A Visit to My First Airport

Just a few original buildings remain at the Camillus Airport of the author’s memories. Les Abend

I coasted the rental car into the parking lot of what remained of Camillus Airport (NY25) in New York and attempted to transport myself back in time. The view before me was disorienting. Surrounding structures and driveways had been added. The FBO office and hangar locations appeared to have been relocated. I knew that the relocation resided only in a portion of my brain that held memories from 45 years prior. It was difficult to connect the memories of the past with the realities of the present. Perhaps it was the visceral absence of my bicycle tires rumbling across the large-stoned gravel of theparking lot—which was now worn and cracked asphalt—that was preventing my brain from reminiscing. Surely, I could coax a few synapses into recall mode. This place was holy ground, after all. It was not only the place where I had soloed but also where my hardearned $1.85-an-hour paycheck as a lineman was converted into flying lessons. Still, I was getting nothing.

I grinned nonetheless and wandered around the side of the faded, pale-blue, corrugated-aluminum FBO building. A few yards away, the Onondaga County road-maintenance department had established a facility of sand and large-equipment storage in the footprint of one of the old hangars. The hangar had stored the heavymetal: An Aztec. A Navajo. A Citation.

I continued my trek, peering through the windows of the former maintenance shop. Parallel to the now-shortened east-west runway, a row of open T-hangars appeared. Those hangars weren’t around when I was here, were they? Their decrepit condition certainly placed them near my vintage…maybe constructed shortly after I was gone? Curiosity marched my feet forward. And then a few moments later, I stopped in my tracks.

A green-and-white 150 was perched in one section of the open air T-hangars. It couldn’t be—could it? I read the N-number painted in large white letters on the side of the fuselage. N1374Q. Yup, it was one of the cadre of airplanes I had soloed. How was it possible that this 1971 Cessna 150, practically brand-new at the time, had remained on the field long after being an integral part of the flight school?

The author finds an old friend, changed little with time, tucked away in a hangar. Les Abend

With a little online detective work, I tracked down the current owner. Apparently, it wasn’t the first time he had been privy to anecdotal stories related to the airplane. The owner described a photo of a pilot standing next to the 150 shortly after his first solo. The new pilot wore knee-high tube stocks, shorts and a 1970s mustache. Could have been me, but I didn’t attempt facial hair until I was a junior in college, a few years after I had soloed.

Interestingly enough, the little Cessna hadn’t traveled far from home. It sat neglected on the ramp for a time after its second generation of service as a flight school airplane and then had flown to an airport only minutes away before it returned to Camillus with the current owner.

As I peeked into the simple cockpit, the realization that I was the epitome of the aviation “full circle” hit me. Having long ago been envious of the airline pilot that flew the “big iron,” I had become that guy. And now I was being afforded an opportunity to glimpse into the past via a Cessna 150.

Read More from Les Abend: Jumpseat

Walking away from the airplane, I scanned the runway from east to west. Apparently, I had just connected with my Rosetta stone. The memories began to flood back. My thirst for nostalgia compelled me to walk a few thousand feet down the taxiway to the run-up area. Tall blades of grass and weeds were escaping through the cracked pavement. I remembered the anticipation of pushing the throttle lever forward and accelerating down the runway with only an empty seat to my right.

I could almost feel the tingle of nervousness as I recalled turning the airplane onto the downwind leg with the realization that the only one capable of returning safely to terra firma was the 16-year-old version of me. I didn’t even have a driver’s license. What was my instructor thinking? The warm, patient smile of Don Perricone was etched into my brain. He was then 20 years younger than I am today. I shook my head with the thought, unable to fully process the revelation. Inhaling the entire scene of the old runway, the train tracks to the south and the hangars to the north, I began to remember snippets of time. The runway had been host to my spirited mother when she agreed to be the first passenger after I had achieved private pilot status. Perhaps it was at that moment of trust, she understood her son was serious about embarking on an airline career.

As I walked back toward the old FBO, my mind flashed to the day that I had loaded two friends into a Grumman Traveler for a sightseeing tour. During the run-up, I discovered that one of the brakes had a spongy feel. Knowing that a castering nosewheel airplane requires brakes to taxi, I elected not to attempt a takeoff. Rather than park the airplane and have it towed back, I attempted to taxi down the runway, which resulted in a side trip toward a snowbank. I managed to pull the mixture control back quickly. The prop made only one turn in the snowbank. No injuries. No damage. No pride. Lesson learned.

Returning to the FBO, I cupped my hands around my face and peered through the glass of the lounge area. I saw myself slipping checks into the cash register, handing clipboards to students, wiping down the counter, keying the mic to report the active runway over the unicom frequency, and jostling with flight instructors that enjoyed the sport of good-natured harassment.

Though the adjoining maintenance hangar door was closed, I could still hear the chief mechanic needling me to “Get hot!” If I wasn’t fueling an airplane, he wanted me to be using the spray cannister of Gunk to wash the grease off the belly. I’m certain the chemical in that cannister has been banned by the Environmental Protection Agency long ago.

I looked in the direction of the hangar that no longer exists, where all the flight school and charter airplanes were kept. Why I was allowed to tow and taxi airplanes out of that hangar as a 17-year-old kid I’ll never know. The fuel pump was gone, but I could still feel those frigid Syracuse winter days when my fingers went numb on top of a 150 wing waiting for the tank to fill. There was nothing better than the smell of that red 80/87 avgas. It meant that I was one step closer to my dream.

And now that I have lived that dream, my only regret is that I should have treasured some of those moments rather than considering them as steppingstones to the ultimate goal. Perhaps that would be good reason to do it all over again—or perhaps I should just learn to smell more roses.

This story appeared in the November 2020, Buyers Guide issue of Flying Magazine

Les Abend
Les AbendAuthor
Les Abend is a retired, 34-year veteran of American Airlines, attempting to readjust his passion for flying airplanes in the lower flight levels—without the assistance of a copilot.
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