.”

The bank kept up the airstrip until Smith and his sister sold the bank to Wells Fargo in 1999.

The airstrip itself they donated to the city of Rio Vista, with the hope the city might find a good use for it, he said.

In November, Rio Vista City Council elected to develop the airstrip into a park that will feature walking trails, playgrounds and plenty of space for events.

Free flying

So, what is it that makes people want to fly? Maybe it’s just the rush of flying that’s attractive? That certainly seems to be what Charles Lindbergh, who made the first nonstop solo transatlantic flight from New York to Paris in 1927, meant when he said, “It is the greatest shot of adrenaline to be doing what you have wanted to do so badly. You almost feel like you could fly without the plane.”

Or maybe it’s something loftier, as pioneering aviator Amelia Earhart said, “I have often said the lure of flying is the lure of beauty.”

Perhaps the truth is somewhere in the middle. Or maybe there’s just something in the simple elegance of the machinery that allows humans to apply the basic principles of lift, thrust, weight and drag to slip the surly bonds of earth for as long as the fuel holds out?

Stuart Nielson hints at that when he smiles at the Taylorcraft in his hangar and thinks about simplicity of the 1930s technology of wood, steel tubing, fabric,  levers, pulleys and even bicycle chains — the Wright brothers began in a bicycle shop — that will soon have him and his son in the air.

But, the allure of flight just might be held in the human urge for freedom, as Nielson hints:

“The freedom,” he said. “That’s why you fly. It’s the next best thing to being a bird.”

Original article ➤

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