Muddy Runways

     The joys of a small airport are hard to describe to somebody who has not spent time at one. Colts Neck Airport, once known in the registry of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) as N61, was about small, simple airplanes and people flying them. I believe I was the last person who learned to fly there. My solo date was 1986 December 7, a date President Roosevelt said would live in infamy.

     N61 was in Colts Neck, New Jersey, an upscale community in Monmouth County, close enough to the beach to be considered part of the Jersey Shore. The forces of housing development finally won the war against the desires of a few old, moldy pilots and it closed a few years ago. But N61 lives on in our hearts.

     N61 was two runways and a seriously-beat-up hanger and office. The hanger door had enough gaps to let the pigeons inside, so covering the wings with a tarp was a part of N61 indoor parking. Most airplane owners took their chances outside with the occasional snow. The runways were rutted with enough gaps in the grass that its Yahoo group calls itself MuddyRunways. The usual runway, 25, was 2500 feet (780 meters) long with bushes and cornfields at the ends. An expertly done short-field landing there was rewarding with a little flick sound of cornstalks brushing against the wheels. Every runway roll, take-off or landing, had a bumpity-bump-bump feel as the airplane rolled and hopped over the ruts in the runway.

     The FAA database said we had a unicom radio frequency (122.8), but nobody on the field every listened to it, and they said we had fuel, but no pilot I know trusted it to have more gasoline than water. Colts Neck Airport was not about luxury in flying.

     The L-19 pilots used to cut toilet paper in the air. The idea was simple: One would nick a roll from the bathroom (and the owner always wondered where it went so quickly), throw it out the window of the airplane, and try to cut the stream as many times as you could before the toilet paper (or the airplane) hit the trees.

     My favorite part of Colts Neck Airport life was Octoberfest. We would all get together the first nice weekend in November, always early November because pumpkins (which we called "punkins" in New Jersey) were cheap right after Halloween. We would load up our L-19 Bird-Dogs and Cessna 150s and Luscombes and Cubs and try to hit a predesignated spot in a field.

     This is very important: Do NOT try this with watermelons even though they make a very nice pink-and-green mushroom cloud on impact. Pumpkins follow a nice parabolic trajectory and go pretty-much where you toss them while watermelons gyrate and become aerodynamic and can go in very unexpected directions.

     I remember telling tales of dropping pumpkins to a pilot-friend who had just been inducted into Jersey Aero, the snootiest, most selective flying club in the area, mostly retired airline pilots. He scurried in horror from my tales of Colts Neck autumn into the safe enclave of Jersey Aero, ran to the oldest, crustiest, sanest old airline pilot he could find, and said, "You would never believe what I heard about Colts Neck Airport."

     The old, revered pilot smiled and said, "I remember Colts Neck. We used to throw pumpkins out of airplanes." At this point, picture my friend running, screaming, waving his arms in total horror.

     Colts Neck Airport may be gone, but the skies will never be totally sane and stodgy so long as we're still up there.

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