Thursday, December 9, 2010

The Canton Airport: Part II

Peter "Richie Sarra" in front of his plane
at the Canton Airport
Today, Neponset Street is crowded with large trucks moving fill in and out of the worksite heralding the beginning of the hazardous waste cleanup of the old Canton Airport. What was a dream of national aviation will soon become public parkland, and few will know that this site once sat center stage in hearts and minds of local aviators.

The selection of the site for the Massachusetts Air Terminal and Arena (MATA) was largely based on an engineering study that determined the Neponset River and the Fowl Meadows could be controlled through dikes and runoff channels. In 1930, anything seemed possible, even taming nature. But as work began, flooding was a constant issue. Planes fitted with pontoons would make their landings on the flooded runways, and seasonally the airport would be closed to general air operations. Local resident Jane Roache worked as a secretary at the Helio Corporation and tells of having to board a military cargo truck to ford the waters and get to work on flooding occasions.

The winter of 1935-1936 was especially severe and snowpack remained deep through an extremely cold season. By the spring, Mother Nature had set up a perfect scenario for flooding, and in mid March more than 17 inches of rain fell over the course of back-to-back storms. The situation was dire, and local pilots from Canton played their part in “errands of mercy.”

Most notably, it was the emergency takeoff of Dick Babcock stealing the show that season. Babcock was a 1930 graduate of Canton High School, attended MIT, and was a well-known charter pilot. Through the ingenuity of the airport manager, Joe Rizzo, he loaded Babcock’s plane off the back of a flatbed truck, drove over Neponset Street to Cross Street in Norwood, and created a makeshift runway on Route 1. Police closed the highway for half a mile in either direction, and the young aviator flew his 240-horsepower Stinson four-passenger monoplane to relieve the drought-stricken areas of New England. This was the second time that Babcock had performed his “wings of mercy” flight, as earlier that year he flew through severe fog to deliver food and clothing to stranded families along the coast of Maine. Babcock was 23 years old and well on his way toward becoming a legend of the air.

Every week there were stories of Babcock’s heroics and flying records. The local paper reported his trips up and down the early flight paths. This all came to a tragic end when, on a foggy October evening in 1937, Babcock crashed nose-down in a muddy pasture owned by Albert Merlau near Cowlesville, New York, about 26 miles from Buffalo. The only witness was a mailman who heard the engine of the small red plane splutter and witnessed the crash. It was a terrible end for Babcock and his two passengers. The shock on the town of Canton and his family was deeply felt. Looking back at the 1930 Canton High School yearbook, Babcock, the class president, had been voted the most irresponsible.

While there were plenty of crashes and at least one mid-air collision, not all accidents ended as tragically. Several stories of weekend fliers ditching into local pastures and fields were commonplace. In the summer of 1935, Ralph Beasley of Messinger Street and Johnson Bennett of Washington Street narrowly escaped certain death when their monoplane crashed into Orlow Bright’s field on Chapman Street. Later that same year, in early November, Arthur Wilbart, to his great disappointment, landed on his own automobile parked near the runway. It turns out that taking off is easy, and landings get sticky.

Many notable men and women learned to fly here in Canton. The flight school was extremely popular and well attended. Students from MIT and Harvard would spend their weekends (and trust funds) at the field and became successful pilots. Thomas Piper, the son of the president of Taylor-Piper Aircraft, spent his time away from his studies at Harvard in pursuit of flying his dad’s Taylor Cub. By 1940, 60 percent of all private planes were Piper Cubs, and Thomas went on to help run his father’s business.

The airport was a busy place on weekends; lifelong residents still recall the flying shows and air demonstrations that were commonplace in the late 1930s through the late 1940s. John Carroll on Pleasant Street recently told me of spending afternoons watching Bobby Draper flying acrobatic loops over the airfield. Peter “Richie” Sarra would spend time flying with his brother in their 1947 Mcclish Funk B85C. The “Bee” could be seen zipping over the Blue Hills with Richie smiling behind the console of the two-seater. With a top speed of 117 miles per hour, this was a terrific plane. Sarra’s plane still takes to the air with an owner in Revere, Pennsylvania. NC77700 is one of 40 remaining “Bees” registered and still flying. And Canton’s own Dottie Shaw learned to fly at age 22, and by age 26 became a member of the famous Ninety-Nines.

Perhaps the greatest sight that Canton residents witnessed was the first daytime visit of the German airship Hindenburg. Crowds gathered at the airport on August 19 for the first daytime flight of the famous dirigible. “Her silvery hulk gleaming in the noonday sun,” thousands gathered at Glider Hill and along the airport property. 

Accompanied by an escort of three National Guard airplanes, there was noise and spectacle. The Hindenburg slowed as it passed over Canton and afforded the stunned audience an amazing show. Less than a year later on May 6, 1937, she returned and flew over Canton at 300 feet. Citizens reportedly said that it was so low due to cloud cover that “passengers in the giant zeppelin could be plainly seen.” By 7:25 p.m. that evening, the Hindenburg burst into flames, and 13 passengers, along with 22 crew-members, perished.

The Helio-1 hanging in storage at the National Air
and Space Museum in Suitland, MD.
One of the last chapters in Canton Airport history was the development of the Helioplane, which was a highly specialized plane that was renowned for its ability to utilize short takeoffs and landings. The plan was to create a plane that could be in anyone’s garage and land in your own backyard. The creation was the engineering accomplishment of Otto Koppen of MIT and Dr. Lynn Bollinger of Harvard. With an investment of $150,000, the first Helioplane was developed in Canton and flew in April 1949. This diminutive plane combined the advantages of helicopters with simplicity, speed, and the range of a fixed-wing aircraft. At the height of construction, the Helio Corporation employed 45 skilled craftsmen at the Canton Airport.

By the late 1950s the Canton Airport was closed and became the site of a junkyard where PCB-laced transformers were scrapped. The hangars were demolished and soon disappeared into the landscape. The runways, disused and overgrown, returned to wetland. There is, however, a final reminder of the heyday of the great airport. In a state-of-the-art hangar in Suitland, Maryland, hangs the Helio 1 — flown with about 100 hours of time on its engine, developed and flown in Canton, and now in the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. The small red plane dreams about once again soaring over the fields and marshes of Canton.

Read more about the Helio-1 by clicking here.

This story appeared in the Canton Citizen on December 9, 2010

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