Airplane Spotting

by John Delach

Geoff Jones-Part One: Westchester and Danbury


Bill Christman’s recent piece about flying home from Keene, NH on Mohawk Airlines reminded me that Mohawk served Westchester County Airport located in White Plains near where I lived during the mid-40’s and 50’s. Flying was as novel to me as John and Bill. My parents often took me there to watch planes take off and land. Most were small private craft both single (mono) and bi-wing, painted yellow, as I recall. I thought they were all Piper Cubs-I guess that was the only name I knew. The airport was small set off by spotty chain link fences with many gaps allowing my father to drive through giving me the chance to get close to the aircraft, a real thrill for a 10-year old.


Another destination, even smaller, was an airport in Danbury, CT. There he could drive up to the same small “Piper Cubs,” parked within spitting distance so we could walk around looking into cockpits and talk to the owners. There were no fences I can recall. It was a big weekend event for me because that’s when the planes were most active. I’m not sure exactly where in Danbury it was or if it still exists because the city has grown, and nearby Interstate 84 changed everything. I don’t remember ever seeing anything bigger than the planes I described.


To go on about Westchester Airport sometime in the mid-90’s Judy and I drove to the airport from our Pleasantville home 15-minutes away to visit their new parking garage and terminal. We sought out a small eatery in the terminal where we sampled their bloody Mary’s that were said to be excellent. They were. While sitting in our car at the now much improved chain link fence we noticed a big black chopper with rotors. A closer look revealed the Trump name on it. Moments later I heard the delightful click clack of spike high-heeled shoes approaching from the terminal and turned to look. A tall knockout blonde in a tight skirt was approaching the chopper. I’m not sure if it was Judy or me who said, “that must be Mrs. Trump,” nor do I recall which of us retorted, “or a hooker”.


Based on the woman’s attire, she could have been either but later we realized she must have been one of the Donald’s wives-I think, Ivana. That was easily worth the fifteen-minute drive and the cost of the bloodies.


John Delach-Part Two: LGA


In “An Outing with Mom,” I related one of our Sunday trips to Canarsie. Another favorite destination was LaGuardia Airport, (LGA.) Again, we travelled by trolleys and later the buses that replaced them. The original terminal was a sand-colored, Art Deco, four-story brick building. A circular driveway lifted taxis and private cars to deposit passengers at the departure level on the second floor. Vehicles tunneled underneath this ramp to meet arriving passengers on the ground floor. This small terminal was, in its day, sufficient for departing passengers to check in and arrivals to re-claim their luggage. The upper floors hosed offices and terminal was topped off by a glass enclosed control tower.


Passengers left from or arrived at two flimsy, single-story structures that curved out from both sides of the terminal for about a quarter-mile in each direction. The flat top of these structures accommodated observation decks open to the public. They were no more than one hundred yards from the airplanes. Passengers walked from the gates to their aircraft across the tarmac led by an airline employee and boarded via portable stairs mounted on trucks. The observation deck was a great place to say goodbye or hello. The public called this structure and the boarding/arrival process, “the sheep walk.”


As memory serves me, American Airlines occupied the western end of the western sheep walk and Eastern Airlines, the eastern end of the east walk. United, TWA, Northeast, Mohawk and Capital among others occupied designated parking areas between them. The airplanes included two-engine DC-3s, Convair 440s. Four engine planes included the Douglas DC-4s and DC-6s or Lockheed Constellations flown by both TWA and Eastern. Capital Airlines had a peculiar fleet of British built Vickers Viscounts turbo-prop, four engine planes with big oval windows.


I found these Viscounts to be alien and disturbing. Unlike the Douglas or Lockheed offspring, these foreigners didn’t start with a blast of sound and black smoke. They had to be subversive!


My greatest joy was witnessing the flight crews start those Pratt & Whitney piston engines one at a time beginning with an outboard engine. Electricity from the starter would force the prop to begrudgingly turn with a soulful screech until a spark caught and the engine belched to life in a cloud of black smoke as the propeller caught and began to spin faster and faster until it was a whirl. Just as this engine came to life, my attention would be drawn to the opposite outboard engine as it began to screech. And so, it continued until all four engines were firing hot and normal.


I never became bored but all too soon, it was time to leave. Mom softened the end by allowing me to purchase two nickel post cards depicting black and white airplanes on the front. The walk back to the bus stop was never fun, but at least I enjoyed watching those last few landings and take-offs.