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Big Chuck

April 23, 2012

Many WWII pilots first saw liftoff at Sidney's airport

While driving back from Binghamton to Oneonta late at night recently, I marveled at the sight of the Sidney Municipal Airport just north of I-88.

Its multicolored runway was glittering in the clear, black night. Its revolving searchlight probing into the darkness. The airport looked very big in the dark, and it got me wondering about the old Sidney airport. Does anybody use it anymore?

"They sure do," Bob Felske told me. "There are a couple of dozen planes in the hangars down there, and it gets quite busy every once in a while." Bob should know. He was one of the earliest pioneers at the Sidney airport.

"I got my license in 1940. I got it out in Nebraska at the same airport (Charles) Lindbergh got his. I was one of the youngest commercial pilots in the U.S.," he told me with pride.

Felske soon returned to Sidney, where he opened up a flight school with his partner, Cliff Pratt.

"When the war came up, I got deferred from service because I was so busy training guys to fly. Ours was the biggest flight school in the Southern Tier. Lots of men came down from Oneonta to learn to fly. They'd get their hours in with me and go off to war. Lots of them," he remembered. "So many, in fact, I had to hire more trainers." He eventually was made a lieutenant in the Civil Air Patrol.

At one time, Felske's flight school had more than 20 planes at the airport.

"We had planes in the air constantly," he told me as we pored over his yellowed scrapbooks. "Times were tough, money was tight, and there wasn't a lot to do back then. It wasn't unusual to see more than a thousand cars lined up between Sidney and Bainbridge all just to watch the airplanes take off and land.

"I bought my first plane and brought it here. A $2,000 Cub trainer. It'd set you back $60,000 today," he said with a wink. "We also had a couple of old biplanes. We used them a lot to give airplane rides at the fairs. It was $3 for a five-minute ride."

I asked Bob if he ever had a close call.

"Sure did," he said quickly. "I almost died when I had to ditch a plane in the Susquehanna River just below Sidney. I lost all power and was barreling along heading for the water when I saw a big old iron train trestle coming upon me fast. There was little I could do, so I went underneath the bridge."

He paused to reflect for a moment.

"I damn near made it, too. I cleared the bridge perfectly but my wheels hit the water, and it flipped me over. I was underwater and had to cut my way out of my seat belt and unhook the poor devil that was riding with me," he said softly. "Thank God we made it all right. A farmer came out and rescued us in a rowboat. Yes, sir, that was 1948."

Felske's flight school lasted well into the 1950s. His main job was at the Scintilla/Bendix factory where he worked for 42 years.

"But I loved to fly, and I did it whenever I could. I worked mostly nights at the plant so in the daytime you usually could find me up there," he said pointing to the sky.

I asked him for one of his most vivid memories in the air. "Well, sir, it was back in the 1950s, and I was giving airplane rides at the Cobleskill Fair. A friend of mine, Al Dewey, took a ride with me and asked me to give him a real thrill. So I did something I had never done before," he said as he leaned in closer to me. "I took my plane up above 3,000 feet over the fairgrounds and then dove straight down to the ground. I performed a 10-turn spin all the way down, something not many could do. Just before I was at ground level I pulled her up and off we zoomed," he said with a dance of excitement in his eyes. "It was thrilling."

I asked Bob what his passenger thought of the ride. "Al loved it. But you know what, Chuck?"

"What?"

"His wife, Harriet, never spoke to me again," he roared.

I love a good story, and I have met a lot of storytellers in my life. Bob Felske, age 91, is one of the best.

I'll catch you in two ...

"Big Chuck" D'Imperio can be heard on weekdays beginning at 6 a.m. on WDOS-AM 730 in Oneonta, and also on Thursday nights from 7-9 p.m. on WSRK-FM 103.9 for his "Oldies Jukebox Show." You can find "Big Chuck" on Facebook under Upstate New York Books. He invites you to contact him at wdosbigchuck@aol.com. His columns can be found at www.thedailystar.com/bigchuck.

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