The firm, flat fields of Katama, the so-called Great Plain - what use could the energetic men of the 1920’s make of the stretching monotony to fully exploit its, well, its...evenness? The twenties were roaring, but on the Great Plains one could barely work up a sigh; the wind from the sea must be bored itself by the time it had blown over the fields and reached Edgartown.

Geologists claimed the plain was the largest flat area not only on the Vineyard but in the whole of New England, but what could be done to make it profitable? There was little demand for six football fields side by side, and there weren’t enough cars on the Island to justify a parking space of several square miles.

Then, in 1926, Vincent Hayfield had an idea. Perhaps he got it by imagining the Island’s bald spot from an aerial view, or perhaps he had seen the similarity between Katama and Kitty Hawk on the coast of North Carolina. In any case, he decided that the Great Plain was a great place for landing airplanes. It wasn’t long before the monotonous fields had become the site of one of America’s first schools of flight instruction.

Cruising in High Style

“Practically every yacht club will soon have its air division composed of members who prefer to cruise above, instead of on, the waves,” boasted a brochure of the Curtiss Flying School, “where dependable pilots are trained” on Martha’s Vineyard. In the booklet, which succeeded in enticing a sufficient number of students to keep the school alive, pictures of leather-clad heroes grinning at cameras from windy cockpits and even walking on the wings of the front-propeller biplanes while they were hundreds of feet above Vineyard Sound are highlighted by the following poem. Nowadays of course, it would be dismaying because of its glory in air-pollution, but then -

“Up in the wind and the sun, lad
Where the clouds are scattered and few,
And the world is lost
With your sharp exhaust
A-trailing back in the blue.”

Six hundred dollars could buy a permit to the skies, in the form of a graduation certificate from a three-month Curtiss course. For twice the money and twice the time, it was possible to prepare for the romantic job of a commercial airline pilot. And it all took place on those tired old flatlands. Katama lived! There were 10 inches of hard-packed loam over a layer of straight, flat bedrock, and people began to appreciate the fact that hundreds of airplane tires could smack crisply onto the surface from the sky with great velocity without gouging, cracking, or wearing away the earth.

The expanse of the fields was an even greater asset. Anyone with eyes could find the patch on the Vineyard’s south coast without having to worry about nosing in for a delicate tight landing through silos and trees. Pilots must have grinned with delight and relief the first time they swung around the Island’s corner from Gay Head and saw the Great Plain waiting in flat splendor for even the most space-hogging landing.

In 1928, Edward T. O’Toole of Boston, where he was a deputy sheriff, took over the school and turned the airpark into a summertime airport for planes from all over. A flying reporter from the Boston Evening Transcript described Mr. O’Toole as “a short, stocky man with nice eyes and teeth” who realized the airport signified “a new link in the growing chain of communities joining together in the airway system of America...a new step in adventure in New England and American education.” The Katama Airpark Flying School impressed the city-slick reporter as “a summer camp where young men and boys may spend six or eight weeks and learn to fly airplanes in addition to making up academic deficiencies against the return of autumn and college.”

Fun from the Sky

In August, 1928, Mr. O’Toole made an attempt to call special attention to the airpark-airport, and the Chamber of Commerce saw a chance to draw a few more Island lovers to the land of their dreams. The first Martha’s Vineyard Air Meet was scheduled for Aug. 4. The Vineyard Gazette promised “Balloons bursting, bombs hurtling to earth, parachute jumping,” and the appearance of Kitty Barrows and his flying monkey.

Walter Johnson, a parachute jumper, would leap from a plane 1,500 feet in the air, waiting until the last 500 feet of his fall to open his chute. “This feat makes a thrilling sight and is said to demonstrate the safety of the parachute,” the doubting Gazette wrote. A pilot would cut off his motor in the air and keep cruising. “This stunt is designed to show the safety of flying and that, although an engine is necessary to get somewhere, it is not necessary to safety in the air,” the Gazette added with still more dubious faith.

Twenty-one planes flew to the meet. Nearly 10,000 people watched the show, and 300 of them were carried aloft to see the Vineyard from the sky. Mrs. Sarah C. Vincent, 91, of West Tisbury was the star of the air circuit, however, as she eagerly accepted an invitation to fly. She was the first Islander at the meet to be borne up, and her delight began the demands of the 300 others to take the skies.

“It was wonderful, but the man didn’t take me anywhere near high enough,” she told the Gazette. “Why, I could see the cars on the ground and the looked at least a foot long.” Aside from the obvious thrills, if a bit too tame for a girl of 91 (“I felt as safe as if I were in my rocking chair”), Mrs. Vincent enjoyed a practical aspect of her aerial position by scouting out a new field or two of ripe-looking huckleberries for later harvest.

Things kept growing, except for the vegetation on the Katama fields, until 1938, when the Martha’s Vineyard Flying Club was formed and took over the airport. Stephen C. Gentle of Edgartown was one of the eight members of the club, which included Raymond Arno, Albertis D. Cahoon, Everett Whiting, Preston Averill, Joseph C. Mello, Antone J. DeBettencourt, and William DeBettencourt, and negotiated a contract with the Cape Cod School of Aeronautics for Island schooling.

World War II brought shortages and coastal regulations, and the planes at Katama, their engines removed waited for peace. Mr. Gentle joined the Air Force, as did others in the club, and became a flight instructor in the force’s training program. He returned to Katama in 1944, and found the airpark rather changed. Since he had left for the service, the club had rented the hangar to a sheep farmer, and the herd had been bivouacked amongst the de-propellered planes.

Rejuvenation Needed

“When I came back and went in the hangar for the first time, the sheep manure was up past the wheels of the planes,” Mr. Gentle said, shaking his head. “This, I thought, was disgusting and wasteful.” He bought out the other members of the club, and set out to set things right. The shepherd left hastily.

The year 1945 brought some adventure to the airpark. Mr. Gentle tells of the time a formation of Navy planes was flying along the coast when one of them burst into flame along the fuselage. Frantically scanning the sea and the beach for an emergency landing spot, the pilot was relieved as the Great Plain, complete with runways, popped into his visual field on the shore. He streaked toward the wide space and landed smoothly, followed by the rest of his small squadron, the Gazette said.

“All the Navy boys were surprised they didn’t dig right through our ground,” said Mr. Gentle, “and they were very glad. They taxied down to the ocean (a Katama trademark was the fact that the runways ended only at the beach’s beginning) and looked around, then took off.”

Another mishap resulted from a hurricane. “The hangar just got blown down,” Mr. Gentle said with a sigh. The wind blew the entire hangar down.”

Mr. Gentle and his helpers rebuilt the hangar, within the restrictive boundaries of patriotic reservation of materials. “We straightened out what tin we could find in any form and used wood we found by combing the beaches,” he said. Things were put back together, and the airport acquired a Curtiss Aeronautics Sedan, the first radar test plane, built in 1931.

“A marvelous plane,” Mr. Gentle said. “Only 17 were ever built, and we had one. It is the only plane to have an absolute safety record of perfection - no one has ever been killed in one.”

Flying Is Good Business

In 1946, a small airline named New England Central began using the field, flying twin-engined Cessna planes, and later in the year Mr. Gentle started the Martha’s Vineyard Air Service, a charter program. There was still a flying school at the airpark, as well. “Sometimes we handled as many as 150 planes a day,” he said.

The next large step in the changing growth of Katama Airpark was the formation of the country’s first Learn-to-Fly Vacation Plan and the initiation of a program by Mr. Gentle along the lines that people could use their time on the Island to learn something exciting and unique without sacrificing their sightseeing time. The school had five instructors, headed by Mr. Gentle, and a bevy of new Piper Tri-Pacer training planes. The program was quite a success, he says, in both commercial and private fields. Round-the-clock service was available so that visitors could learn to fly in as short a time as two weeks.

“Recreation, flight instruction, and relaxation add up to a wonderful family vacation, and for all its charm, Edgartown is well off the beaten track,” wrote a reporter for the Piper Pilot, the airplane manufacturer’s newsletter, was a less-than-crowded insight. In the Aug. 25, 1958, issue of Sports Illustrated, a lengthy article by Joan Dickinson, a graduate of the two-week course, described her experiences at Katama. “This was what I had long awaited, the thing I always hoped flying would be to me, a moment of complete happiness. I started climbing and went off toward the west and the gleaming cliffs of Gay Head - and for me it’s only just beginning,” she wrote.

Schools and Dealerships

For the next two years, Mr. Gentle and the Katama Aviation Co. were a Piper dealership, and this increased the scope of the airpark’s activities. In 1961, Robert Fulton’s invention of an aerial pickup device called sky hook was tested at Katama, and it was later used widely in various aerial operations. In 1963, the commercial school closed, and Mr. Gnetle’s son Stephen, took over management of the park.

“I had the place for a long time,” Mr. Gentle said. “I still keep a hangar for myself, and I fly several times a week. I’ll tell you something. Many people own property now on the Island just because they were fliers and dropped in once at Katama and saw Edgartown and the whole scene.”

Morgan Air, under the direction of Robert T. Morgan of Edgartown, has been running the airpark since 1971. The office is more like a pro-shop at a public golf course than a flight center. Decorations hang from the ceiling - model airplanes and tagged shreds of shirts ripped from pilots making their first solo flights dangle in the breeze blowing through the open doors and windows.

Mr. Morgan was busy among the cords of radios and telephones trying to hustle some boiling water up for two pilots, who, after landing on the wrong runway, responded to his “What are your intentions?” over the radio with “Well, we’d like a cup of java!” “If it’s a good, we’re busy!” he said. The telephone rang.

When the conversation ended, he started to answer a question, but the radio drowned out his first syllable and he had to stop to give instructions in his calming voice to the crackling sound of the pilot wishing to land. Another telephone call - this time to reserve a flight on his charter service, was followed by the whistle of the coffee pot.

A Quick Entry

During the many conversations the wrong-runway pilots had come chuckling in, had downed two sodas from the old refrigerator in the office, and had gone back out to their plane. “Did you...hey, where’s the fellow with the coffee thirst?” Mr. Morgan swiveled around on his stool, receiving no answer and shrugging. He was saved from further confusion by another call for charter flights.

“Things are pretty much the same as they always have been at Katama,” he said in a moment of quiet. “Busy as can be every now and then, and slow when the weather’s bad. Our flight school has been quite slow recently, but we hope to pick up soon.” Mr. Morgan’s charter service is licensed to run in all kinds of weather, however, and is equipped with a fine automatic pilot.

Phone and radio jingled and sizzled. Mr. Morgan looked quickly at both receivers, and picked them up simultaneously, inviting me at the same time to “sit around and monitor” for a while so he could hold the sky together over the historic Katama airpark. Watching him for 10 minutes, I wondered if he would rather have been on the 50-yard line of one of those six football fields. It was obvious, however, that the airpark still serves as the friendly air access to Martha’s Vineyard it had been for half a century.