Brownie’s is a Field Out from the Past

The strip, christened in the 1940s, was first on the charts as Warren County, then Duff’s (after the owner of a nearby smorgasbord restaurant) before it was finally called Brownie’s. Mark Burton

An acquaintance named Mark Burton recently sent me a copy of his book about an airport owned and operated by his family called Brownie's. A few days later, I met a guy at a party who regaled me (unsolicited) with wild and woolly tales about flying out of a now defunct airport called Brownie's with his father, who kept an airplane there. I know it, and found, on Paul Freeman's great site Abandoned and Little Known Airfields, lots of early Brownie's lore and photos in the Southwestern Ohio section. So it seemed like the synergy was there to share my memories of this rather unique 'drome.

I’m not sure how I first found it; I suspect it was my friend Tom Byrne who pointed it out when we were flying my Cub or his Champ Challenger in the 1960s. In those airplanes, getting in and out of anywhere was pretty much a no-brainer, but a few years later, when I had my flying school and rental operation, I worried that some renter or student would try. So, I took them into Brownie’s, which, at best, proved to be an eye-opener and, at worst, a gut-wrenching and harrowing experience for students and novice pilots accustomed to a controlled airport with long, well-maintained, paved runways. I’m not sure if it was the world’s greatest idea — this introduction to Brownie’s — but it seemed like it at the time.

“Look, this is the kind of place you need to know about — and avoid. But if you ever absolutely, positively have to get on the ground — you’re surrounded by ugly weather, or lost and low on fuel, or have a problem like high oil temperature and low pressure — and the nearest airport looks something like this, at least you’ll know you can do it. So, let’s make some full-stop landings and takeoffs, and you’ll learn how to do it … right."

The strip, christened in the 1940s, was first on the charts as Warren County, then Duff’s (after the owner of a nearby smorgasbord restaurant) before it was finally called Brownie’s. It had a homemade narrow, “sort of” paved 2,100-foot runway, which was displaced 200 feet when landing to the east. Stay with me and I’ll explain why — prevailing winds be damned — you wanted to land to the east on Runway 9 at Brownie’s. The threshold to 9 was displaced because of some nasty telephone wires on the road right on the approach end, but the remaining usable 1,900 feet was uphill — well, until you got near the end. Then the last 250 feet dipped down a 3- to 4-foot grade, followed by an awesome drop-off at the end.

It was, in fact, scary enough that I didn’t worry much about anybody attempting it on their own.

But what fun it was for them to learn! What a confidence builder when “big-city airport” pilots found that the Cessna 150 was the “little engine that could.” You just had to keep telling yourself, “I think I can, I think I can,” and use those short-field techniques you simulated on big, long runways. It was a great feeling when they found that, by doing it right, they could get in and out of Brownie’s.

You avoided using Runway 27, which, in these parts, is usually into the prevailing wind, not only because of the downhill slope of the runway but also some mean-looking and formidable high-tension power lines on the approach end. According to Mark, they were 1,000 feet out and only 14 feet higher than the airport, so he claims, “They only looked to be a true obstacle. However, one guy did manage to hit them.” Mark’s dad was a pilot who lived and ran a machine shop on the strip, and Mark still operates a shop on a slightly longer grass runway since the “pavement” is unusable. In his book, which has great pictures of the airport and the people who used it over the years, he says, sadly (I think), “One day, in about 1983, when the fuel supply finally ran out, [we just didn’t] buy anymore.”

I can’t say I knew Brownie’s that well, or the people who hung out there, because, in the ’70s and ’80s, it was populated mostly by skydivers. Somebody managed to get a DC-3 in and out of there, which impresses the hell out of me. A pilot would have to make the approach at something less than the normal 80 knots, and some of the “numbers” in the manuals wouldn’t work, but given that, it’s possible to get a Goon in and out of nearly anywhere — as any old military pilot would attest. Anyway, the skydivers were in seventh heaven over the chance to jump from a DC-3/C-47.

Paul, himself a pilot, started his Abandoned and Little Known Airfields website “to keep their stories alive. It’s my niche and it’s become my passion project.” He welcomes any help people can give by sending him photos and information about other fields you know about. If you haven’t looked at the site yet, you’re in for a treat. Click on your area to find lots of airports and fields you may remember, and lots you probably never knew existed.

Another field on Paul’s site that I remember, Wright’s Farm, was on property owned by the president of a large local paper company. It wasn’t too long, but it was really narrow. Bill Hogan, from nearby Hamilton Airport, told me what a “helluva bitch” it was to pick up and drop off “Mr. Paper Company” in his Cessna 310, especially at night when the weather was down. I can’t begin to imagine, but I do know Bill could and did fly anything, anywhere.

Mary and I flew over in our Ercoupe one afternoon, and I assured her, when she remarked there were cows all over the runway, that we’d chase them off with a low pass. I can’t remember how many passes we made, but the cows just looked bored and went back to grazing and I finally gave up; in a confrontation between a cow and the Ercoupe, you can imagine who’d win.

There are lots of old, abandoned or relocated airports in southwestern Ohio, probably because it’s the birthplace of aviation. How fascinating it is to see airports you never knew existed — some still barely visible, others obliterated by shopping centers, housing developments and soccer fields.

And how sad.

Martha Lunken is a lifelong pilot, former FAA inspector and defrocked pilot examiner. She flies a Cessna 180 and anything with a tailwheel, from Cubs to DC-3s.

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