America’s Airport Parks: Aviation-Inspired Playgrounds

You can find age-appropriate aviation adventures for children at parks at and around airports.

This decommissioned Air Force T-33 jet trainer in a children’s play area inspired the author as a child to learn how to fly years later as an adult. [Courtesy: Jim Harbin, superintendent of Los Gatos Parks and Public Works]

When I was child, every Saturday morning Dad, the aerospace engineer, took us kids to the park. My favorite was “the airplane park,” with a decommissioned T-33 in the play area. It was painted in Air Force colors. The T-33 was a jet trainer used by the Air Force from 1948 through 1959, and in the 1970s, the National Museum of the Air Force “loaned” it to Oak Meadow Park in Los Gatos, California. I logged many an hour in that T-33. Imagine how disappointed I was when I learned that not every park had an airplane you could climb on, climb in, and use your imagination to take flight. I am happy to report the T-33 is still in that park, inspiring future generations.

According to Jim Harbin, superintendent of Los Gatos Parks and Public Works, the aircraft was delivered to the park in pieces in 1973 and reassembled on site. The Air Force stripped the airplane of instruments before shipping it—the parks department made the aircraft “kid friendly.”

"Most void areas are filled with concrete and the plane is wrapped with a protective coating," says Harbin. "The plane still is seated on its landing gear, and the wing tips are supported with steel braces.The aircraft is painted and the protective coating is patched and recoated at times."

While not every park has a vintage airplane, parks located near airports often have mock aircraft and other aviation-inspired play equipment designed to inspire the next generation of pilots—and they offer great views of takeoffs and landings that kids and adults can both enjoy. Here are a few that we found.  

A mock Cessna 310 overlooks Greenville Downtown Airport in Greenville, South Carolina. [Courtesy: Robert Hoover]

Runway Park, Greenville Downtown Airport (KGMU), Greenville, South Carolina

When you have a busy airport, you can expect to have a busy park next to it, notes Robert Hoover, public relations director at Greenville Downtown Airport (KGMU) in Greenville, South Carolina.

The play area is part of a Community Corridor. A stylized Cessna 310 is mounted as a gate guard, welcoming you to the space, which is entered by walking through a tunnel made from an airliner fuselage. The area features a playground, interactive historical displays, a military aviation museum, a cafe, and an aviation-themed mini golf course.

Greenville Downtown Airport's play area is called Runway Park. [Courtesy: Kenneth Koch]

"One thing that makes it unique is that in the center of the play area is a mock- up runway," says Hoover. The facility is popular for school groups engaging in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) curriculum. Hoover himself often gives age-appropriate tours of the corridor.

Bremerton National Airport (KPWT), Bremerton, Washington

Bremerton International Airport (KPWT) in Washington has a children-appropriate aircraft observation area located west of the ramp. The space has a climbing structure inspired by a control tower, although the airport itself is a non-towered facility. Visitors note the rubberized play surface is marked to mimic an airport runway and taxiway—there’s even a windsock. The play area was designed by PlayBooster, a landscape structures company.

The play space came to be when Fred Salisbury, chief operations officer for the Port of Bremerton,  wanted "a place where kids' dreams can take flight."

DeKalb-Peachtree Airport (KPDK), outside Atlanta, Georgia

Hunter Hines, deputy airport director at DeKalb Peachtree Airport outside of Atlanta, says that their play area is very popular with the younger set and their parents year round. The play area has a pavilion—complete with a windsock on top—which makes it a good place to hold birthday parties on weekends.

DeKalb-Peachtree Airport in the Atlanta area includes a playground. [Photo: Thom Patterson]

The play structures include monkey bars and a curvy slide. The airport is a busy general aviation reliever field, and it's not uncommon for play to stop when an aircraft is taking off or landing.

Meg Godlewski has been an aviation journalist for more than 24 years and a CFI for more than 20 years. If she is not flying or teaching aviation, she is writing about it. Meg is a founding member of the Pilot Proficiency Center at EAA AirVenture and excels at the application of simulation technology to flatten the learning curve. Follow Meg on Twitter @2Lewski.

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