Flying High at Easterwood Airport

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Over the past 25 years, Easterwood Airport has become a major asset to the growth of the City of College Station in particular and to much of the Brazos Valley in general. The facility is named in honor of Jesse L. Easterwood, a Texas A&M University student who enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Service in 1917 and became the second American to qualify as a Navy pilot. A Navy Cross winner for “distinguished and heroic service,” Easterwood was killed in a plane crash in 1919.

Easterwood Airport TerminalThere is speculation out west of town that instead of today’s limited destinations of Houston and Dallas, flights will soon be coming and going between Easterwood and Chicago. Expansion beyond commuter prop-planes and small jets is talked about. The larger-capacity Boeing 737s may be soon zooming in and out. There are guesstimates that Southwest Airlines may soon be coming to town. In 2011, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Texas A&M University signed an agreement to bring the primary space shuttle launch and landing trainer, the Shuttle Motion Simulator, to College Station.

Over the past 25 years, Easterwood Airport has become a major asset to the growth of the City of College Station in particular and to much of the Brazos Valley in general. The facility is named in honor of Jesse L. Easterwood, a Texas A&M University student who enlisted in the U.S. Navy Air Service in 1917 and became the second American to qualify as a Navy pilot. A Navy Cross winner for “distinguished and heroic service,” Easterwood was killed in a plane crash in 1919.

Easterwood Airport TerminalThere is speculation out west of town that instead of today’s limited destinations of Houston and Dallas, flights will soon be coming and going between Easterwood and Chicago. Expansion beyond commuter prop-planes and small jets is talked about. The larger-capacity Boeing 737s may be soon zooming in and out. There are guesstimates that Southwest Airlines may soon be coming to town. In 2011, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and Texas A&M University signed an agreement to bring the primary space shuttle launch and landing trainer, the Shuttle Motion Simulator, to College Station.

Making the potential for that future possible has been the role of Easterwood Airport (CLL) and its staff for the 20-plus years since the opening of the McKenzie Terminal. It’s hardly the same place where Trans-Texas Airlines (TTA) flew into and out of. In those days, CLL personnel used to refer to TTA as “Tree-Top Airlines.” Thrills were included in the price of a ticket.

Nowadays, United Airlines and American Airlines combined send and receive eight to 10 commercial flights daily out of Easterwood to Houston and Dallas, respectively, and from there, to the rest of the world. Compare that, however, to any given Texas Aggie football weekend in College Station when 15 times that number of private and charter flights zoom into Easterwood with avid fans primed to Whoop all day and Midnight Yell for the Maroon and White.

Not too long ago, England’s then Prime Minister, John Major, did visit the George Bush Library. He came in on his Boeing 777 (currently the world’s largest passenger aircraft) after a non-stop trip from London. “Upon his arrival,” says John Happ, director of aviation at Easterwood since 2000, “we thought about putting out a sign that said ‘Easterwood International Airport!’”

Future numbers for take-offs and landings will always pale in comparison to the Easterwood weekend of November 6, 1997. On that auspicious Friday, the George H.W. Bush Library and Museum was officially dedicated in College Station. According to Texas A&M Class of ’67 and retired Air Force Colonel Happ, the over-crowded airport faced the prospect of shutting down and diverting flights to Houston. Aircraft were bringing the (no pun intended) High and the Mighty, the VIPs, former Presidents, and dignitaries from government and politics worldwide to College Station for this momentous occasion. Ultimately, more than 200 private aircraft sought landing permission at CLL that weekend.

It reached a point, says Happ, where “we were going to go to PPR (restrictive Prior Permission Required for takeoffs and landings). I guess things started getting busy on Wednesday (with Friday being the opening day for the Library). I had 143 airplanes on PPR. “The smallest aircraft trying to land was a King Air twin and from there, it went all the way up to a four-engine C141 Air Force supply jet. We had 727s, DC9s, two four-engine C130s.”

To compound matters, Happ reports, “the wind was unbelievably ratty. It was blowing about 35 knots [more than 40 miles per hour]. It was raining; clouds were down to minimum visibility for landing, and the rainwater was blowing almost 90 degrees [that’s sideways!].”

To say things were hectic in the control tower was like saying Noah was trying to take a few friends out for a quick and leisurely boat ride.

Then Happ became engaged in one of the eeriest landing procedures he’s ever weathered in 40-plus years of aviation experience. Here’s his story as remembered from the worst of all that horrific weather:

“I heard an incoming call from ‘Lear so-and-so’ and that plane wasn’t on my PPR list. I called the tower to find out if the Lear was here for the Library opening. It was. ‘But,’ the pilot radioed, ‘we’re just drop-and-go.

We’re not staying.’ Without a need for parking space for the plane, it was cleared for what looked like what might be a weather-induced hairy landing.

At that very moment as the Lear turned toward its assigned runway, it suddenly stopped raining. The howling wind started to subside. I finally could see, though barely, the Lear’s landing lights flickering through the misty cloud level. When the Lear got on short-final approach, suddenly the clouds started breaking. The sun broke through! Instead of coming in ‘on a Wing and a Prayer,’ the Lear was on a dead straight almost glide pattern headed right for a smooth landing.

And when it landed and rolled in at the gate and the Lear’s cabin door opened, the first person stepping off the plane was the Reverend Billy Graham!”

November 6, 1997. Welcome to College Station, Texas! In its then 59th official year.

Editor’s note: In October, the City of College Station will celebrate its 75th birthday. This is the first in a series of articles reflecting on significant milestones in the city’s history by local author and historian William Harper.