Signs of Life at Indiana’s Noblesville Airport

By Scott Spangler on May 7th, 2018

Noblesville-28Drawn to small airports that will not chase me away from the runway’s sideline where I capture the ground-t0-air photos of the homebuilt airplane builders I profile, each is a still-life statement on the vitality of general aviation.  All too often it is unequivocally dire, with signs offering airport hangars for rent as storage units for stuff people no longer use, not airplanes.

But not at Noblesville, Indiana, Airport (I-80), about 4 miles southeast of its eponymous hometown about 20 miles northeast of Indianapolis, which in 2016 estimated its population at 60,183. Driving between the cast concrete bald eagles that flanked its entrance was a portal to a vital small-town airport that Richard Bach could have written about in his biplane barnstorming days.

A line of lights outlined the east-west runway on the well manicured spring greensward. To the south, new small and medium enclosed hangars flanked a tidy line of open T-hangars. From each poked the nose of an winged puppy patiently awaiting its master’s return. Ahead, an unfrayed American flag before a small white frame building spoke of a middling northeast breeze, which the more distant windsock confirmed.

Noblesville-8The structure was clearly older and well cared for. The sign said it was the home of of EAA Chapter 67, and that it would hold its 2018 Pancake Fly-ins on June 9 and August 18. As expected on this Thursday afternoon in late April, the door was locked. AirNav.com said the privately owned public-use airport was unattended. Peeking past the plethora of aviation stickers that adorned the door’s window, the interior seemed clean and tidy and decorated in a style traditionally small airport eclectic.

To the left of the door, signs reminded pilots to “ALWAYS! Stop Engine When Loading and Unloading Passengers” and that those passengers should “NEVER! Turn Your Back on a Spinning Propeller.” Finally, “All Children MUST be Supervised at all Times!” Benches and picnic tables and a porch swing by a large shrouded propane grill standing guard over a squad of cylinders ready for coming cookouts suggested that Noblesville was well attended on weekends.

Noblesville-16With my photo subject reporting rain the night before, I assessed the sogginess of its turf runway by pacing off its 3,580 feet. More than halfway to its western threshold a golf cart closed on my six o’clock. After the driver, a man in his late 50s or early 60s, greeted me with a smiling “howdy,” I offered my name and explained my mission. He asked if my subject planned to land; I said that my runway reconnoiter revealed some soggy spots, and that I was going to recommend that the small-wheeled Davis DA-2 complete its circuits with low approaches.

Giving me a lift back to the chapter house, the gentleman, who never shared his name, unlocked the door and invited me to get out of the chill northeast breeze and use the bathroom as needed. He apologized for no heat, saying that it was warm all week long when he ran a flight school there, but since he closed it several years ago, he only warmed the building on weekends. Shaking my hand, he motored back to one of the two houses attached to hangars on the airport’s northern border.

Noblesville-4With several hours to pass before my subject flew in from Indianapolis Regional Airport (MQJ), I settled into the porch swing to deduce the sources of this airport’s vitality. Private ownership had to be its primary fountain. The hangar homes suggesting that the airport’s two owners lived on the field; shared aviation passion and pride clearly took precedence to the politics and policies that rule at publicly owned airports.

Like schools surrounded by retired people, sustaining a recreational airport where aviators are an insignificant minority in a small town is an impossible sell unless that airport provides community remuneration in the form of fuel sales and a connection to the business aviation network. But sustaining such an airport directly with that small minority is surely an easier effort.

Noblesville-42But it is not an effortless given. To survive and thrive, recreational airports must be the welcome home of more than just takeoffs and landings and a place to keep an airplane. Aviation diversity seems key at Noblesville. The T-hangars were home to two ultralights, an Aeronca Champ, and an RV-6. A Cessna 170 separated 150 from two 172s, one made before Cessna shut down production, and the other after it resumed. Suggested by a chapter house sign for $130 rides, one of the windowless enclosed hangars is home to a Stearman PT-17 biplane.

The variety of April 2018 issues aviation publications stacked on end tables and bookshelves support this airport’s aviation diversity, as did the different stickers that cover the windows in both doors. And it spanned generations. By a corner bookshelf filled with teaching texts, resources, and aviation history were two parking spot plaques that honored departed members of the airport community. Beneath “Walter Copper Parks Here” were the dates of his arrival and departure: July 1, 1924—Feb. 2, 2015. And above the photo of a kindly looking white-coated physician the sign said, “Doc Swenson Parks Here. August 12, 1916—July 21, 2013.”

Noblesville-39Perhaps most telling was the EAA Chapter Charter that EAA Founder Paul Poberezny signed in February 1980. In addition to its four officers, the charter lists the names of its 60 founding members. And one wonders what role they played in the creation—and sustained viability—of the Noblesville Airport, which began operations in February 1987? – Scott Spangler, Editor

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