Imagine soaring in a small aircraft – ascending to an altitude of up to 2,000 feet and experiencing a bird’s-eye view of Spokane.
For some kids, dreams of flight can become a reality this weekend at Spokane’s Felts Field.
As part of the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Young Eagles program, pilots from throughout the Spokane area are flying their own planes at the historic airport and taking young people along for the ride.
“It’s a great experience and an amazing boost to your self-confidence,” said longtime pilot Marian Heale. “Sometimes, with the kids, you see that spark in their eyes and a real enthusiasm for airplanes.”
The free plane rides are part of the local EAA’s fly-in – an opportunity for the public to experience small aircraft up close as they zoom down the runway, lift off the ground and fly into the sky. While most are single-engine aircraft – Piper Cubs, Mooneys and Malibus – people also show off their helicopters as well as “home-builts,” or one-seater experimental planes they’ve assembled in their garages or in the nearby EAA clubhouse.
A trip to Felts Field is also a chance for folks to discover this colorful and historic airfield – once home of the 116th Observation Squadron, 41st Division Air Service of the Washington National Guard and a significant military installation in the 1920s and ’30s.
Felts Field also was the third airfield in the United States to be declared an airport, said Jerry Turner, longtime EAA member and the historian of the local chapter. Since the first two no longer exist, it can now claim to be the oldest registered airport in the country, he said.
Visitors can revel in nostalgia by having breakfast at the quaint Skyway Café, an old-time restaurant where diners can enjoy everything from fresh, gooey cinnamon rolls to chicken-fried steak while surrounded by maps, historic photographs, model airplanes and other flight memorabilia.
For the kids, however, the most memorable part will be the airplane ride.
Despite the skyrocketing cost of fuel, members of EAA Chapter 79 remain willing to share their cockpits and their love of flight with young people. Thanks to these pilots and others throughout the country, more than 1 million kids between the ages of 8 and 17 have experienced flying in a small aircraft, according to the EAA.
Each child who takes part in a Young Eagles flight receives a certificate signed by EAA national chairman Harrison Ford. They also get their name entered in the world’s largest logbook at the EAA AirVenture Museum in Oshkosh, Wis.
The aircraft are flown by licensed pilots like Heale, who has been flying planes for more than three decades. Some of the aviators might give the kids a quick history lesson on the Wright brothers, Charles Lindbergh and Amelia Earhart. Others, like Heale, spend time explaining the science behind flight.
During these 20- to 30-minute plane rides with the kids, Heale ascends about 1,000 feet and heads north to fly above Green Bluff. Sometimes, she’ll fly toward Spokane Valley and Liberty Lake. On a few occasions, she has flown children directly over their own homes.
“I like to take the girls,” said Heale, who owns a ’76 Citaborea (that’s “aerobatic” spelled backward) and is one of only two female pilots who belong to the local EAA. “It’s good for them to see a woman fly.”
The fly-in Saturday is just the latest in a storied history of air events at Felts Field.
In 1927 it hosted the National Air Races, which included a fly-in by Charles Lindbergh. The celebrated aviator had completed his trans-Atlantic flight four months earlier, and his visit drew thousands of people. The event included two air races as well as an air show with stunts and parachute jumps. According to news reports from that time, more than 60,000 people came for the two-day spectacular, which was deemed “the biggest event in Spokane’s history.”
Two years later, Felts Field once again made national headlines thanks to Spokane aviator Nick Mamer. Along with Art Walker, Mamer flew the Spokane Sun-God, a 1929 Buhl CA-6 sesquiplane, from Felts Field to San Francisco to Cheyenne, Wyo., to Cleveland to New York and then back to Spokane while refueling in the air. When they landed at Felts Field – after flying for 120 hours – the Spokane Sun-God was the first airplane in history to make a nonstop transcontinental round-trip flight. Although he was buried in Seattle after a plane crash in 1938, Mamer continues to be honored in Spokane with the concrete art deco clocktower at Felts Field.
In the EAA’s clubhouse, Turner keeps a collection of Mamer-related memorabilia, including more than 200 small airplanes that were hand-carved by the late Ted Wolfenberger, a local mechanic who worked for Mamer. According to Turner, some of those models were carved as early as 1917.
Besides the displays and some of the historic hangars, three restored airplanes that have the distinction of being the oldest of their kind are based out of Felts Field: a 1927 Travel Air 4000; a 1927 Stearman C3B; and a Boeing 40C, which was flown last year for the first time since it crashed in 1928, the year it was made.
“There’s a lot of history at Felts Field,” said Turner, who hopes to provide official tours of the airfield next year.
In the meantime, visitors can still spend just about any day watching airplanes by sitting in the Skyway Café or by simply bringing a lawn chair and enjoying the view.
Felts Field isn’t just for nostalgia, after all; it’s also the best place for plane-spotting in town.