Ever since I was knee high to a grasshopper I've loved airports. Our family lived in Decatur, literally right across the street from Atlanta, until I was seven years old. On weekends Daddy would find some neat thing to show me and my younger brother; oftentimes it would be a trip to the rail yards to watch freight trains get assembled, or to one of the Atlanta airports to learn about planes.
The rail yard was not far from our house in Decatur, but a trip to the airport was a really big deal in those days. We'd drive for what seemed forever to the big blue terminal at Hartsfield, located on the north side of the field, and walk out on the roof of one of the concourses. At the end of it stood a glassed-in room with a balcony all around the perimeter and devices which resembled parking meters were spaced about 10 feet apart all around the balcony. You could insert a nickel, which was a lot of money in the early 1950s, and listen to actual radio conversations between the pilots and the tower.
It was a little hard to hear all the conversations, as you were right out there in the open with airplanes everywhere, so folks who wanted to get away from the noise usually sat in the glassed-in room.
Not me, buddy. I had to be out there where the planes were. Even as a little boy, there was something magical about the sound of a radial engine. There's just nothing like it, and I don't know if I can describe it or not, but I'll try.
When a radial fires up, it always seems to beg the question as to whether or not it's willing to hit on all cylinders. There's a kind of rough rumble as it spits and coughs and grudgingly decides to give in and actually crank. This can take up to 30 seconds or maybe even a minute, during which time I find my heart seemingly in my throat. That's when I suddenly realize I'm holding my breath, so entranced am I with watching and listening to the big radial waking up.
And when I hear a radial at full power, I get a tickle that seems to emanate from my heart and extend up my esophagus to my throat, and I usually laugh out loud or, depending on where I am, actually let out a yell, just because there's nothing like that sound. It's like pure joy. And I think I've done a lousy job of trying to explain it, but that's the best I can do.
Oh, I've had the esoteric experience of seeing a Phantom F-4 stand on his tail, kick afterburner and go ballistic, straight on up out of sight. And while I thrilled to that, too, it's just not in the same book. You can have the jets, and the turbo-charged pistons.
But for me, make it a Beech 18 medium twin with both Pratt and Whitney radials wide open, or a DC-3 cruising over at low altitude, any day of the week.
So, as you can tell, I fell in love with airplanes and airports when I was just a kid. Daddy would sometimes take us over on the west side of Atlanta to Fulton County Airport, which we called the Charlie Brown Field. We'd watch general aviation planes take off and fly lazy patterns overhead and do touch-and-go landings and so forth, as we flew kites from a big field off to the side of the little terminal.
I reckon the occasional weekend family trips to those airports were the biggest thing I missed when we moved to little Greensboro when I was seven. Back then, you see, there was no Lake Oconee, no Reynolds Plantation, no Ritz-Carlton World Resort and no airfield in Greene County. Aviation had been invented, but it hadn't found its way to Greensboro.
These days I have a wholly different view of airports. Working at what is now called Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, I have to park on the other side of town on Camp Creek Parkway and ride a bus to and from my work site. With all the construction on I-20, I have to leave 90 minutes early and get home a corresponding 90 minutes later. So each and every day of my work week I surrender three hours of purely wasted time in order to work at the world's busiest airport.
Hey, it's my choice. I understand that. Just giving you an idea of how things have changed, and how my views have changed.
There's no magic for me anymore at Hartsfield. Instead of putting a nickel in a machine to listen to pilots talk, I get paid to do that for a living now. Instead of thrilling to the sight and sound of a 747 taking off, I'm usually sitting behind a bank of computer screens trying to make sure everything is in order.
And usually nothing is.
Oh, there are moments in every day when I still get that little boy thrill. Not too long ago Air Force One took off right in front of me from runway 26R, and that was a sight I'll remember forever unless Alzheimer's is in my future.
And to be honest, I'm hard-pressed to think of any sunset I've ever seen, anywhere, that rivals what I am privileged to nearly every day from my perch in the tower. When you have that many aircraft operations a day leaving that much pollution in the air, the sunsets are bound to be spectacular near Atlanta.
And watching ships take off into that big fat orange orb, or flying in front of it as they approach for landing, still provide freeze-frame moments which this old boy treasures.
All of this is prelude to telling you how very excited I was, last week, to read of the acquisition of 18 acres of land adjoining the Covington Municipal Airport by the Industrial Authority. There is real promise for the Covington Airport to expand now, and if history is any barometer, it will be done in the right way.
I am aware of, and sympathetic to, the complaints of the residents of Oxford about the location of Covington Municipal. I understand their views but am flat out on the other side of the argument. But this column is not about building fences, nor is it about solving Oxford's problems; certainly I can't wave a magic wand and have the airport magically transplanted miles away from historic Oxford.
But what I am talking about here is this: although the magic is gone from huge metropolitan airports, it still exists, in my view, at smaller general aviation airports. That's where kids of all ages can come to experience the magic of flight, to learn of airplanes and to hear stories of being "up there" from those who have been, and still go, regularly. It's a place where folks can dare to dream, can see what is possible for mortals to do if they will only dare to do it, can put out their hands and touch the face of God.
The acquisition of 18 acres adjoining Covington Municipal Airport opens up possibilities for all sorts of wondrous things. There's a spot for a second entrance to the airport off the Bypass Loop Road. Possibilities will exist for creation of local charter outfits, for major manufacturers of corporate jets to locate maintenance facilities, for technical schools such as DeKalb Tech to implement courses for aircraft maintenance certification, utilizing facilities right here.
All it takes is a little vision, a little proactive planning, a little sympathy for those whose lives are impacted most by virtue of their proximity to the airport, and the right folks making sure airport expansion and air operations moves forward in a user-friendly, environmentally sound way.
It's possible that many folks right here in Newton County have never once visited the Covington Municipal Airport. It's my hope that they will visit and see what's there already.
And I also hope that the acquisition of 18 acres adjoining the field signals a wonderful chapter in general aviation for our neck of the woods and that down the road generations to come will be grateful for the way in which developments unfold.
Nat Harwell is a Newton County resident whose column appears Sundays in The Covington News.