A conversation with Earl Long

05/05/2013 7:50 AM

08/08/2014 10:16 AM

Earl Long is the owner of Westport Airport near West Street and Pawnee, a small public-use airport affectionately known as “Dead Cow International.”

In the mid-1940s, Long’s dad, a pilot, bought a flying service at what was the former municipal airport. About the same time, he started Westport Airport.

The airport got its nickname from an incident involving cattle Long’s dad raised on the property.

Sometimes a cow or the entire herd would wander onto the runway, and a pilot wanting to land would first have to fly down the runway to shoo them off.

One late afternoon after dark, a pilot returned from a trip in a Fairchild PT-19, landed and hit something.

“The next day my dad said, ‘Who was flying the airplane that hit the cow and killed it?’ ” Long said.

During the 1970s, while Long was working at Boeing, his parents divorced, and his mother told him the airport was his and his brothers’ if they wanted it.

Long thought it would be great to have his own business and be his own boss.

“Little did I know there were other things to it,” he said.

That was 34 years ago.

Long and his brother Richard ran the airport for several years.

“He was finally tired of being poor, and so he left and got a job,” Long said. “I stuck with this.”

Long, 76, and six employees run the airport. They repair and maintain airplanes, lease hangar space, offer fuel and take care of the office.

Long also has a Cessna 150 for rent.

“I have a good crew,” Long said. And he has a good customer base.

After high school, Long earned degrees in math and physics from Friends University and a master’s degree in physics from New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology in Socorro, N.M.

After college, he spent 10 years at Boeing Wichita as a flight test engineer. Most of his time was spent on the B-52 program.

Long also worked on the SRAM Missile program, a short-range attack missile, and the ALCM Missile, an air-launched cruise missile, at Boeing.

He became a pilot 42 years ago and still flies.

Today, Long owns a Cessna 180 and a Spezio Tuholer home-built aircraft that are flying. He also has a Cessna 185 and a Bonanza he calls projects in the works.

Aviation runs in the family. Your dad was a pilot, and your mom was a tool planner at Cessna.

I remember he (my dad) made a comment that aviation was going to be the way of the future.

And your mom?

She and my younger brother rebuilt airplanes. They would buy wrecked airplanes from the insurance company, then rebuild them and sell them. You can’t do that now because you can’t make any money at it now. The market is so depressed.

You’ve ridden a number of ups and downs in the aviation business over the years. How are you doing?

The whole thing went gangbusters in ’05 and ’06. Then ’08 and ’09 hit. We still haven’t climbed out of that one yet. … So far, we’re still moving along. I’m surviving it.

What kind of airplanes do you work on mostly?

We work on quite a spectrum of aircraft used for business and personal use. It’s all piston engine stuff. The majority of that is single engine.

What do you like the best about what you do?

The people … it’s quite a variety of personalities that run into airports, and I enjoy that. I get to fly some interesting airplanes, too.

You said that the airport is mostly a hobby these days. What is your biggest challenge?

Making enough money to pay my expenses. If it hadn’t been for Social Security, I couldn’t make it work. I take no money out of this place. … (But) I don’t need much to live on.

You had quite an adventure delivering a twin-engine Beech 18 to buyers in New Zealand. The trip made Paul Harvey and other national news when one of the engines quit over the ocean 250 miles west of Monterey, California. What happened?

The engine stopped over the ocean. … We were sinking 150 foot a minute at 105 miles an hour coming out of 2,500 feet.

Yikes. Then what happened?

We got into ground effect — a cushion of air between you and the water or ground — and then it quit sinking. We were skimming along at 8 foot above the water. The Coast Guard made contact with us. … The good engine was running over its safety limit. I started to pull it back to a safe limit, but I decided if it was going into the water, it was going to have two bad engines.

You made it all the way back to Monterey that way. What happened then?

We circled the bay for two more hours burning off fuel because the airport was 240 foot high, and we couldn’t get up there. Once we burned enough fuel, we could come out of ground effect and then we were able to climb up to the height of the airport. … They had the airport shut down for us.

Did you ever make it to New Zealand?

It took about a month to get another engine installed. A month later, we hauled it out of there and made it to Hawaii. (Then it was on to Christmas Island, Pango Pango and New Zealand.)

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