Wheels Up in Rural Oregon

Oregon; Winter-Spring 2012-13

by Molly Esteve

They call it the $100 hamburger: Lift off in Newburg, Oregon; fly 67 nautical miles southwest over the Coast Range to the Pacific City airstrip, just kitty-corner from Fat Freddy’s burger joint; order the Fat Fred Deluxe; walk off lunch along the shore; then take back a few fresh-from-thepot Dungeness crab for dinner. It’s a different kind of takeout, certainly—and one that begins with a takeoff.

“Although these days, with the price of fuel, it’s more like a $200 hamburger,” says Dale Whitney, a third-generation Whitney to run Newberg’s privately owned Sportsman Airpark.

Sam Whitney, Dale’s grandfather, established the rural airport in 1946, after he returned from World War II as a pilot in the U.S. Army Air Corps. The Whitneys’ flying company made most of its profits from crop-dusting and seeding Cascade lakes with fish. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife would drop shipments of fingerlings into the cargo pod of Whitney’s Piper Super Cub tractor plane.

Nowadays, trucks move the fish up dusty backroads, and the Whitneys stopped crop-dusting 10 years ago because of pesticide drift and the consequent fines.

“We’re on the cusp of Napa Valley,” says Dale Whitney, who would like to see more bed and breakfasts, more resorts, more reasons for privately owned aircraft to land on their airstrip to spend the weekend in the quaint wine country of Newberg. But, judging by Dale’s wince when I mention the economy, “cusp” might be a generous timeline. Small, privately owned airports like these struggle without booming commercial enterprises.

Oregon was the first, or rather, the pilot of government aviation agencies. Originally founded in 1921, the Oregon Department of Aviation preceded both state and federal aeronautics programs. Today, more than 400 public and private airports sprinkle the state. Many are vestiges of World War II and now hope to serve as technology epicenters for small communities. After the war, when it became apparent that hundreds of small airports weren’t necessary for military purposes, people began to get creative with the landing strips.

The Aurora State Airport is an example of a “through-the-fence” operation. The only public land at the airport is the landing strip itself. Businesses have built up alongside. On the northern end of the Aurora State Airport is a smattering of aircraft hangars that can only be described as a wide hub of industrial bachelor pads. Aurora Aviation is one of three fixed-base operators to share business space with the state-owned airstrip.

And this is no decoupage garage. Neon-lit advertisements for beer and motor parts cover the steel-framed walls of the hangars. There are motorcycles—the kind of hogs, sheened with black and chrome, that beg full-leather duds—parked beside the doorway. Owners store well-polished, lightly used rally cars and hot rods beneath the wings of their Cessna 172s.

Inside an empty hangar, Bruce Bennett, president of Aurora Aviation, points up to an industrial fan made from old propeller blades. It could be on page 5 of the Restoration Hardware catalog. Then there are the aircraft themselves, many built from life-size model kits or refurbished from the fabric biplane days, when cotton or linen was stretched over an aluminum exoskeleton.