An Airfield by the Sea

The Katama airport, 128 acres by the shore, might have been a developer’s dream come true. But Steve Gentle liked it just the way it was.

Mike Creato and Paul Santopietro were the first guys to see him – a pearl-gray hawk of some sort, perched contentedly on the yellow 17-35 taxiway sign early one morning a year ago this month. For a couple of days they bumped by him over the turf, taxiing back and forth in a pair of Waco biplanes, one red, one white. From his post, the bird stared off into the distance, snared the occasional grasshopper, and appeared to think nothing of them. “We said we hadn’t seen a hawk like that before. We could stop and look at him,” says Mike. “Then the news came.” It was a red-footed falcon, a migrant normally found on the Russia–southern Africa route, incredibly lost and never before seen on the North American continent.

Biggest bird news in the United States in thirty years. Ornithologists hurtling to the Vineyard in cars from Ann Arbor and Montreal and Eustis, Florida, and flights from Los Angeles and Seattle. Scores of birders lining the dirt road behind the Katama Airfield administration building every morning, with binoculars and telephoto lenses the size of Civil War cannons. “The very day the news hit was a day that favored Runway 17, which takes off with the wingtip ten feet from the sign where he chose to sit all day,” says Mike, the airfield manager and a partner in, and pilot for, Classic Aviators, the biplane sightseeing service. “Paul Santopietro was flying that day, and we said, ‘Oh, God, Paul. . . .’ But the bird was totally fine. He gave no indication of
being disturbed at all. But if you did hit the bird somehow, it would be on the cover of every major newspaper in the country: ‘Red Biplane Kills. . . .’ We would have wound up on Letterman.”

Funny thing about how reporters favor the macro over the micro – just about every writer missed the faintly amusing irony that the vagrant, straying so far from home, had chosen to land at an airport. Funny thing about birders, and just about everybody else: They all missed the fact that here – with South Beach lying less than a mile away in one direction, and the center of Edgartown a little more than a mile away in the other – lay an actual grass airfield with red and white biplanes flying from it. Plus an old-fashioned diner and a hangar sheeted in tin. Houses shouldered up to it suggestively on the north and west, but there wasn’t a home to be found on it anywhere – just hundreds of acres of grass and knee-high shrub, crisscrossed with runways, sprawling out in an ever-widening triangle of openness to the south and east. In these rapacious times, somebody with an eye for the main chance must have asked how this land – clearly worth tens upon tens of millions of dollars – had been kept out of the marketplace.

A grass airfield by the seashore? Tin hangars and a diner called Whosie’s serving banana pancakes and brioche French toast in a shingled building just off a dirt road? Room for a weary red-footed falcon to perch and pick at grasshoppers all day while Waco biplanes bounced off runways of endless, emerald green? How was this place – obviously worth so very much more as something else – ever left so completely, archaically untouched?

Who had failed to see it? Who had passed up the heartbreakingly obvious opportunity? Tens of millions of dollars, and yet the Katama Airfield stakes those tiny signs here and there, whispering for its $5 landing fee and the $20 it charges pilots to park their Cessna 172s all day by a footbridge direct to South Beach. Who in the name of capitalism had been so suicidally short-sighted?

The Katama Airfield – it is known by a bewildering variety of names, three informal (the Edgartown Airfield, the Katama Airpark, and the Katama Airfield, which is the name on the sign over the administration building) and two formal (the Katama Plains Nature Preserve and Airfield, or the Katama Plains Airpark and Conservation Area) – celebrates its eightieth anniversary as an airport this summer. The man who, in the name of aviation, made it all happen was Stephen Currier Gentle, who bought the field the day before the Hurricane of 1944. He managed this land for twenty years and owned it for forty, before selling it to the town of Edgartown for $1.5 million through an arrangement with The Nature Conservancy, the state, and the town in 1983. He died October 25, 2001, at the age of eighty-nine, content that he had saved for all posterity a wedge of land like no other on the face of the earth.

Oh, come, come. There must be plenty of this stuff in Kansas or someplace like that.

Not even close: It’s a piece of the coastal outwash plain – rare enough as a glacial artifact; sandplain like this is to be found on just 1 percent of the surface of the planet. But this wedge of the sandplain is all the more unusual for its loaminess and fertility. It’s a chrysalis, from which seeds of the rarest plants on the northeastern shoreline – such as blazing star, showy aster, little bluestem, and Indian grass – are transplanted to other needful places on the Island. It’s a tract of 128.5 acres, bridging what otherwise would be biologically disconnected open habitats to the east and west. And it’s an all-grass airfield – one of just 693 left in the United States and 118 in the Northeast, according to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association – on the largest, flattest, most unaltered and uncluttered landscape in all of New England.

But before human behavior forced it into each of these last-and-only categories, the airfield at Katama was just part of the low, scrubby, burnt-over Great Plain, which, across epochs and eras, washed and blew itself southeast from where the glaciers shoveled their way to a stop at the morainal hills along the western spine of the Island. In a personal history of the airfield, Steve Gentle wrote that he remembered planes landing at Katama in 1925, and the first airline service, offered by the Boston Airport Transportation Company – it’s no longer in business, by the way – chose Katama in 1927 as its unsheltered Vineyard terminus after the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission – still in business, by the way, and remarkably still by that name – classed the landscape as the finest natural landing field in the East.

Wild, windy, and unbuilt, Katama was still an outpost when 5,000 Vineyarders motored over old cart paths to watch an air meet of races and stunts, and – at a two-day show on either August 4 or 5, 1928 – see Mrs. Sarah C. Vincent of West Tisbury, aged ninety-one, fly for the first time in her life. “I felt just as safe and comfortable as I would in my rocking chair,” she said afterward. “The plane tipped considerable, but I was strapped in securely and knew I couldn’t fall out.” In 1929 the Curtiss-Wright Flying Service staked live-in tents on the plains and established one of the first flying schools in the nation. “Practically every yacht club,” claimed a brochure, “will soon have its air division composed of members who prefer to cruise above, instead of on, the waves.”

Well, no, they wouldn’t. But it was the establishment of the Martha’s Vineyard Flying Club in 1938 that would lock into place the fate of the Katama Airfield forever – for Steve Gentle, a native of Houlton, Maine, who grew up in Edgartown, was one of eight charter members. Colonel Earl G. Boardman, a summer resident, had flown some of the Island men on fishing and hunting trips down the Allagash Waterway in Maine. “When Steve experienced that, he just fell in love with it,” says Dorothy Gentle, a Nova Scotia native who married Steve in 1933, when she was eighteen, “and never looked back. As soon as he got back – none of them had any money, but even so, they got somebody from one of the early little airports on the Cape; he came over once a week and taught those people to fly.”

Steve Gentle spent World War II teaching enlistees to fly at fields all over the Northeast, moving eight times in one year with his wife, son Steve, and daughter Jane. He returned to the Vineyard and bought the Katama wilderness where he himself had learned to fly. The next day the Great Atlantic Hurricane of 1944 leveled his only hangar. “I can remember as a kid going around the Great Plain in a Model A truck and picking up pieces of tin and straightening nails and getting things ready,” says his son Steve, now dean of the Edgartown real estate agents. The wartime practice of saving even the most marginal metals never went away. “That’s how he got that hideous habit of straightening out nails,” says Mike Creato, the senior Gentle’s grandson, who has run the field with his partner Becca Lundstrom since May 2003. “My first manual-labor job when I followed him out to the airport was – any job we had to do – he had dozens and dozens of cans of nails. Every one was bent. He’d hand me a can of nails, and I’d prepare the job by straightening nails. We still joke about it; you’ve got to straighten nails before we can do a job.”

The Gentles lived in town in winter and at the airport – the word they all still use to describe it – in summer. Look at the field from certain angles today, and you can sense how unbounded, impetuous, and free the Vineyard was during Gentle’s tenure as manager. “I’ll never forget,” says his son Steve, who managed it for a time after his father. “He used to take me in the J-3 Cub – I’d strap my fishing rods on the struts. He’d fly me to Wasque, because I knew some of the people who were fishing down there, land me on the beach. I’d undo the tape on the rods and go fishing, and then get a ride back with the people. Nobody else’ll ever do it, that’s for sure.” The senior Gentle ran a charter service, and in those quiet days before helicopters and MedEvac, was often called on to fly emergency trips – even after the Dukes County Airport, with its tower and controlled operations, opened after the war. “We didn’t have lights; we never had lights,” says Dorothy Gentle, “and he would go out and rev up his old plane, take the stretcher and the nurse, and the incubator with the new baby. I never heard him say, ‘Oh, I’m too tired, I can’t do it.’ Never. The nurses still speak to me, and tell me about the flights they had with him.”

But Steve Gentle is best remembered today as an instructor of uncommon talent, poise, and encouragement. “I remember as a kid, many times someone who was having a difficult student or having a difficult time getting the hang of flying – they would come over and bring them to see Steve,” says his grandson Mike. “I never saw him fail. He’d get in an airplane with someone, and he’d go around the patch three times, and he would step out of the airplane to everyone’s amazement, and this person would go solo. He could put people at ease. People would get all fetched up in the minutiae of things, and he’d take that away from them, calm them down, and within five or ten minutes in the air, they’d be off flying.”

After twenty years of managing the field, and nearly forty of owning it, Steve Gentle – who with Dorothy and daughter Jane then built the real estate office his son now runs – decided it was time to see to its future. “Developers used to come to him with all kinds of offers,” says Mike. “It was as if he couldn’t understand the language they were using.” Dorothy, nearing ninety and living in a home filled with light on family land adjacent to Mike and his brother Tim, agrees. “It was never to be anything but an airport. That was it. And it was to be run pretty much the way Steve had run it.”

In 1983, as part of a tract amounting to about 190 acres, the Gentles sold the airfield to Edgartown. The town would hire a manager for the airfield, and The Nature Conservancy would oversee the prescribed cutting and burning of the habitat between the runways.

“We ended up – I think we spent $700,000 to have the title clear, and in the end cleared $800,000,” says Dorothy Gentle. “He thought everybody should have a grass field to learn to fly on. So that’s what he did.”

Mike Creato’s parents divorced when he was nearly four, his dad remaining in New Jersey while Jane and the two boys moved to the Vineyard, living for a time with their grandparents. Mike grew up on the airfield, his grandfather serving as a surrogate father, teaching him to fly, making him think.
And on Sunday, June 8, 1975, saving his life.

That weekend the North American Fliers Club of Oxford, Connecticut, flew in with a P-51 Mustang, one of the fastest and most slippery propeller planes ever built. Mike was fourteen, driving the fuel truck at the airfield. “We watched the thing fly for a couple of days,” he says. “It was spectacular, one of the most beautiful airplanes ever to hit the skies, and the guy who flew it was a World War II veteran, very experienced in the airplane. My grandfather jumped in the jump-seat with this guy and had an unbelievable ride. So I wanted to ride after that. I was pestering him. He said, ‘Not today. He’s had enough for today.’” On Saturday, his grandfather waved off Mike again. “So Sunday came, and I knew it was the last flight we were going to get to see, and I drove the fuel truck over and put about 100 gallons of gas in the airplane, and I was really itchy. I had a few of my buddies there. And I told them I was probably going to get a ride in the Mustang that day.” But the pilot who was to fly was different, and he was younger.

“My grandfather came out to talk to the guy for a minute, and he looked at me and shook his head. And I said, ‘Why not?’ And I was frustrated, because he was just being a stubborn old grandfather. He said, ‘Because this fellow is too new.’ I said, ‘What’s that have to do with it?’ He said, ‘He doesn’t have enough experience in a Mustang.’ I was convinced that my grandfather was pulling the fun out from under me.”

The P-51 took off, Mike watching with his friends, fuming. “The guy put on a pretty good air show for about five minutes,” he says. The plane climbed about 2,000 feet through the overcast. Then something went wrong.

The crowd that had gathered saw the plane come down tail-first, the rudder fluttering uselessly. Twice the young pilot tried to put the nose down and power out of the fall. At the last moment, he seemed about to gain control. But it was too late. The plane slammed nose-first into the ground less than ten feet behind the administration building, the tail sticking straight up out of the crater. The plane didn’t explode, probably because the tank was so full of fuel that there was no oxygen to ignite it. But the pilot was dead. “And then I thought, ‘That old guy knows a thing or two,’” says Mike of his grandfather. “And I’ve thought of that many times.”

Behind his desk, he smiles, offering the true pilot’s postscript to disaster: “But I was still undiminished in my love for P-51s after that. To see that thing fly stays in my head like nothing else.”

Like his grandfather, Mike became a flight instructor. For a while he flew Cessna 402s for Cape Air. With his partners Don Lambert and Brian Hall, Mike has run Classic Aviators for eleven years, adding a third pilot, Jim Glyman, this summer. The company flies the red 1941 and white 1942 Wacos that roar throatily over Edgartown and around the Island from May through October. Three years ago, Mike and Becca won the contract to manage the field Steve Gentle built. “My grandfather’s laughing in his grave right now,” says Mike.

Watch Mike Creato amble around the airport on which he grew up, and which he saw his grandfather sell to the town twenty-two years ago for the equivalent of scrip today, and the difficult question of value, and values, comes up. In 2001, Herring Creek Farm, amounting to 215 acres just across the street, was sold to The Nature Conservancy, the FARM Institute, and three private buyers for $64 million. Consider the marketplace four years later, do the preposterous math – and look Mike in the eye when you ask how he feels about what might have been if the family had held on a while longer, or even left it all to him to decide. He meets your gaze and speaks like a man at peace.

“My grandfather cared about not spending money much more than he ever cared about making it,” says Mike. “He just knew that this place needed to be an airport. Maybe that’s how he justified the forty years that he spent out here.” There were twelve waterfront lots along the herring creek, all of them facing the dunes and the Atlantic. “I was eighteen and wasn’t worth listening to, but I said, You could keep the beach parking and sell ten or so of those lots, make three times more money than you’re going to with this sale to the town, and you could keep the airport. But the truth of the matter was, he was ready to make the handoff. And he wanted it to stay. The deal was fine with him. He didn’t hear me any better than he heard anyone else. He later said, ten or fifteen years ago, ‘God, if I knew you were going to take this crazy path, maybe I would have reconsidered.’

“Am I glad that the family doesn’t own the airfield? It’s hard to say. Then I would be faced with the burden of, what do you do with this incredibly valuable piece of property? I know I would feel an obligation to keep it an airport, but would I be tempted to sell a part? I’m sure he knew that – and the way it’s set up, it’s actually great. No one can be tempted.”

Mike is forty-four now. His face is still youthful, but for the outdoorsman’s crow’s feet beginning to deepen around his eyes. He has come to understand what he calls his grandfather’s “love of airplanes beyond money.”

“Probably the greatest thing about this place for me is, I loved the childhood stuff. But it seems like two different lifetimes. I look back, I can’t believe I was a kid forty years ago when I was out here. I remember all the old guys. But when you’re twenty years old on Martha’s Vineyard, you’ve just got to bust out of here. You’re going insane. I was the same way. You don’t really understand why you come back: here I am again, but next year I won’t be. But you do come back. Then you just accept the fact that you like this place better than a lot of other places. I like other places too, but I feel strange when I miss the spring return and I haven’t caught up with people for a while. For me now, I’ve got a whole group of friends who fly, who’ve discovered this place in my adulthood, who love this place. So I’ll get to see people this year who are going to spend a week on the Island, partly because I’m here and they know it now.” He looks out across the grass from his desk, beyond the sign where the red-footed vagrant perched. The fog is rolling over the South Beach dunes. It is Mike Creato’s way to smile just a little at the irony of it all. “I’m getting the exact same things that my grandparents probably got out of it,” he says, and he heads out the door toward his Waco, which flies over a landscape without houses, from an airfield beyond money.