Skypark airport: A haven for airplane enthusiasts
By SUZIE RODRIGUEZ / Sonoma Valley Correspondent
With runways and hangars tucked discreetly into 34 acres off Eighth Street East, Sonoma’s Skypark doesn’t attract much attention from passers-by. But after celebrating its 25th anniversary as a pilot-owned airport in 2011, its place in Sonoma Valley has been firmly established.
Skypark serves business, recreation and destination flyers. It’s home to a flight school, a collection of antique and classic aircraft, and a cargo-load of high-spirited barnstormers, retired airline pilots and other colorful aviators.
As part of the Valley’s official disaster preparation plan, the airport participates in regular drills held with emergency and public safety agencies. If a disaster were to occur, pilots based there would assess the damage, and the airport would serve as a reception point for disaster and medical supplies.
But Skypark also offers numerous opportunities for community fun, learning, and involvement.
“We welcome our neighbors,” said Board member Darrel Jones.
If you come for a look, be prepared to find people who radiate enthusiasm about the joys of flight.
“Skypark is a very happy place,” said pilot Bill Smith. “The pilots here are extremely enthused about flying and socializing.”
Smith, a United Airlines pilot for 38 years when he retired, is still flying at age 76. These days he spends his air time performing aeronautic maneuvers, “flying upside-down and the like,” in a 1940s vintage Stearman bi-plane. It’s the kind used as a primary trainer for the Navy and Army Air Corps between 1939-1945.
Eric Presten learned to fly as a teenager and went on to earn a BS degree in Aviation Technology. The author and photographer of six books about antique/classic aircraft, he flew Amelia Earhart’s plane in the 2009 Hilary Swank/Richard Gere film “Amelia”. (Actually it was his own Blériot X1, on view at nearby Schellville Airport on Display Days.)
For Presten, flying is a family affair. His wife and 15-year-old son have pilots’ licenses, and his 13-year-old is taking lessons so that he’ll be able to solo on his 14th birthday.
Another enthusiastic pilot, Jeanette Woods, came to flying after retiring from university and college teaching. “I had nursed the desire to fly for decades,” she said. “But I was a single mom, and I worked. I just didn’t have the time or money.”
At age 63 she began working on her pilot’s license at Skypark, and soon “took a plane up on my own the first time and experienced the incredible freedom of flying.” Woods, who flies her Cessna 172 as often as she can, offers this advice to other retirees: “It’s never too late to learn to fly.”
Or too early, as with Travis Morton. Skypark’s current flight school owner grew up about two miles away, coming to the airport for the first time when he was 12 as part of the monthly Young Eagles’ program that gives free flights to kids.
“After that I came back a lot,” he said.
Morton started flight training when he was 18, obtaining his private pilot’s license in four months, followed by commercial and multi-engine licenses. After working as a commercial pilot for a while, he decided to become a flight instructor.
Today, at 23, Morton owns Skypark’s flight school. The other three instructors on staff were among his early teachers.
Morton says it costs about $10,000 to obtain your license, which isn’t for everyone. But the airport offers plenty to do that’s free, especially for kids.
The whole family is welcome for the annual (and free) Family Fun Day, usually held in June. On the agenda: viewing restored antique aircraft, chatting with pilots, checking out vintage automobiles and touring the flight line in a hay cart pulled by an antique tractor. Hot dogs and burgers also are free.
The Young Eagles program offers free flights 9 a.m.-noon on the second Sunday of every month (weather permitting) to children 8-17. Visit the Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles site to learn more.
The Aviation Exploring Program, a chapter of Boy Scouts of America, is open to boys and girls 14 through 20 who are interested in learning more about aviation careers. A hands-on program, it exposes young people to flying.
At least two yearly scholarships are available for kids to travel to Oshkosh, Wis., for flying/learning adventures at the Air Academy. “There’s anything from a three-day to a one-week session,” Jones said.
If you’re interested in checking out Skypark, drop by the hangar clubhouse between noon and 1:30 p.m. any Saturday for a BBQ lunch and strike up a conversation.
You could also attend the monthly dinner and discussion put on by the Sonoma Skycrafters chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association, which focuses on antique and classic aircraft restoration. Dinners are usually held at 6:30 p.m. the second Tuesday of each month.
But be careful: you might get hooked.
“Flying is a terrible addiction,” Jones said. He took his first ride in a small airplane as an adult, when a fellow electrician picked him up in Sonoma and flew him to Clear Lake for a Coke and a hamburger.
“It was like an other-worldly experience,” he recalled, “almost a dreamlike perspective of the Earth below. It hooked me.”