Without Planes, Small Airport is a Museum

By Scott Spangler on September 28th, 2012

Woolsey-3Working my way around Lake Michigan last week, I passed a small airport in Northport. This village of 526 people is at ring-fingertip of lower Michigan’s left-handed mitten. The fieldstone terminal with a conical roof in bumble-bee colors on its open-air observation area was worth a closer look.

Nothing outside identified the airport or whom to call for assistance, but the payphone worked! The doors were locked. Window peeking, the building was empty, except for a few bicycles, a gas grill under a tarp, and a hand-painted sign leaning against a wall: Woolsey Memorial Airport.

Ready for a stroll after hours of sitting behind the wheel, I paced off the 2,600-foot north-south and 3,600-foot east west runways that meet at the windsock. Lights with clean, clear lenses poked out of yellow cones. Rocks with a recent coat of yellow paint spelled out the airport’s name. The grass was neatly trimmed and rolled smoother than my backyard.

As I walked toward three hangars at the west end of the runway, an eerie feeling that something wasn’t right grew stronger. Looking closely, it dawned on me that there were no signs of aeronautical life at this pristine little airport, no bald patches of grass at the runway approaches, no wheel ruts leading from the hangars. It was like being alone in a museum diorama showing what used to be.

Woolsey-10With an Internet connection I learned that Leelanau Township owns and operates the airport that is home to six airplanes. The four singles, a twin, and an ultralight average log half of the airport operations, which average 42 a month between April and October, when the grass is not snowed over.

An August 15, 2010 story in the Traverse City Record-Eagle summarized the airport’s genesis. The airport’s namesake, Clinton F. Woolsley, a Northport native, was an Army Air Corps pilot who died in a midair in 1927 during the inaugural goodwill flight to 23 Central and South American nations.

clip_image001So his son’s memory would not be lost, Woolsey’s father donated 80 acres to the township with the stipulation that it be used as an airport. The township added another 120 acres, the Works Progress Administration turned it into the memorial airport that was dedicated on July 14, 1935.

Woolsey-8“On summer weekends, you can often see a few private airplanes parked there,” the story reported. The annual Lions Club Fly-In Pancake Breakfast is when the airport is the busiest. But not on this sunny Saturday, with a steady breeze wafting in from the north. But my visit was at summer’s end, when those with summer homes in the areas had returned to their metropolitan lairs to the south. Still, it was a worthwhile visit, an opportunity to survey the museum from its elevated, open-air observation area and daydream of what it might have been like on a long past mid-summer weekend when flying was more popular than it is now. –Scott


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6 Responses to “Without Planes, Small Airport is a Museum”

  1. james l. hibbert Says:

    great story–i would love to visit as well.


  2. Doug Lugthart Says:

    Woolsey is a beautiful destination, and was always well worth the flight from home (8D4). Bring a picnic lunch! Make plans to meet friends!

  3. Scott Sedam Says:

    I also landed at Northport Woolsey on a late-summer Saturday, Sept. 1, and it may have been the same day as your stop, Scott. (I am also Scott.) With me was my oldest son Conor who was getting married the next day on Mackinac Island. We have flown together for years and although Conor has not yet finished his ticket, he is a good pilot with great instincts. We departed MCD (Mackinac Island) that morning, with his camera mounted on the tail, and flew down the coast by Harbor Springs, Petoskey, Charlevoix, then over to the Lelanau Peninsula, down along Sleeping Bear and back. As a lover of grass fields, I had to drop into Northport, and we have a great video of the approach and landing, with a huge “V” of geese leading us down the runway. My experience was as yours … what a beautiful place with its faux-control tower and picnic area. The Pilatus sitting there seemed both out of place and encouraging that someone takes a multi-million dollar bird like that in and out of a grass field.

    My son and I flew back to Mackinac Island, just enjoying the trip together and both thinking about — but not talking too much — his date the next day with the extraordinary young woman who would become his partner-for-life.

    It was a trip I will never forget, and Northport will always be a fond reminder. Oh, the places we have been …

    p.s. I am going to put that video on You9-tube.

  4. Harry Radcliffe Says:

    Woolsey is in one of the most beautiful summer loactions that you could ever find: Leelanau County, north west of Traverse City, with Lake Michigan on the west and Grand Traverse Bay on the east, (Its the left pinkie finger) the Leelanau Peninsula also contains beautiful 27-mile long Lake Leelanau, and a number of quaint towns, like Leland, Suttons Bay, Omena and Northport, which feel like Cape Cod and teem with summer folks from June through September. Tart and sweeet cherrys, apples and vineyards populate the agricultural landscape along with forested acreage and numerous smaller lakes. Fishing, swimming, golf and good restaurants, plus some of the best wines, particularly the whites, produced in the country make this a very special place, prized by many of us who are fortunate enough to have found it.

  5. Matt Teliczan Says:

    I am a pilot but have never flown into Woolsey. Visited many times though, beautiful place. Being from Michigan, I have found that there is no better place to vacation in the summer, especially the northern lower peninsula. Flown all over our great country and still feel that way. Great place to live also.

  6. Steven Rudin Says:

    Your story reminded me of an experience I had walking on the grounds of what had once been a busy airport, but by the time I got there, only existed as the default airport on some of the Microsoft Flight Simulator games. I am referring to Meigs field in Chicago. I had made probably hundreds of pretend flights in an out of that airport, but I didn’t get an opportunity to visit Chicago until sometimes after the airport was basically plowed under by the city. One day I walked over to where the airport had been. There was no sign of a runway, but the control tower was still there, and looked just as I had “seen” it hundreds of times on the computer. It not quite the same as the story of Woolsey,which, thankfully, is still in operation.

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