Sunday, January 17, 2016

Penn Yan Flying Club marks 75th year

This July 1947 photo shows a club member helping a prepare a plane for takeoff.

The Penn Yan Flying Club used a barn as a hangar. Note the Esso gas pump in front.

PENN YAN — For 75 years, Finger Lakes flying aficionados have had a place to gather and take to the skies.

Last month, the Penn Yan Flying Club marked the anniversary of its incorporation in 1940 — and the club is planning several events in the coming year to celebrate the milestone.

Brendan Henehan of Geneva has been a club member since he was 11 years old. Now 41, he is a flight instructor at the club, housed at the Penn Yan Airport on Bath Road. His wife, Shelly, and their three sons all love to fly and Shelly Henehan said her husband wants to teach her how to pilot a plane.

Currently in the Henehans’ possession is a box full of club memorabilia that provides a glimpse of the club’s evolution and a bygone era.

For just a $40 incorporation fee, the Penn Yan Flying Club was officially formed in 1940. Its first board of directors included Roswell Smith, Marvin Allison, Sidney Reed, John Barden, Frank Bentz, Lynn Hurlbut and Layton D. Bailey. Their certificate of incorporation listed the following as the club’s mission:

• Advance the science of aeronautics
• Encourage interest in aviation
• Develop aviation
• Provide economical flying rates for its members
• To bring to more people the social benefits and pleasures of flying activities

A written history of the club through 1973, compiled by George Fullagar, chairman of the Historian Committee, indicated that the club had grown to 153 members from its starting membership of 24. Today, the club boasts about ... MEMBERS.

Among them is Paul Middlebrook of Penn Yan, who officially joined in 1962 but frequented the flying club as a youngster mowing grass and washing airplanes.

After World War II flying clubs were forming throughout the Fingers Lakes — in Middlesex, Hall, Geneva and Dundee, Middlebrook said.

Middlebrook’s father, Harold, was an aviation enthusiast well versed in aircraft maintenance. Originally from Middlesex, Harold Middlebrook was a flight instructor during World War II and moved to Penn Yan after the war, starting Penn Yan Aero in the flying club’s barn. Paul Middlebrook said the club was using a barn as a hangar and his father converted part of it into a shop.

For Middlebrook, the club was where he pursued both his avocation and vocation. He learned to fly there and soloed on his 16th birthday, “before I had a driver’s license.” An engineer by trade, Middlebrook helped put himself through college by giving flight lessons. He flew helicopters in Vietnam and when he returned to Penn Yan worked for and eventually became president of Seneca Flight Operations.

Through it all, he witnessed the club’s growth. Middlebrook said the Penn Yan Flying Club can lay claim as one of the longest continuous acting clubs because it functioned during World War II — when federal regulations called for 24-hour guard at airports (or removing the plane’s propellers). Middlebrook recalled how club members during the war flew security patrols on the Lake Ontario border.

The club history described the civil air patrol unit that was organized and drilled weekly and offered a firsthand account of an all-night guard shift:

“The weather was most inclement with the mercury hovering at the zero degree mark. Since our only heat was the round oak stove ... the temperature inside the building approximated 100 at the ceiling and about 32 at the floor. There was a ‘one-armed’ bandit in which we fed nickels most of the night. About 2 a.m. we decided to call Marv Allison and tell him we had 21 [Japanese] and wanted his opinion as to what to do with them. Since he had been called from a warm bed to answer this call, I might say he told us what we could do with them, but it doesn’t lend itself to looking good on the printed page.”

By the early 1950s the club’s popular July 4th Fly-in Breakfast was started — which continues to this day and is its largest fundraiser. In 1973, 1,600 people were served at the breakfast; by 2011, club members were preparing about 2,600 meals. In a 2012 Times story, former club treasurer Harvey Greenberg talked about the hard work of putting on the event, but the reward of seeing about 100 planes fly in for breakfast.

“For a small airport like Penn Yan it’s a magnificent sight,” he said. “For one fleeting moment we were like LaGuardia.”

Also in the 1950s, the club installed a 25-by-2,350 gravel runway since tail wheel aircraft were being replaced by airplanes that could not operate from soft ground or on skis in the winter. This evolved into a 50-by-3,200-foot paved runway by 1973.
Middlebrook said the 1970s was a period of growth both for the club and commercial aviation. Club members took shifts on the weekend to serve members of the public who came in. Because the club operated the airport, members also needed business skills. But Middlebrook said he long pushed for the club to seek a municipal sponsor. That occurred in 1993 when Yates County took over operation of the only runway and later expanded the airport. The Flying Club negotiated use of the county airport and kept 10 acres so members who own planes can build their own hangar on club property; Middlebrook said there are 13 now besides the club’s hangar that houses its four aircraft.

Although Middlebrook retired one year ago from flying, he still frequents the club and was there working on a plane one morning last week

He called aviation “a disease; it gets in your blood and there it is ...,” he said. “Yes, the club has been a very important part of my life.”

It’s also been an important part of Yates County life, too, reflecting the growth of aviation and its infiltration into industry after World War II.

Brendan Henehan, who joined the club in 1986 when he was 11, compared flying to a mosquito bite — once you’re bitten all you want to do is scratch it.

“Back then there would be chairs out by the runway and members who weren’t out flying would just hang out watching the planes come and go, it was a great memory and one which molded my thoughts of aviation,” Henehan wrote in an email.

“After I flew the first time when I was 11, I knew it would be a huge part of the rest of my life. The club is made of people whom have all been bitten by the same mosquito and all understand the same addiction. We all feel the rest of the world needs to experience the same passion we feel for flying, which they would if they ever had the opportunity to be at the controls of a mechanical magic carpet into the wild blue yonder.”

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