Wednesday, June 17, 2015

No pita with this Gyro: Earle Eckel's hidden airport

State Route 57 in Warren County seems like some sort of supernatural entity. No matter how well I think I get to know it, no matter how many times Ivan and I travel its length, subsequent trips always seem to reveal something new.

Or, more accurately, something old.

Just the other day, we were driving the road west of downtown Washington when I looked to the left and saw this:


How could we have missed Eckel's Autogiro Port near the corner of Route 57 and Mill Pond Road? Look a little closer at this seemingly freshly-painted sign, and you can see a claim that this is the first exclusive autogiro airport in America. THAT I would have remembered; we're always happy to find new airfields.

As I discovered with a little research, we'd stumbled upon one of Washington's more accomplished citizens, Earle S. Eckel. Born in 1891, he showed a remarkable combination of entrepreneurship and ingenuity from a very young age. By the time he turned 20, he'd already fulfilled a contract to string telephone wires from Philipsburg to Washington, built a steam engine that both powered his mom's washing machine and heated the wash water, and operated his own mobile movie theater enterprise, among other ventures.

Detailing all of Eckel's enterprises will make for a good future Hidden New Jersey entry, but for now we'll stick with the autogiro port. Long story short, an interest in motorcycles eventually got Eckel into automobile sales and repairs in Washington, and then to gasoline and fuel oil. Petroleum was good to him: in partnership with his brother, he opened a chain of nine service stations, which they sold to the Tidewater Oil Company in 1930. The windfall was substantial, and he used a portion of it to buy his own airplane. Predictably, that led to another business: Eckel Air Service, which offered flying lessons and charter flights from Easton Airport.

Eckel eventually left the airline business when it proved to be less than profitable, but the venture whetted his interest in aviation, particularly when it came to a craft that he could keep on his Mill Pond Road property. He didn't have enough room for an airplane, so he selected the recently-developed Pitcairn autogiro. Sporting both a nose-mounted propeller and a helicopter-type rotor above, it offered the joy of flying at slow speeds with the convenience of shorter takeoffs.

Reflecting his usual enthusiasm for new ventures, Eckel built a well-equipped airfield on his property in 1931, clearing a runway, installing floodlights and erecting a hangar. Two years later he bought a second craft, building another hangar to store it.

Eckel with Tidewater's autogiro Miss Vedol.
According to some accounts, Eckel held the nation's first transport autogiro pilot's license and flew the first airmail from Washington NJ to Newark during National Air Week in 1938. Locally, the autogiro made Eckel a few bucks in towing advertising banners and offering flying lessons, while he often traveled to out-of-state air shows to fly stunts competitively. He found his real success as a pilot for the Tidewater Oil Company, which hired him to fly two multi-state promotional tours for their Veedol motor oil. Estimating that he flew a total of more than 4000 passengers in the autogiro, he told the Schenectady Gazette that "safety is the keynote of the autogiro, these ships being able to land in small patches of level ground far too small for conventional type planes."

Eckel continued to keep his autogiros at the port even after selling the property in 1942, but as his interests turned to other pursuits, the field reverted to its former use as farm fields. Meanwhile, improvements in helicopter technology and the relative costliness of autogiros pretty much sealed their fate in the commercial market. Improved versions of the technology are still available today and are occasionally used for surveillance

As for Eckel, he died in 1978, having lived an interesting and varied life. Today, his former home and gyro port are the basis of the Pleasant Valley Historic District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Only a small wooden sign and the bright side of the one remaining hangar indicate anything remarkable about the placid little area where once an adventurous mind took flight.


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