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First Person: Small Airport, Big Impact
By John Ginley
September 17, 2015 - I recently visited General DeWitt Spain Airport near Memphis, Tennessee, on a fuel and food stop. I was on the return trip from Texas to Ohio with a friend in his A36 Bonanza. For a long trip across the country in the thunderstorm season, Steve asked me to come along just to have an extra decision maker for the trip. I met Steve several years ago at Medina Airport; more on that later.
DeWitt Spain is a non-towered GA and corporate field that sits just north of downtown Memphis and is only a 10-minute drive with the crew car to the famous Beale Street and some mouth watering barbeque. The gentleman who helped us seemed to be the one-man show, but did his job with such professionalism and sincerity.
The three of us chatted while he fueled the Bonanza, and he asked what we did. Steve said that he was a doctor and that I was a “professional pilot.” I smirked at that remark as the airport employee chuckled and apologized for my burden having to be at a “small podunk place such as this.” I assured him that DeWitt Spain was an outstanding little place; in fact, I would definitely return!
This instance at the airport, however, made me think about what small grassroots airports have done to help me achieve my dreams to become a “professional pilot” and how I will never take that for granted.
From a fairly young age, I knew I wanted to be a pilot. I started taking flying lessons when I was 13 at the Medina Municipal Airport (1G5) in Medina, Ohio. The summer of my 16th birthday, I inquired with the airport manager about a summer job. This is where my adventure began. Eric Olson, the manager of flight services of Medina said, “See you Monday morning at 8 a.m.!” I had been taking lessons for a few years prior; however that summer was truly where my immersion in the aviation community and industry began.
As soon as work began that Monday, I started to take on all the tasks of what many know as the proverbial “airport (b)rat.” I mowed grass; a lot of grass. I worked on hangars, runways, and lights. On the hot days, I would wash some of the flight school aircraft. On the rainy days, I would polish the ragwings in the hangar. FSM had, and still has, a Piper J-3 Cub and an Ercoupe for rent.
Toward the end of the summer, I was trained to work the desk at the FBO, taking phone calls, payments, and working the flight school schedule. As a 16-year-old, this was the best job ever. I was able to be around airplanes and the airport all day long. Can you believe it, I was getting paid too! I started to learn the aircraft based on the field and their respective owners, becoming friends with many. Occasionally I would help fuel them up or wash the plane for a ride around the pattern. Oh yes, I soloed on my 16th birthday that summer too.
For the rest of my time in high school, I worked at the Medina Airport during summer, winter, or spring breaks. Whenever I had time off, Eric was happy to have me back, and I was sure glad to be there. Each summer thereafter, I would help train the new summer kids.
On my 17th birthday, I received my private pilot certificate and two weeks later flew to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh for the very first time. I flew with a friend, Bob Carlisle, who I had come to know throughout the years working in high school. He had an immaculately restored Piper Colt that was owned by his late father, Ben.
At Oshkosh, I met so many amazing people, including Bob Hoover. Better than that, I joined EAA.
I was so grateful for that opportunity, as well as all the others that came up while I worked at 1G5. I flew many types of aircraft, met many great pilots, and became part of the family at the airport. I gained a tremendous appreciation for general aviation, a grassroots approach to flying, and all of the people that make “small airports” run like a family.
The summer after I became a private pilot, I left Medina for Columbus, Ohio, to attend Ohio State University. For four years, I worked hard in school in their outstanding aviation program. I accomplished the rest of my flight ratings in a record time; to this, I owe the great work ethic as well as stick-and-rudder skill I formed while in Medina.
During breaks from Ohio State, you can guess where I was—back in Medina. I had fun each and every summer; it didn’t even feel like work. I was fortunate enough to spend a lot of time in the maintenance shop, helping our resident A&P/IA with many aircraft maintenance projects, large and small. During that time, I gained invaluable experience and knowledge about aircraft maintenance which has helped on many occasions as a pilot.
After I became a flight instructor at Ohio State, I brought my new rating to Medina and was able to finally give back to an airport that had given so much to me. I taught in the airplanes that I learned to fly in and it was a humbling privilege. That summer, I flew over 180 hours, a third of which was in the Piper Cub. I was able to solo a student, and gave four pilots a tailwheel endorsement.
This May, I graduated from Ohio State University with a degree in aviation engineering. A week before graduation, I was offered a position with a cargo company in Columbus, Ohio, that specialized in transportation of time sensitive nuclear medicine. I would be flying Learjet 35 and a Beech Baron. Three weeks later, I was in Dallas, Texas, earning my first ever type rating in the Learjet. The following week, I was advancing forward the thrust levers of the jet on takeoff and climbing us to 45,000 feet.
As I sat at flight level 450, just as I did on the ramp at DeWitt Spain Airport, I had a “flash before your eyes” experience of everything that had helped me get to the point where I was, beginning my career as a professional pilot. I know in my mind that the time spent mowing the grass, washing the airplanes, and watching students bounce their first wheel landing in the Cub was absolutely worth it.
Medina Airport was, and still is, my home away from home growing up, and it has helped me grow into the aviator that I am today. Being around and working at a small local airport was truly the best experience to have as I grew up. In a time where many employers look for experience in the field, I would recommend this to any young person that has an interest in aviation. I have never regretted it and know I never will.