Holding a private pilot certificate has brought a great deal of pride, joy, freedom, and of course, responsibility to my life over the years. But what that document provides more than anything else, arguably, is access.
The real miracle of general aviation, beyond thrust and lift getting us off the ground, is the ease with which it allows us to explore and enjoy places we might never have found while traveling on land. Airports are the gateways to these destinations and by visiting them, we can learn about a town’s relationship with the surrounding region.
Joseph Y. Resnick Airport (KN89) in Ellenville, New York, is among my favorite examples. I have flown there often but feel as if I am just beginning to appreciate the town’s multilayered history as a transportation hub—and a hotbed for hang gliding.
When the wind blows in from the northwest, pilots flying toward the airport along the Shawangunk Ridge overlooking Ellenville can spot colorful gliders gathering at a launching area near scenic Route 52. Some of the beginners will take a “sledder,” gliding gently to a landing area approximately one mile from the base of the slope while other, more experienced gliding enthusiasts will circle in rising thermal air currents to gain altitude, typically to cloud base. When the wind is right, blowing directly against the slope that deflects it upward, hang gliders can fly back and forth near the ridge while riding a wave of lift that can keep them in the air for long periods.
Paul Voight, a master hang glider and longtime instructor in Ellenville, says the area is among the best hang-gliding sites on the East Coast. Voight, 66, recently closed his instructing business, called Fly High Hang Gliding, which he had operated since 1980, but says he still flies regularly.
Voight spoke with FLYING about getting started in hang gliding in the early 1970s while on a family vacation in North Carolina. “We were in Kitty Hawk, where the Wright Brothers did a lot of flying. First I saw a guy with a glider and then noticed a sign stuck in the sand that said ‘lessons.’ I asked my parents if I could try, and I think they wanted to get rid of me for the afternoon, so they said yes. There was a lot of ground training on level terrain before launching from hills. The sand dunes around Kitty Hawk were good places to build confidence and learn how to launch properly.”
He and a few flying friends honed their skills and became accomplished flyers during the 1970s but the sport overall was experiencing ups and downs. While many people were interested in hang gliding, the activity had a poor safety record that generated lots of negative publicity and eventually drove people away, Voight says.
Ellenville, a Town in Transition
Ellenville, a village in the town of Wawarsing, has also been through booms and busts throughout its history. It became prominent as a canal town in the early 1800s. When flying into the airport, one can make out the remains of the canal and the railroad right of way that succeeded it.
On the ground, it is easier to visualize where the canal and its towpath ran near the base of the Shawangunk Ridge. There are numerous artifacts from the canal and railroad, including a snubbing post to which canal workers tied barges, and the Port Ben Station building, which was a railroad station in Wawarsing after trains began traveling the same route as the canal.
Ellenville’s location, where the eastern foothills of the Catskill Mountains meet the western side of the Shawangunk Ridge, is roughly halfway between New York City and Albany, New York. This helped make the town a fixture along the Delaware and Hudson Canal, which opened in 1828 and stretched from Honesdale, Pennsylvania, to the Hudson River near Kingston, New York. The route allowed relatively easy transport of anthracite coal to New York City.
The canal was profitable and shipments of coal and lumber grew for the next few decades. But by the mid-1800s, railroads were taking over, offering faster, more efficient delivery. The Delaware and Hudson noted the trend and had been developing a railroad for years, which gradually replaced the canal and operated into the 1950s.
The railroad and Route 209—formerly known as the Old Mine Road and dating to the Revolutionary War—combined to make Ellenville a popular resort destination for vacationers from the 1920s through the 1960s. But the town suffered a decades-long downturn after the railroad’s shutdown. The hotel industry declined and local factories closed.
Comeback in the Catskills
Lately, though, the town has made a comeback. Several restaurants, shops, bakeries, and cafes have filled out its grid of streets and at Shadowland Stages, professional actors perform contemporary musicals and plays in a renovated art-deco theater.
Hang gliding is also enjoying a renaissance. Many of the sport’s most devoted followers have made a point of improving safety in part through a more professional approach to instruction and equipment. Today hang gliding and paragliding are much safer, Voight says, and local operations, including Mountain Wings and Ellenville Flight Park continue to attract customers seeking instruction. Anyone interested in this type of flying can contact the U.S. Hang Gliding and Paragliding Association, which has dozens of chapters across the country.