Growing Up on a Grass Strip

There is something special about growing up on a grass airstrip. Just ask Clint Cawley, a third-generation aviator.

Left to right: Jay Cawley, Glen Cawley, John Cawley and Jim Cawley in a picture taken in the 1970s. Courtesy: Clint Cawley

There is something extra special about growing up on a grass airstrip. Just ask Clint Cawley, a third-generation aviator who grew up and learned to fly at Cawley’s South Prairie Airport, located in Buckley, Washington. The airstrip, measuring 2,500 by 150 feet, was built by his grandfather Glen after World War II.

Naval aviator Glenn P. Cawley Courtesy: Clint Cawley

Cawley said his grandfather was a tail-gunner on a TBM Avenger. He was shot down over Japanese-controlled islands and held prisoner in the latter part of the war. When he returned home, he settled near what is now Snohomish County Airport-Paine Field (KPAE) and flew a Piper Pacer for fun.

“He decided that he wanted to either live on an airport or have his own,” Clint said. “After looking at several airports and pieces of property, he settled on one near Buckley. It was a long, skinny, 10-acre parcel that was perfect for an airport with homes along one side. The nearby farmers used the field on occasion to fly in and out of, but there were quite a few stumps that needed to be avoided.”

The field was cleared and leveled, and in 1965, Cawley’s South Prairie Airport (02WA) was born. 

‘...It was just what we did.’

Clint grew up thinking it was normal to have a runway in your backyard because it was just part of the family culture.

“Most everyone in our family learned to fly from the airport in our original Piper Cub Special,” Clint said. “Most of my cousins soloed the Cub on [their] 16th birthday. It originally came from the Red Jensen Auction in Central California. At the time, it wasn’t anything special because it was just what we did. It was part of normal life growing up at the airport. 

“Our entire family lived right there at the airport. Looking back now, it was pretty special to grow up on a grass airstrip and learn to fly in the family Cub being taught by your family.”

"Looking back now, it was pretty special to grow up on a grass airstrip and learn to fly in the family Cub being taught by your family.”

Clint Cawley

The runway is aligned north and south. There is a county road that runs along the length of the property with a fence that acts as a deterrent to keep wayward drivers from motoring on to the grass runway. The grass is mowed weekly during the spring, summer, and fall, and fertilized twice a year to keep weeds and moss at bay. The field is rolled twice as a year as well to smooth out any divots or chuck holes that may have manifested.

Clint is now a pilot for United Airlines. He noted that the airport has sprouted quite a few airline pilots —no fewer than six named Cawley, with number seven “well on his way” to a career in aviation.

Today, there are many families living at the airport. On the house side of the field, there are 20 homes, and approximately 24 aircraft based there. 

“Most of them being of the antique tailwheel variety,” Clint explained. “There are several Cubs and Champs, 2 Stearmans, a couple Cessna 170s and 180s, a Great Lakes biplane, a handful of RVs, and Stinson L-5, to name a few.”

The Lay of the Land

The airport is located south of a practice area used by local flight schools. Because it’s a private airport,  permission is required before landing—unless it is an emergency. The experienced instructors point out Cawley Field, as it is locally known, to their clients as an emergency runway. 

The approach to Cawley’s South Prairie Airport. Courtesy: Clint Cawley

Clint notes there have been times when the runway served as a landing pad for helicopters that were fighting fires in the area. On one occasion, a Blackhawk helicopter from nearby Joint Base Lewis-McChord touched down and a crewmember asked to use the telephone to call the base.

The runway is unlighted so it is limited to daytime VFR operations only. Because the airport is surrounded by woods and farms, occasionally wildlife wander onto the runway.

“There are elk and deer in the area, but they typically stay in the nearby farm fields rather than on the airport,” Clint explained. “The biggest animal to get loose on the airport was a wayward cow from across the fence. We also once had to capture a loose pig. That was a rodeo!”

“The best part about having a runway out your back door is the convenience of being able to fly after a short walk outside,” Clint said. “You can put your shoes on, walk outside, and be airborne in less than 10 minutes.”

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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