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Aviation in Baker County

An airborne view of Baker County.  (Photo by Jon Croghan).
An airborne view of Baker County. (Photo by Jon Croghan).

By MIKE FERGUSON

Of the Baker City Herald

The history of aviation in Baker County doesn't go back as far as Kitty Hawk and the Outer Banks, but it does pick up right after the end of the First World War.

Flying enthusiast and retired automobile dealer Chet Smith wrote in a Baker City Herald Guest Opinion that appeared in March 1999 that in 1920, American Legion Post 41 purchased a pasture between Airport Road and the Richland interchange used by early barnstormers.

The American Legion also purchased the property where the current airport is located from Otto Fleener, a Missouri Flat farmer, and named it Heilner Field after local attorney and flying enthusiast Joe J. Heilner. Heilner built a hangar at the airport and donated it to the city. The hangar burned during the Second World War.

In those days, airports developed along airmail routes. Cities were encouraged to

build their airports where lights and a beacon could be installed on public land, Smith wrote.

The airport as we know it today was built in 1942, said John Burgess, another Baker City pilot. It was used for emergency landings by pilots training with Col. Jimmy Doolittle for their bombing missions over Tokyo during the Second World War.

As a boy, Burgess himself took flying lessons toward the end of the war, soloing July 30, 1945, at the age of 16.

A long series of fixed-base operators has provided charter, fueling and flight instruction dating back to the 1930s, when two young pilots moved to Baker to start a flying school.

Some of the FBOs supplemented their income by crop dusting or doing charter work for government agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service.

Others made the most of their opportunities. When "Paint Your Wagon" was filmed in 1968, FBO Don Doyle often would make two trips a day flying the day's rushes aboard his twin-engine Cessna to Portland.

The airport played host to scheduled airline service from 1946 through the mid-1970s, when deregulation of the industry allowed airlines to drop some of their less-profitable routes, including Baker City.

But, as Burgess is quick to point out, the airport "has always been home to scheduled airline service or a good charter service."

It's also been home to a fair amount of local pilots — at one time at the height of the private aviation movement, in the 1970s, more than 100 pilots were members of the local pilots association, says another pilot, Jon Croghan.

In fact, he says, at one time Wallowa County had proportionately more pilots than Alaska did.

Part of the allure for Croghan is the time he can save in the sky as opposed to the freeway. He and his wife drive to Billings, Mont., fairly frequently, a 14-hour drive. But airport to airport, it's 3.4 hours.

Like any other pilot, Croghan has stories of both terror and exhilaration. Flying into Martin Field in Walla Walla, Wash., he landed with "great big old cumulus clouds to the west and the sun shining to the east, right after it had been raining. The air was sparking and clear. It was a gorgeous ride," he remembers.

On the terrifying side, he remembers flying one winter to La Grande when clouds blew into Ladd Canyon and then covered his other driving alternative, Pyles Canyon. The weather never broke until he was just over the Union County airport.

"It wasn't too long after that that I started on my instrument license," he said.

Before a 1983 auto accident made flying uncomfortable for her, Jan Kerns of Haines did "lots of lazy flying around the valley, up and over the mountains," she said.

Kerns was a member of the "99 Club," a national organization of women pilots. She often flew to Salem for meetings of the state vocational advisory board she sat on, to state cattle producers' meetings, and "for general ranch purposes."

"I loved it. I really did," she said. "It's not a team sport. You're dependent on your own skills, and on making the go/no go judgment. The weather here can be fatal if you don't respect it, because a storm can come up so fast."

Kerns said she was never in trouble at the controls of her Cessna 182.

Kerns remembers airplane trips to family reunions with her whole family aboard. Her husband, Tim, was a model passenger, she said.

"He'd just sit and watch the scenery," she said.

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