Blue Ash Airport

Political maneuvering threatens the historic Cincinnati airport.

Blue Ash Airport

Blue Ash Airport

** Blue Ash Airport (ISZ) ... fate to be

I am not having a good time: It's a springlike, bluebird day, more like April than February, and 72B is sitting in Piqua, Ohio, for its annual spa treatment; my tooth ached all weekend (why do toothaches always start on Friday nights?) and was cured expertly but painfully with a root canal on Monday; and the Powers of Darkness are trying to close down Blue Ash Airport.

Oh, we’re doing our damnedest to save it, but the emperor of Mongo, Ming the Merciless, and his dysfunctional council of advisors (Cincinnati’s mayor and City Council) want it gone. Mercifully, for the moment, at least, they’ve run into a large roadblock.

For 60-some years the large plot of land that made up Blue Ash Airport (ISZ) was owned by the city of Cincinnati and maintained with federal funding. Then the city split it up a few years ago, selling everything except the runway and a few adjoining acres to the city of Blue Ash, which surrounds the property. Blue Ash wanted the land for a park and recreational development, and Cincinnati wanted the money — big-time. So, currently, the runway is still a Cincinnati airport, but the city has refused any FAA funding, since accepting federal money requires that you maintain the airport for 20 years. Word is the airport will soon be history and Cincinnati will sell the property for ... who knows what?

The roadblock is an FAA regulation and federal law: You can’t sell a federally funded airport and use the money for anything other than aviation purposes. So Ming the Merciless (Mayor Mark Mallory) and his minions realize they’ve screwed up; they want to cancel and then immediately renegotiate the sales contract with Blue Ash.

But as I write, Blue Ash is dragging its feet and won't commit to spending more money, even at a fire sale price, to keep the airport. Lacking a miracle (who's the patron saint of airports?), by summer the runway will get a "Mayor Daly-Meigs Field" treatment and be jackhammered into oblivion.

Most important and distressing is that this kind of political maneuvering threatens GA airports all over the country — not just in “my corner of the airman’s world.” And if you’re saying, “But, the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association ... ,” forget it. I’m a longtime member, but the unfortunate truth is that, unless the issue is newsworthy and big enough to commit lots of manpower and dollars, AOPA will provide advice, indignation, sympathy and a modicum of publicity but you can kiss your airport goodbye.

Way back around 1921, this “green meadow sod,” just a “clearing by a road,” had become a popular spot for local daredevil aviators with their high-flown dreams. Cincinnati wanted an airport for the lucrative federal funding and the airmail routes and to serve as home to the Army’s 359th Reserve Observation Squadron, but, of course, it had no money to buy land. So Edmund H. Lunken and a few other “civic-minded” (read “rich”) guys bought the site and named it Grisard Field for a World War I Cincinnati aviator killed in France. They planned to deed it to the city as its municipal airport, but the post office wasn’t happy. The excessive distance — six miles — from the main post office downtown was just too far.

So Eshelby Lunken (E.H.’s son and the aviation enthusiast) and Maj. E.L. Hoffman of the Army Observation Squadron combed the area in “dear old Hof’s” Waco and decided to relocate to “the Turkey Bottoms,” an area on the banks of the Ohio River. Despite its lying in a valley between hills, its propensity for morning fog and seasonal flooding, and its lack of room for expansion, it was flat and only four miles from downtown. So the guys divested themselves of Grisard, bought land in the Turkey Bottoms and deeded it to Cincinnati with the proviso that it be forever known as “Lunken Airport.”

But Grisard Field didn’t go away. A handsome, dashing World War I aviator from Alabama, Maj. Hugh Watson, and his brother Parks acquired the Blue Ash property, renamed it Watson Field and soon had flying circuses, airshows and an airmail contract and even scheduled Ford Tri-Motor service with Universal Airlines. Hangars replaced the Army structures that were moved to Lunken, where they still stand today.

In a strange turn of events, Cincinnati bought the field back from the Watsons following the end of World War II. After the 1937 flood had submerged Lunken Airport, it was obvious another site was needed if the area wanted a major airport. While local leaders had decided on Blue Ash, Cincinnati voters and Washington politicians had other ideas. So Cincinnati owned an airport surrounded by the city of Blue Ash while its “Greater Cincinnati Airport” would be located in Northern Kentucky. Meanwhile, Hugh Watson sold his flying operation to “Moose” Glos, still in business as Co-Op Aircraft Service.

I hate to see Blue Ash disappear because it’s a vibrant and historic treasure but mostly, I guess, because it holds so many memories. That area northeast of the city was still farmland when my oldest sister, Pat, and her family built a house nearby, and it was a long drive for this 12-year-old who thought her four rug rats were a pain in the neck. Then I discovered a neighbor, Harris True, had an airplane in his garage. It was something called a “Piper Tri-Pacer,” and Mr. True belonged to a flying club at an airport just down the road. That was Blue Ash, and the club was called The Flying Neutrons because most members were engineers from the big GE jet-engine plant down the hill in Evendale.

It would be nearly 10 years until I actually set foot or, more specifically, “booty” on Blue Ash Airport. Clueless and helpless, riding in the back end of a Cessna 195, we arrived and swerved wildly off the grass runway, out through the boonies. What felt like “The Whip” at Coney Island was my graphic and rude introduction to the phenomenon of a ground loop.

This ragged-out old (even then) 195 belonged to a “Damon Runyonesque” character named Tony Maier who rented out T-hangars and pumped gas at Lunken Airport. The pilot, Jim Bettes, was a happy-go-lucky young guy who flew a Cessna 310 for Queen City Barrel Co. and later went to Braniff Airlines. Nobody was sure if Tony was actually a pilot, but Jim was in the left seat and, anyway, those were the days (you remember them) when you’d jump into anything for the chance to go flying. I think this was a mission to pick up parts at the T.W. Smith Engine Co. on South Blue Ash Airport.

Jim took nothing very seriously. So when Tony grabbed the wheel on final approach, Jim just let go and yelled, “You got it, Tony.” Then Tony took his hands and feet off the controls with “No, no, Jimmy, you got it.” Control of the airplane changed hands (and feet) a number of times until we flared out over the grass and it turned into a truly dual operation — both of them were steering. Tony yelled, “Go around, go around,” and, laughing, Jimmy shouted, “Hang on, Tony, we are going around.” And, boy, did we go around. Miraculously, when the dust settled and the voices were quiet, the prop and wingtips were still intact.

Notice I said this was on “South” Blue Ash Airport, and therein lies a tale. ...

At some point in the ’30s, Parks Watson, a small, quiet man compared with his dashing, flamboyant brother, fell madly in love with Hugh’s wife. I guess the attraction was mutual because Hugh’s marriage and the airport were forever split in two. Hugh operated the north strip and Parks the south.

When I came back home from my FAA years in Chicago and Indianapolis, the sleepy little grass runways had morphed into a modern airport with instrument approaches, a paved 3,700-foot runway and three FBOs. Could it really just disappear? Doesn’t seem right ...

"I have no plea for shaft or stone
to mark the furrowed ruts
where flight was born.
Like all that was,
the meadows served their day
and now, no longer graced
by high-flown dreams,
lie undistinguished from
the common clay.
But this I mark.
When men do what they can
with what they have at hand,
a clearing by a road becomes
a promised land;
the springing turf of
some green meadow sod
a catapult from which
man leaps to touch
the face of God."
– Gill Robb Wilson