Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Fond memories of LaGuardia Airport

Growing up in Queens, I always felt a sense of ownership about a couple of places where I spent some of my time.

Juniper Valley Park may not be as historic or well-known as Central Park, but it has a special place in my heart as the place where I first played adult-supervised baseball in elementary school, played tennis and softball, and jogged along its trails in later years.

Small, feisty LaGuardia Airport shares some of the qualities of my favorite mayor as well as the name, and it was where I spent some enjoyable and fascinating time when I was a teenager. It was a simpler era, before the days of heavily armed airport security, when there seemed to be nothing wrong with having a large, open observation deck overlooking the main tarmac and gates, and you could actually watch your loved one’s plane taxi out and take off.

Try that today.

Vice President Joseph Biden recently said LaGuardia is the kind of airport you might find in a “third-world country,” and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said it was “ranked as the worst airport in America.” Maybe it’s small and dangerous to land there, maybe pilots fear runways that end in water and maybe it lacks the amenities we’ve come to expect in airports, but gentlemen, that’s my airport you’re talking about.

I really am not all that qualified to speak of the comparative qualities of American airports since I haven’t flown on the airlines in several years and haven’t been to LaGuardia since the mid-2000s, so my affection for the place is more sentimental than practical.

One Sunday in the early 1970s, my parents decided to take us to LaGuardia to watch the planes from the famous observation deck. My father paid the 10 cents for each of us and we went through the turnstiles, then up to the deck. It was like an amazing world to me.

I was already airplane-crazy, and here they were: DC-9s and 727s, mixed in with smaller planes and even the occasional DC-10, landing, taxiing to the gates, unloading, loading, being backed away, starting their engines, taxiing to the runways and heading off to new destinations. It was a heck of a show for an impressionable young teenager.

In our Middle Village-Elmhurst community, when the wind was right, the planes coming into LaGuardia would fly over the houses, sometimes pretty low, and I’d always stop to watch one pass overhead. With a telescope my parents had bought me, I’d follow them and keep logs of their passage, including the time, type and airline.

I learned that two buses, one to Roosevelt Avenue and 74th Street, and a free transfer to a second that ran to LaGuardia, meant that for the fare at the time (maybe 50 cents each way) I could go see close-up the best show in town, so far as I was concerned.

A few weeks later, a neighborhood friend of mine and I made the trip. We jumped the turnstile – no one was watching – hung around on the deck, watched the planes, talked, then walked around the terminal, had lunch in a restaurant and then spent some more time on the deck. We came home from a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon of plane-spotting and planned to do it again.

On other occasions when my friend wasn’t available, I’d go to LaGuardia alone. With an aircraft-band radio built from a kit, I’d listen to the various radio channels – ground, tower, terminal information and approach control – and spend the day watching the planes come and go.

One time, a group of college kids showed up and filmed a student movie on the deck, paying close attention to filming a plane approaching and landing. If there wasn’t much happening, I’d walk around the airport and watch the people. I never even thought about trying to stow away on a flight or get past the airport security of the day. My goal was to watch planes, not get arrested.

I guess there was one day when I spent a bit too much time at the airport because my mother became really concerned. She called the airport and had me paged, but I was on the observation deck and didn’t hear the page. An airport employee approached me and asked me who I was and where I was going, and I said I was just enjoying the takeoffs and landings.

Sorry, the person said, this was an airport, a place of business, and no place for a teenager to be hanging around. I guess it was a sign of the times that the person took me around not to the security office or the police office, but to find out if the airport’s Explorer post had room for one more teenager. It was full, the person learned, but I should write for more information.

Afterward, I was walked to the bus stop and advised to please not hang around the airport. I went home, where my mother gave me a good chewing out and advised me to stay away from the airport. So I went back to logging flights that flew over, and dreamed of airplanes.

Later in life, I’d work on planes in the Marine Corps, get my private pilot’s license and occasionally fly someplace. Coming into New York City, I always tried to get departures and arrivals at LaGuardia for the convenience of my parents, who were coming to get me and drop me off, and the memories I had of the place.

It may not be the most modern or the most-loved, but it’s the airport where I fell in love with flying and aviation, for good and for bad.

When I did fly anywhere, I always loved to arrive at the airport hours before my flight and walk around the terminal, watch the planes take off and land, and remember when I was teenager and walking around LaGuardia Airport seemed like the most natural and enjoyable way to spend the day.

So maybe Biden thinks it’s a third-world hellhole, but for me LaGuardia will always be my favorite airport.

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February 19, 2014 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age | , , , , , , , ,

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