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"Rhode Island group tries to buck trend of airport closures"

Sunday, November 5, 2000

Group tries to buck trend of airport closures
 A group of flying enthusiasts from Westerly formed to keep their airport
put -- before any airport opponents were in view.
Providence (RI) Journal

To an aviator, the wide, empty sky has its own invisible geography. Winds
and pressure levels and fronts, shaped by forces without form, create slopes
and troughs, barriers and byways. The airplane, at home in the air, follows
unseen trails marked by radio waves and satellite signals, until eventually
it must return to earth, and its pilot seeks out an airport.

The pilot shifts her gaze from the distant horizon to focus on a narrow
runway below. She banks the airplane, turning it gently until its compass
matches the runway's heading, and guides the ship down, slower and slower,
lower and lower, until its wheels grab the pavement just as the wings lose
their lift, and gravity reasserts control.

The airport -- where earth and sky intersect -- holds a special place in the
hearts of those who fly. Generations of plane-lovers find a center there,
wandering souls find community there; for many it represents a turning point
in their lives.

Once they had a life without wings, and that changed during a visit to an
airport. Not a big, sprawling airport next to a freeway, but a little
airport nestled on a two-lane back road. Two-seater airplanes land with a
squeak of rubber as student pilots practice their first solo touch-and-goes.
At an aged lunch counter, a gray-haired businessman with a shiny new Bonanza
drinks coffee elbow-to-elbow with an eager teenager who pumps fuel to pay
for flight lessons. Most fliers' lives begin at such a place.

Across the country, these small, local airports are endangered. Sprawling
subdivisions creep under their airspace, and homeowners grow annoyed with
all those noisy takeoffs and landings. In the last 10 years, more than 300
public-use airports have closed.

HERE IN RHODE ISLAND, a small group of advocates in Westerly has joined
together to stand up for their local airport. Usually, such
friends-of-the-airport groups form only when imminent closure looms, but the
Westerly people decided to take the offensive. They hope to show the
community that the airport is a good neighbor, contributes to the economy
and the culture, and is an interesting and welcoming place with something to
offer everyone.

Sandy Niles is a captain for New England Airlines, a small operation based
at Westerly State Airport that flies back and forth to Block Island. She
lives in town and learned to fly at the airport back in the early '80s,
which she says was "the tail end of some good times for aviation." By the
late '90s, she noticed that conditions at the airport were deteriorating and
nobody was doing anything about it.

She saw federal money that was meant for the Westerly and Block Island
airports rerouted to help finance expansion at T.F. Green, and "meanwhile,
our airports were completely neglected," she says. And when the Westerly
Zoning Board approved a housing development right off the end of Runway 32,
she knew it was time to do something.

"I began to see that if the people who care about the airport didn't band
together and do something, more bad things would happen," she said.

With help from the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association, a nationwide
lobbying group, Niles formulated a plan for organizing support. "We set the
first meeting for September '98," she said. "And in August the terminal
burned down. This gave the airport some publicity, and raised some issues in
people's minds about what was going on there. When we held the meeting, 38
people came."

Not a bad turnout for such a small town, she said. On that night, the
Westerly Airport Association was born.

ON A THURSDAY afternoon in February, about a year and a half after that
first meeting, Westerly resident Lorain Simister sits in a small studio at
public radio station WBLQ-FM, waiting nervously for a signal that it's 4:30
and she's on the air. Simister has volunteered to host this biweekly call-in
show, "Making WAAves," to enlighten listeners about aviation and the
airport. Today is her first show, and she and her guest, Wayne Schuster of
the Rhode Island Airport Corporation, sit at a round table in front of
microphones in the station's small studio.

Simister seems an unlikely prospect to be an active member of WAA: she's not
a pilot, doesn't own an airplane, never worked in the aviation field. But
several years ago, she tagged along with a friend while he indulged his
hobby of airplane-watching, and she caught his fascination.

"And once I got involved [with WAA], and got to know all these people, I
just fell in love with everybody," she says. "They're such sharing,
wonderful people. They wanted to teach me everything they knew."

Already she's been up in "some amazing aircraft" -- the graceful and classic
DC-3, the workhorse C-130 Hercules, as well as a helicopter.

As the clock on the wall indicates 4:30, Simister introduces the program and
gets Schuster talking about the airport. He explains that the Rhode Island
Airport Corporation operates the state's six airports for the Department of
Transportation, and says there are good times ahead. Westerly State Airport
won't get any bigger -- "There's not a need to build a Bruce Sundlun
terminal down at Westerly," he assures listeners -- but it will get better.

One runway has already been repaved and upgraded, the other runway will get
the same treatment soon, and the new terminal will include a restaurant and
new landscaping.

The hour program goes by quickly. The airwaves, appropriately enough, are
enlisted in the WAA mission to bring their airport into the community.

ON A SATURDAY in June, the day dawned bright and clear, and Lorain Simister
greeted it with relief. "I prayed to Buddha three times a day for good
weather," she says, as she stirs pancake batter inside a hangar on the
airport ramp.

It was International Young Eagles Day, an event designed by the Experimental
Aircraft Association to introduce young people to aviation. The local EAA
chapter has joined with WAA to host an airport open house, complete with a
pancake breakfast, a hot-dog-hamburger lunch, and a biplane and a World War
II fighter plane on display. About a dozen volunteer pilots are ready to
give future fliers, ages 8 to 17, a free ride in a private plane.

"Nothing we could do is more important than to get kids involved," says
Niles, of the Westerly Airport Association.

By the day's end, more than 100 eager youngsters have achieved Young Eagle
status, complete with official certificates and plastic wings pinned to
their T-shirts and tank tops. They've seen their neighborhood, with its
houses and schools and woods and beaches, from a new perspective.

Now in its third year, WAA is still going strong and meeting new challenges.
Since Runway 14/32 reopened, small jets have been using it, prompting a
flurry of complaints from neighbors under the flight path. WAA is reaching
out to those residents -- inviting them to the airport, maybe even taking
them up for a flight, and trying to address their concerns.

"Making WAAves" is still broadcast on WBLQ, and construction is underway on
the new terminal building. The Young Eagles are going strong, as well. More
than 600,000 youngsters nationwide have taken an airplane ride since the
program started in 1992. The goal is to fly one million of them before
December 17, 2003, the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brothers' first

On any fine day that a curious child, a willing pilot and an airplane
coalesce, another Young Eagle takes off on a first flight. And one of those
youngsters may someday recall: once I had a life without wings, but that
changed during a visit to a little airport in Westerly.

Mary Grady, a former Journal copy editor, is a private pilot.

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