Riding the wind in currents of worry
Future uncertain for Blue Ash pilots

Wednesday, April 15, 1998

BY CLIFF RADEL
The Cincinnati Enquirer

No matter the weather, the pilots who hang out at the Blue Ash Airport worry about the wind. They fret most about sudden gusts, be they crosswinds over the runway or the uncertain winds of change altering the life they love.

On Monday, blustery weather made takeoffs and landings wobbly and pilots and passengers queasy.

"This is not a good day to be going up on a full stomach," observed assistant manager Eric "Sluggo" Danilowicz. He took a big bite of pizza and gazed out the windows ringing the make-shift observation room at the airport's Co-Op Aircraft Service.

Small talk about the wind got this week's "Lunch with Cliff" off the ground. It gave me the entree I needed to find out what's on people's minds this other Cincinnati airport, the one that's been in Blue Ash for 72 years on 226 acres owned by the city of Cincinnati.

As a small, single-engine plane taxied down the wind-whipped runway, the roomful of five pilots sharing the pizza agreed with Sluggo's assessment.

"No grease landings today," predicted retiree Norm Meyer, using pilot lingo for a smooth, problem-free touchdown.

To the licensed amateur pilots in the room, the airport's future is as uncertain as Monday's weather conditions for landing planes. This was a topic they returned to again and again as they ate lunch in the observation room. The pilots' regular midday hangout, the glassed-in room is a converted porch adjacent to two aging World War II-issue hangars.

No-frills airport

There's no Delta hub -- or any other airline service for that matter -- at the Blue Ash Airport. Single- and twin-engine planes sit out in the open, chained to grassy parking spots by the runway.

At the airport, no subway moves people from terminal to terminal. Pilots just park their planes and cross the tarmac to the observation room. They chew the fat, swapping lies about perfect landings until it's time to gas up and take off.

"This is old-time flying," said Suzanne Powell, who had just poked her head in the door. A co-pilot flying commuter planes out of Cincinnati - Northern Kentucky International Airport for Mesaba Airlines, she gives flying lessons at Blue Ash.

"Everybody hangs out here and has fun together," she added. "You don't find that at a big airport. They are no fun. It's a job."

The pilots at Blue Ash are a friendly bunch. Walk in the door and you get a wave and a "How's it goin' ?" Strangers are welcomed, offered some pizza and told just how special the place is.

To the regulars, the airport and the sky above it provide a spiritual refuge from earthly worries.

"Up there, it's just you, your plane and your God," said Larry Zakem, owner of his own security firm. "You leave your worries on the ground."

"I'm convinced God doesn't subtract for time spent in the air," added Tom Popp. "The longer you stay up, the longer you're going to live."

Tom flies for business -- he's an electrical contractor -- and pleasure. His wife, Cheryl, is his co-pilot.

"Once you start flying, you find your life has an added dimension," she noted. "Life is not just down here on earth. You live up there in the clouds, too."

And it's quite a life. Every time Norm climbs into a plane, he experiences the same rush of adrenalin he felt during his first solo flight.

"Of all the milestones in my life, that flight was the greatest," he said. "It only lasted seven minutes. But for those seven minutes, the world was mine."

Month-to-month

As much as they relish flying in and out of the airport, the pilots wonder how long they're going to be landing there. They worry that the field may be sold and either closed for commercial development or drastically reduced in size.

Blue Ash has made no secret that it covets the airport's land. And, Cincinnati's money woes are well-known.

The pilots also know a master plan for the airport is in the works. Tom has noticed "surveyors and other development types hanging around the field."

The airport exists in limbo. No long-term repair projects are planned. Co-Op Aircraft Service operates on a month-by-month lease.

"When we sit down to eat," said Karl Glos, Co-Op's manager, "we always wonder if this lunch is going to be our last."

That sounds sad. But Karl didn't say it with an air of finality. He sounded so matter-of-fact about it, everyone in the room laughed. Then, they went back to swapping stories about the thrill of making perfect landings on a windy day.

Columnist Cliff Radel can be reached at 768-8379; fax 768-8340.

RADEL ARCHIVES