Johanna Seltz Boston Globe
Tiny Hanson Airport Reminds of an Earlier Aviation Age
October 11, 2012
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  • By Johanna Seltz

    HANSON — It’s easy to miss Cranland Airport by land: There’s a small sign on Route 58, but only if you are coming from the south, and the ¬entrance looks like any other gravel driveway in this rural town. Cranberry bogs stretch in all directions as you drive in.

    But if you look up on the third Sunday of the month, from April through October, it is obvious there is more than farming going on here. The sky is filled with small planes and what look like winged snowmobiles, all swooping down onto a narrow paved runway in a meadow.

    The air smells like cut grass, and there is a low hum from engines. Periodically an announcement comes over a public address system: “No smoking, don’t touch the aircraft, and please keep children away from moving [propellers].”

    Those are the rules for the monthly Fly-In Breakfasts at Cranland Airport, one of 11 privately owned airports in the state that are open to the flying public. During the breakfasts, the public is invited to visit by air or land. The next Fly-In Breakfast is Oct. 21, starting at 8 a.m.

    Cranland Airport one of 11 privately owned airports in Mass.

    At September’s event, 197 adults and 25 children bought tickets for the pancake breakfast, said Marylou Desserres of Weymouth, who ran the ticket table. About 40 aircraft flew in, and the small craft included several homemade affairs, said Peter Oakley, who bought the 5-acre property in July 2011.

    “I never planned on owning an airport,” said Oakley, a trim 54-year-old who got his pilot’s license in 2010. “I went down there to find a place to put my plane and ending up buying the whole thing. It’s a midlife crisis that got way out of control.

    Oakley bought Cranland from Dennis K. Burke, a retired oil businessman who, as part of the deal, gets to keep his plane in one of the 11 hangars on the site. The plane is a beauty, an amphibious five-seater that Burke bought and restored after singer Jimmy Buffett crashed it off Nantucket in 1994.

    The field originally was a dirt strip used by crop dusters spraying the area’s cranberry bogs. It became a “public use facility” in 1961, frequented by local businesses and aviation enthusiasts. Hanson assessor Lee Gamache remembers her father flying out of Cranland with friends and crashing into a bog in the mid-1960s in an accident that killed the pilot.

    Cranland is notoriously tricky to fly in and out of because of its relatively short runway, and some — like John Schmouth, 69, of Brockton who learned to fly there in the 1980s — say that makes it a good place to learn to fly safely.

    The last fatality at Cranland was in 2007, when an experienced pilot missed the runway in good weather; Oakley said the assumption was that he had had a medical emergency before he crashed.

    “From time to time, accidents do happen at some of these private strips, but these type of mishaps can happen anyplace,” said Jim Peters, a spokesman for the Federal Aviation Administration, which has jurisdiction over air traffic.

    “There’s no tower, and you are not required to have a radio to fly in here,” Oakley said. “But most people announce where [they] are, so other pilots will know. You can’t rely on the ¬radio; you have to keep your eyes open and look.”

    Oakley has put some money into Cranland, repairing hangars, repaving the 1,760-foot-long runway, and taking down some trees that were in the flight path. About two dozen planes are based here, including Oakley’s red Kitfox and his orange-and-blue Quicksilver light sport, which he describes alternately as a “go-cart with wings” or “like riding a motorcycle up in the sky.”

    A cranberry farmer in East Bridgewater since 1998 — he built houses for 25 years before that — Oakley said he flies whenever he can. “I’m self ¬employed, so I can run down during the day and take a little flight, even if it’s just for half an hour,” he said.

    The local chapter of the ¬Experimental Aircraft Association has a clubhouse at ¬Cranland where they hold monthly meetings and get together to build planes. The club sponsors the breakfasts and maintains the tongue-in-cheek “weather station,” which consists of a rock dangling from a rope. Sample weather readings include, “stone is wet — raining. Can’t see stone — foggy.”

    “Obviously, the airport is not a profitable business; it’s a hobby,” Oakley said. “And it’s a nice little community, of blue-collar guys mostly, who have a love for aviation. They work on the planes, work on the buildings.”

    And they fly out for breakfast, a lot. Oakley said the pilots and friends will often spend a weekend morning flying ¬together to small airports, like Myricks near Taunton or Tanner-¬Hiller in Barre, for a meal. “You get a $50 omelet by the time you pay for gas and every¬thing,” Oakley said.

    Schmouth, who has stopped flying for medical reasons, said the number of airports like Cranland is dwindling.

    “There are not many of these small places left,” he said ruefully. “There was one in Middleborough that’s now all houses, and one in Fall River closed and is now an industrial park.”

    Christopher J. Willenborg, administrator of the Aeronautics Division of the state Department of Transportation, confirmed that small airports have been closing, victim of both the troubled economy and the fact that the land is often more valuable for commercial or residential development. Since 1999, he said, three privately owned, public-use airports have closed: Palmer, Shirley, and Norfolk airports.

    The state is working to preserve the “current airport infrastructure,” Willenborg said, and has invested more than $3 million in airport safety and maintenance projects over the past three years. There is also a push to increase awareness of local aviation, and the pancake breakfast at Cranland is one way to do that, he said.

    Bruce and Cathy Hughes of Abington do not fly, but they have been coming to the Cranland breakfasts for years. “Some friends got us into it,” she said. “He was a Navy pilot.”

    They kept coming for the pancakes and for the awesome sight of so many small flying contraptions taking off and landing in a field surrounded by cranberry bogs.

    “Look at that ultralight kite that just took off,” Bruce Hughes said, pointing to what looked like an occupied lawn chair with wings. “It’s the closest to [flying] that man will get. You can’t go to Logan [Airport] and see this stuff.”