CIBOLA COUNTY – It was a “short but sweet” event for the pilots who converged on the Grants/Milan Municipal Airport on Sept. 28.
“Everything was normal,” recalled Guy Jones, from Albuquerque, after piloting his 1943 Stinson Reliant “Gullwing” onto the Grants’ runway.
“It took me one and one-half hours to prepare my plane, and I’ve got oil on my pants and blood on my hands,” he laughed.
His carefully restored Stinson was immediately surrounded by admirers who asked questions about the plane’s history, which included service in the British Royal Navy during World War II, an assignment in India on submarine patrol and a stint as VIP transport.
Other pilots also talked about their planes.
One Los Lunas’ aviator noted, “You see a lot of home-built planes on these tours.”
He has had his bright yellow, one-seater, for six months and bragged, “I can go 500 miles on a tank of fuel.”
“Five pilots flew in from Michigan,” recalled Joyce Woods, state air tour co-director. “Michigan has a long history of air tours.”
“Motorcyclists have bike rallies, and pilots have air tours,” said Bob Mahieu who had flown 20 hours from southeastern Michigan to take part in the New Mexico tour. “It’s important for people to understand what rural airports mean to communities. Airports provide access for search-and-rescue missions, air medical services, CEOs who don’t want to ‘waste time’ in large, commercial airports, and other resources for area residents.”
There are 59 public-use airports in the state. These facilities provide a $3.1 billion economic stimulus to the state’s economy, according to the New Mexico Pilots Association.
Dan Telfair and his wife, Zia, agreed about the rural communities’ reliance on air service.
He is an original member of the state’s Angel Flight organization, whose 25 pilots provide free non-emergency medical transport across the state and into Colorado, Arizona and east Texas.
“I just flew my 500th Angel Flight mission,” Dan recalled.
“It is an active airfield,” according to Wes Hobbs, airport manager. “Some days are busy, like today,” he said, “and some days there are no planes.”
Last year 3,000 flights used the runways, an average of eight per day, according to Hobbs who has been manager since 1994. That number included medical transports.
“This airport supports 47.5 jobs and generated $4.6 million last year,” Woods told the audience of more than 60 people who had gathered in one of the hangars at the Airport Road facility.
Last Friday was just like “old home week” for many of the tour participants.
They congregated around the various planes on the runways and discussed individual model’s characteristics, pilot preferences, and reminisced about previous tours.
Many of the visitors also toured the Western New Mexico Aviation Heritage Museum, which is located on the airport property.
Dick Cochran, Cibola County Historical Society aviation museum committee chairman, guided numerous small groups through the museum, which features two 1929 historic structures: a generator building, and a beacon tower with a directional arrow. The museum also includes the airport’s original flight services’ building that the committee is renovating.
The society recently erected a memorial next to the flight services’ building. The propeller and plaque are dedicated to the 1929 Transcontinental Air Transport (TAT) crash on Mount Taylor, which was this country’s first commercial aviation disaster. There were no survivors, and passengers included the founder of the town of McGaffey, McKinley County, according to the plaque.
“Why here?” Woods recalled that many people had asked her when the New Mexico Pilots Association started planning the event in early 2011.
“We chose this airport as our kick-off point because of the TAT route, the crash on Mount Taylor, and the historical society’s museum,” she explained.
Even without the area’s aviation history, some people attended just to satisfy their curiosity.
“I just wanted to see all these small planes,” explained one Zuni Canyon resident.
Almost 50 people had signed up for the New Mexico Air Tour, part of the state’s centennial celebration, which started at the regional airport.
Approximately 30 planes were airborne by 10:30 a.m., headed for their next stop, Santa Fe.