By Ron Bonini
Copyright Ron Bonini 2016
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Also by Ron Bonini, Published on Shakespir:
Shortly after WWII there was a growing interest in private aviation in America. A number of companies were manufacturing small single engine aircraft. As with the auto industry during that period, private aviation had their own big three manufactures: Beachcraft, Cessna, and Piper, along with a number of smaller companies such as Taylorcraft, Globe, Aeronca, Luscombe, as well as some others. With the increase demand for aircraft production, small airports and airparks began to crop up all over the country.
As a kid growing up in the 1950s, my father, Ray Bonini, managed the Croton Airpark located in a New York Hudson river town with the same name. “Airparks” are loosely defined as small, private, non- commercial airports or “country clubs,” if you will, for private pilots. Today's country clubs usually have a manager and a golf or tennis pro. Similarly, airparks had a manager, and the experienced pro was the flight instructor. Usually every airpark or small airport had at least one flight instructor. In those days at Croton Airpark, my father was both the manager and the flight instructor for almost 20 years.
My father Ray Bonini, in 1954 in his 1949 Cessna 140.
While I was too young to remember the history of Croton Airpark in the time before my father became manager. I do remember my Dad speaking of Whitey John who managed the airpark and operated a small air charter service and flight school there in the late 1940s. My father conveyed to me that a hurricane hit Croton in 1949, and a number of Whitey’s planes were unfortunately damaged. During the time it took for Whitey’s planes to be repaired, he acquired a job with the local railroad; and it was there that he met my father. When Whitey’s flight school was back in business, my father became one of his first students. In 1950, Dad received his private pilot license and by 1954 he had earned his flight instructor’s license. Shortly afterwards, Whitey began working as a pilot for Eastern Airlines, and subsequently, my father began his career as Croton Airpark’s manager and flight instructor, a position he held until the airpark closed in 1971.
Croton Airpark consisted of one -1400 foot long dirt/grass field with two fairly large hangers that had the capability to hold five or six single engine planes each. In the early 1950’s, portions of the hangers had the dual purpose of serving as “farmer markets” on summer weekends.
My father’s PT-26 in the early 1950s in Croton, with a J-3 Piper Cub parked on the right. The hangers in the background were also used for the Croton farmer’s market on weekends in the summer.
In the mid-1950s the CAP (Civil Air Patrol) donated an old 1940’s bus to the airpark. The old CAP bus was parked about 200 ft. from the runway, where it sat until the airpark closed in 1971. It served as the airpark terminal, flight school office, and coffee shop. It had one kerosene heater that doubled as a stove for the coffee pot, along with one well used checker board game for rainy days. There was an excellent view of the entire airstrip from the bus windshield. My father was a captain in the CAP in the mid-1950s, although I don’t remember him being a very active member; still he would attend an occasional meeting, and at times he would spend a day giving CAP cadets a ride in his plane.
Parked just behind the bus was a large wooden-parts trailer where aircraft fuel was stored in five gallon gas cans. We would fill the cans at a Hudson River seaplane base (called Peekskill Seaplane Base) in Verplanck, and bring them back to Croton by car. There were no gas pumps in Croton Airpark, so you always tried to top off your fuel whenever you landed at another airport. The trailer also held six kerosene smudge pots which were used as runway lights. The smudge pots didn’t provide much light, but poor lighting wasn’t the only challenge when landing after sunset. There were times we had to fly low and “buzz the strip” to get the deer off the runway before we could land.
It wasn’t unusual to see 18 to 24 planes based in Croton Airpark. In the 1950’s, there was a diverse mix of aircraft; anything from WWII surplus PT-19s and 26s to Aeroncas, Luscombes, and other currently extinct brands. By the mid 1960’s all the PTs were gone. Inasmuch as they were made of plywood and fabric, if PTs remained in the northeast they would succumb to water damage, and once the plywood separated they would fail the annual inspection. Since they were relatively inexpensive (shortly after WWII you could buy a PT-19/26 for less than $500.00), they really weren’t worth repairing. They usually would pass inspection for several years, and when they failed the inspection, they were usually junked. As a kid I remember playing in these old junked PTs in the woods just off the end of the landing strip. Along with the disappearance of the PTs, by the mid 1960’s the Aeroncas, Luscombes and Taylorcrafts were being slowly replaced by the Cessna 150s and 172s.
Pictured here are Art Albright, my older brother Ray, and my father in front of his Cessna 140 at Croton Airpark. Cessna 140s had fabric wings with an aluminum fuselage, and they were not as easy to fly as the later Cessna 150s.
My father’s full time job during the week was as a foreman on the New York Central Railroad. He taught flying every weekend, weather permitting, and in the summer every evening after work until dark. In the summer months my mom, dad, I, and our beagle hound ate dinner very early, in order to be at the airpark by 5:30 pm. Our beagle occupied himself every evening by innately chasing rabbits in the woods adjacent to the airstrip until dark
During the winter months it wasn’t uncommon to get several storms a year of 6 to 8 inches of snow, requiring us to close the airpark. Fortunately we had a local farmer with a tractor who would plow us out, and we were usually up and flying by the following weekend.
Needless to say, December through February activity was limited, due to New York weather. However, on the first warm weekend in early spring all the pilots came out to check on their planes, perform some minor maintenance, and take their first flight of the year. It was also a great time to meet other pilots from other local airports. There were a number of small strips within 10-15 minutes from Croton by air, with Westchester County Airport being the largest.
Croton Airpark is shown here on the 1967 New York sectional. My father was listed as the airport manager. His business card from the early 60’s, note the CR1 phone number with no area code, no zip code and of course no email address.
The Air National Guard was based in Westchester County Airport, and each spring several of their L-19 pilots would practice short field landings and takeoffs at Croton Airpark. The L-19s were Army observation planes designed for short field operations used during the Korean War. The National Guard pilots would usually stop by the bus at the airpark for a cup of coffee when they were in the area. As a kid I distinctly remember, they all wore aviator Ray-Bans, one piece flight suits that had holders for silver Cross pens in small special pockets on their pants legs. The L19s were amazing to watch. They seemed to rocket straight up when they took off. There was nothing based in Croton that could climb like those L-19s!
One pilot from Westchester County Airport that we all eagerly anticipated seeing every spring was Archie Smith. Archie was a flight instructor and former military pilot. He was somewhat of a local celebrity, and whenever he landed in Croton, everyone would gather around to talk to him. My dad always said Archie was the best single engine pilot he ever met and could do almost anything with an airplane. Archie taught flying in Cessna 150s and 172s at Westchester, although his personal plane was a Vultee BT-13. The BT (Basic Training) was an Army surplus trainer powered by a 450 hp Pratt & Whitney engine. The Army used BTs as the second step in pilot training following the PTs (Primary Training) during WWII. Unlike the under-powered PTs, the BTs had large 450 hp radial engines that really shook and earned them the nick name “Vultee Vibrators”. While I never rode in a BT, I can tell you they really shook the ground. I remember Archie buzzing the strip in Croton once and I distinctly felt all the windows tremble in the old CAP bus, even the coffee pot shook on the old kerosene stove.
Archie had a great sense of humor and I always enjoyed his stories. My favorite one was when he told us how cadets learned to do a slow roll in the Army Air Force. Archie was trained at the famous Tuskegee Army Airfield. He said a cadet would take off from Tuskegee with his instructor in the back seat, shortly after they were airborne the instructor would take the controls and started rolling the airplane. The instructor continued to roll the plane all the way to Birmingham about 100 miles away. When they landed in Birmingham the instructor would ask the cadet whose head and stomach were still rolling, after watching him if he felt he could now roll the plane. Usually the cadets would say they could in hopes they would never have to go through that again. Then the instructor would reply, “Well that’s good because you have to roll us back to Tuskegee.”
The pilots at the airpark were a real mix of flying enthusiasts from all different walks of life. There were physicians, lawyers, a police chief, a number of seminary students from the nearby Maryknoll religious institute, as well as some local tradesmen. I don’t think a Hollywood producer could have selected a more eclectic cast of characters. Their common interest in flying brought them all together as friends. I don’t recall even one time when any of the pilots argued or didn’t get along. There was always a very strong camaraderie among the pilots. While I enjoyed them all, there were two pilots: George Grauer and Fred Keys that bring back special memories.
George’s full time occupation was on the New York Central Railroad as a conductor. However, he had a small side business salvaging wrecked airplanes, as well. He was a very proficient guy that knew his way around an airplane. He especially did great work patching torn fabric on airplanes. One time, George conveyed that he once replaced the brake pads on a Tri-Traveller for a friend (Tri-Travellers were very forgiving and somewhat easy planes to fly). After he replaced the pads he wanted to test it out on the runway to make sure it would stop in a straight line. The brakes were fine, but it was such a nice day so George decided to take it up for a ride.
George was one of the most cautious pilots, but on this day he didn’t fully check the airplane before takeoff. As soon as he broke ground, he noticed something was wrong. He could only move the stick an inch or two in any direction. He thought for a second the gust lock was left on, but he could use the rudder, which meant that wasn’t it. As with a number of planes based in Croton, the Tri-Traveller was parked outside. Planes parked outside usually had gust locks on the rudders to hold them in place during high winds. (A gust lock is just a strip of plywood about four inches wide and three feet long with a screw and wing nut in the center. You clamp it on the rudder and elevator to prevent them from moving in the wind when a plane is parked.). George didn’t have time to determine what was causing the problem; he just wanted to get the airplane back on the ground. So, he used the trim to get the nose down and the rudder to turn. He did a great job getting the plane back on the strip and made a very nice landing just using the rudder and trim. When he got back on the ground he found the rear seat belt was tied around the stick by the last person who rented the plane. I’ll always remember this incident, because, if it happened to someone as careful as George, then it could happen to anyone. As a result, I was more vigilant in carefully checking my plane each and every time before I flew.
[_George Grauer pictured here with Dave Koebbe’s Globe Swift and Ray Barnhouse’s Luscombe in the background. The Luscombe was one of sturdiest planes of the era, and the Swift was the sleekest. Both were built in the late 1940s. _]
Fred Keys, a good friend of George’s, was a much different type of pilot. Fred always had unique planes and he was a bit of a daredevil. He had a number of PTs, a Waco, and he had the first Citabria I ever saw. The Citabria was one of my favorite planes and, consequently, I owned one some years later.
My favorite anecdote regarding Fred Keys was one that George Grauer relayed to me. George not only collected salvaged aircraft parts, but from time to time, he would collect old army surplus items. He had an old surplus parachute and a friend asked if he could have the silk for his wife to make something. George removed the silk chute from the container and gave it to him. All that remained was the harness and container without the silk shoot inside. For some reason, George put some old newspapers in the container so the chute looked full.
One day Fred asked George if he could use the chute to sit on. Fred was about 5’ 6” and had an old PT at the time, so it may have been hard for him to see over the panel. George gave it to him and Fred took off. Shortly afterwards Fred landed and he was visibly shook-up. He told George he just tried to loop the old PT and when he got the nose straight up it stalled and the plane started to slide backwards. The plane finally fell off to one side and Fred quickly recovered. It probably only lasted for two or three seconds but it’s a little scary to slide backwards in an old PT, and it must have seemed much longer to Fred. While this is a maneuver that aerobatic pilots perform today at air shows, it’s not something you want to try in an old, and perhaps water logged PT. Fred told George how scary it was and said “I am glad I had your chute with me George, for a second I thought I was going to need it.” Obviously Fred did not know the silk was replaced with newspaper. Without explanation, George quickly took the chute from him and it was never seen again.
I’ll never forget the day Fred’s brother landed an Army Caribou in Croton. It was the biggest aircraft ever to land in Croton. When he flew over the Croton Dam, on his final approach, a number of people saw the plane landing and drove up to the airpark. There has never been a bigger crowd of people at the airpark, except for the charity air show held by Lighthouse for the Blind some years later.
This was the biggest thing ever to land in Croton, an Army Caribou. It seemed like half the village of Croton was there that day.
Taking off within 1400 ft. for the Caribou was no problem, just a lot of dust.
One of my favorite places to go to with my father was to the Peekskill Seaplane base in Verplanck. As I mentioned previously, Croton didn’t have fuel pumps, so we had to bring fuel back in cans by car from the seaplane base. Jim Martin owned and operated the base for many years. He had a unique collection of old aircraft parts, and he would also order parts on request from the parts distributors. He spent much of his time in an old military style Quonset hut that was just loaded with interesting aircraft parts, several chairs, two dogs and a TV set.
There were a number of very interesting seaplanes based in Verplanck. Some of my favorites were the old Seabees and Cessna 195s. Jim himself owned a number of planes. He had a small J3 on floats, an old twin engine Widgeon, and a Helio Courier. He also had an old surplus six wheel amphibious DUKW (Duck). Today, a number of cities such as Boston use Ducks for tours. Jim’s Duck sat in a hanger for years, until one day there was an emergency on the Hudson River and amazingly Jim had the Duck up and running and in the river in a matter of minutes.
Jimmy Martin who owned and operated Peekskill Seaplane base in Verplanck for many years is bringing in his J-3 from the Hudson River.
As the number of planes based at Croton started to decrease, and with some strong persuasion from some neighbors to close the airpark. In 1971 Croton Airpark was officially closed.
The remaining planes and pilots went to various airports; my dad and I went to Dutchess County airport. I received my private, commercial, and instrument ratings before we left Croton and my multi engine rating shortly afterwards at Dutchess. Unfortunately, for me, flying was starting to lose some of its luster for a number of reasons. Dutchess airport was a much further commute for me, and hence, most of my flying was now limited to just weekends. By 1976 we were in the middle of our second oil crisis in the U.S. My Citabria used 80/87 octane fuel which was becoming harder to get. You could use 100/130 octane, but it had a much higher lead content in those days, which was not good for engines that were designed for 80/87. While the pilots at Dutchess were really great, I missed the people I grew up with from Croton. I sold my Citabria just before my dad passed away in October 1976, and without him I just didn’t have the same interest in flying.
I know many people have fond memories of their childhood. However, I think I was especially lucky to grow up at Croton Airpark being exposed to all of those incredible people, and most of all having a great father who taught me to fly.
Thank you for reading Memories of Croton Airpark. I would also like to thank my wife Linda for helping me edit this essay and for her support with all my writing efforts.
I attached some additional photos below that I think could be worth a thousand words. If you enjoyed this essay, please consider my novel “Beyond Bear Mountain” a story that was inspired in part by some of the people from Croton Airpark.
Mom and Dad with their new 1964 Buick, parked under the wing of their Cessna 172. Looks like a GM ad in the 1960s. The famous old CAP bus sits on the left.
Dad’s second PT the Lone Eagle (circa 1952) with a friend in the back seat taking a ride.
My mother is standing in front of Fred Keys’ Waco, with supply trailer and bus in background (circa 1960).
A Baby Ace home built; this one was built by Ray Sippel. In those days Ray was the only one I knew who completed a home built kit plane. My father was the first to fly it, pictured here at Croton in the early 1960s.
At the time most of the pilots did much of their own work. Harvey Wilcox did a great job restoring this old Taylorcraft in 1964.
My father’s last Cessna before we shipped off to Dutchess County airport when Croton Airpark closed in 1971. It was a 1961, 172 with a 180 HP Franklin conversion engine. This was the same basic engine that Preston Tucker used in his 1947 automobile, the Tucker Torpedo. Finally the runway was paved in 1968 but sadly the airpark closed a few years later. The Franklin powered 172 was a perfect fit for Croton’s 1400’ strip.
After WWII a number of the liberty ships were stored in the Hudson River for several decades. I took this picture flying over Verplanck . The Con Edison nuclear power plant sits across from the ships on the right.
This picture was taken at an air show in 1972. The Lighthouse for the Blind ran a charity event after the Airpark was officially closed. Unfortunately, a tragic accident ended this as an annual event.
Ron Bonini was born and raised in the small town of Oscawana , New York where he resided until 2011. He currently lives in Scottsdale, Arizona with his wife Linda.
He worked at the IBM Research Center in Yorktown Heights, New York for 40 years, where he held various management positions. Retiring from IBM in 2008 as a Human Resources Partner.
His father was a flight instructor and Ron made his first solo flight on his 16th birthday. He received his instrument and commercial pilot licenses by the age of 21. In his youth he flew his own plane and had an interest in motorcycles, automobiles and New York Yankees baseball. Today he spends much of his time reading and hiking in the Sonoran desert.