When WWII vets flew from Jackson Road
by Nick Marsh
After World War II, many Washtenaw County veterans returned home with a strong craving for adventure. In awe of the pilots they watched help win the war, a good number were attracted to daring pursuits like flying. Lucky for the wannabe pilots, the GI Bill paid for flight lessons for veterans.
And cheap, reliable, and easy-to-fly airplanes were suddenly available. After the war, the government was selling as many as 10,000 training aircraft it no longer wanted. Many of these primary, basic, and advanced trainers (designated PT, BT, and AT), like the Fairchild PT-19, Vultee BT-13, Stearman P-17, and North American AT-6, could be purchased for a few hundred dollars.
The convergence of cheap aircraft, willing veterans, and the GI Bill brought a crush of business to the Ann Arbor Airport--so much that four flight instructors there, who did business as the Washtenaw Flyers, decided another airport was needed to handle the load. Led by forty-year-old WWII vet Robert MacVicar, they purchased the 113-acre Armbruster Farm in Scio Township near the corner of Jackson and Staebler roads. In 1946, they opened a small general aviation airfield there. They named it Washtenaw Airport.
The airport had three grass runways running in different directions so that novice pilots would always have the safest option of taking off and landing into the wind. The longest, at 2,600 feet, ran northwest/southeast; the east-west runway was 2,500 feet long, and the northeast-southwest one was 2,300 feet. In addition to covering most wind conditions, the runways were lighted with diesel-filled smudge pots for dusk and night takeoffs and landings. There was a "T" hangar on the east side of the airport, near Staebler Road, and an office in the old Armbruster farmhouse in the corner facing Jackson.
MacVicar moved into the farmhouse. He soon bought out his partners and hired a mechanic, Al Bliss, to work on airplanes. He also added another hangar on the field's west side. Each hangar held ten airplanes.
In addition to
the military trainers, Piper Cub J3s and J4s and Cessna 120s also became popular at the airport. Mechanical work was a primary source of airport income. Other income generators were sales of aviation gasoline, hangar and tie-down fees, and flight lessons.
My father, Joseph Marsh, a young Navy veteran and Scio Township native, purchased a Fairchild PT-19 and began taking flying lessons from MacVicar.
"My PT-19 was an open cockpit World War II trainer that was used at the U.S. Army Air Force Flying School in Enid, Oklahoma," he remembers. "I bought it from a young guy that hung around the Washtenaw Airport for $300. He wanted the money to go to flight school in Florida with a couple of his friends.
"MacVicar charged me $7 or $8 for each flying lesson, if you used your own airplane. He had three Cessna 120s that he used for lessons and always parked them up by his house, but there was an additional charge to use them. Renting hangar space was about $15 a month, and the tie-down fee for my PT-19 was $5.
"Both he and his wife were pilots. He would take me on cross-country trips, like to Howell, and check me out on takeoffs and landings. There wasn't a ground school requirement back then. People just studied the basics more or less on their own. Around that time, 1950-51, if you saw a plane pulling a banner over Michigan Stadium, chances were the banner was picked up at Washtenaw Airport."
MacVicar's [grand]daughter, Sandra Thompson, remembers a tragic accident that happened around 1956: "My [grand]father was testing an airplane that recently had an engine overhaul. He actually stopped the owner, who had his wife and children in the plane, from taking off. [Her grandfather] told the owner that no one was allowed to fly an overhauled plane until it had been fully checked out by him or the mechanic. He told the owner and his family to wait; he would take their plane for a test flight and be right back. He took two friends with him for the test, but they never made it back. An engine malfunction caused a crash that killed one friend and left [MacVicar] and the other man injured."
While MacVicar was recovering, his mechanic, Bliss, became a partner and managed the airport. Business fell off so much that a local farmer was allowed to plant corn everywhere but on the runways to generate income.
Another move to keep the airport in the black was selling an eleven-acre plot of land on the corner of Jackson and Staebler Roads in the mid-1950s. The corner became the Scio Drive-In, and the runways were adjusted slightly to accommodate it. (Night flights had stopped much earlier--few pilots were interested in relying on the dim smudge pots--so the movies could be shown without being interrupted by takeoffs and landings.) But money issues continued, and MacVicar decided to sell out.
In 1957, MacVicar and Bliss sold the airport on a land contract to a group of six local pilots but retained some acreage. One of the group's partners, Jim Mynning, remembers suggesting renaming the airport soon after the purchase: "Bob Young, a local pilot and flight examiner, died while testing an airplane at Willow Run. Young was one of the first civilian pilots to work for the FAA and was well regarded around the Ann Arbor area." The idea gained favor, and the name was changed to Young Field. Soon one of the partners, Bob Randall, bought out the others and ran the airport for the next few years.
In 1961, Randall, MacVicar, and Bliss sold the entire property to Dr. Aloys C. Metty, a local dentist and pilot. Metty made many changes, including building more hangars along Jackson Road, bringing the total number of aircraft with inside accommodations to fifty. He added sailplanes (gliders), offered space to the local Civil Air Patrol, and hosted "Dawn Patrol" open houses, serving breakfast to any pilot who flew in to visit. Metty also encouraged the resident aerobatic pilots--Bill Barber, Paul Lore, Mynning, and Bob Lyjak (a group which later would become nationally famous)--to show their skills over the airport to bring in customers.
Metty's son, Tom, worked at the airport and recalls other steps his dad took to make the airport successful: "Dad became a certified flight instructor himself, purchased a Mooney airplane dealership, and set regular flight school office hours--3:30 p.m. to dusk during the week and 7:30 a.m. to dusk on weekends and holidays."
During the 1960s, as many as seventy-two aircraft paid hangar or tie-down rent. But in the early 1970s, rising gas prices during the oil crisis and higher property taxes finally did in the airport. Because it fronted on Jackson Road, the entire property was assessed based on its potential for commercial development. Metty petitioned the state and township for an exemption, asking to be taxed only on the property being used as an airport--the strips, hangars, tie-down areas and mechanic's shop--but was denied.
Soon after his petition for tax relief failed, Metty decided to close the airport. "He had a building permit in hand to build a mobile home park on the property," Tom Metty recalls, but "sewage disposal [would have taken] up thirty-three acres out of a hundred, so he changed his mind. Instead he built Metty Drive on the west side of the airport and subdivided the property into industrial parcels."
The Scio Drive-In also closed and was torn down years ago. Property records show its site and the rest of the original 113-acre airfield housing many businesses over the years, including a long-departed Harley-Davidson motorcycle dealership. The seven buildings on Metty Drive have been home to entities as diverse as a bakery, a translation service, and offices for the consulate of Sweden. Across from the business park, on the east side of Metty Drive, distribution, printing, and automotive materials companies also sit over the old runways. A moving company, a restoration service, a tattoo parlor, and others front the Jackson Road corridor between Staebler and Metty Drive. While new businesses fill the old airport property and traces of the old runways fade, two old converted airplane hangars still stand as a reminder of what once existed at this location.
Dr. Aloys C. Metty's flight log shows that he flew out of the airport the last time on June 28, 1974. The Washtenaw Airport/Young Field's nearly thirty-year run serving local aviation enthusiasts was over.
This article has been edited since it appeared in the November 2013 Ann Arbor Observer. Sandra Thompson's relationship to Robert MacVicar, and the spelling of Bob Randall's name, have been corrected (see comments below).
[Originally published in November, 2013.]
On November 12, 2013, Deborah Randall Fisher wrote:
Great article about Washtenaw Airport by Nick Marsh. I'd like to clarify a couple of points.
My father, Bob Randall (not Bill Randel), starting out leasing a hangar in the late 1950's for his aircraft repair business. Later he bought two shares of the airport from Jim Mynning and Jim Poulter. He rebuilt Bill Barber's 1941 Curtis Wright Falcon, and worked on his own Stinson 1083.
I spent many weekends at Young Field as little girl, watching Dad work on the Stinson, as other aviators flew in and out, including Ann Pellegreno. She later flew around the world, retracing Amelia Earhart's flight plan from 1937.
Bob Randall sold his share of the airport in 1962, but still has his flight log book which lists November 6, 1962 as his last flight at Young Field.
As a result of Mr. Marsh's article, Jim Mynning and Bob Randall had a long phone chat, reconnecting after 50 years.
On January 16, 2014, Heather Meloche wrote:
In this article I have noticed some errors. Sandra Thompson is the granddaughter of Robert MacVicar. Robert and Gladys MacVicar only had one daughter and her name was Marian Virginia MacVicar. Robert was my great-grandfather and I just wanted to clarify this for everyone.