One of my favorite haunts is Fallon’s Municipal Airport.
I often drive out there to have a look at the airplanes and visit with their pilots.
Sometimes I park adjacent to the runway, open up a folding chair, chow down on a sandwich and watch the takeoffs and landings.
It’s great to see and hear the planes putt-putt back and forth across the airstrip, take to the skies and descend to the airfield over fields and farms as if out of nowhere.
Fallon’s airport, built in 1952 and set in a quiet, picturesque and rural location north of town, evokes nostalgia for the simpler, less-complicated days of years past. It’s a world distant from the bustling strip malls, restaurants, motels, casinos, gas stations and heavy traffic found on busy Reno Highway and Maine Street.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, the airport’s asphalt runway is 5,700 feet long, 75 feet in width, sits at 3,963 feet above sea level, and the field’s official FAA designation is “FLX.”
The FAA also reports that an average of 121 takeoffs and landings are registered at the airport each week, a total of nearly 6,300 each year!
The field is owned by the City of Fallon, and the airport’s terminal building houses fueling, flight instruction, sales, rental, air taxi and charter operations that are managed by Walt Wardwell.
On my latest visit to the 61-year-old airport, I came across veteran pilot Willie Topken working on his two aircraft ... an Ercoupe-D and a Piper Cherokee. The Ercoupe is the most unique of the pair, and Topken hauled it out from his hangar to I could take the photograph of him and his airplane that accompanies this column.
The single-engine Ercoupe, says Topken, can reach a speed of 105 mph, weighs 900 pounds empty, has a gross weight capacity of 1,400 pounds at takeoff and was the first general aviation aircraft built with a tricycle landing gear.
Ercoupes also have been used by the U.S. military, says Topken. During World War II, several were purchased by the Army Air Corps and used for spotting German warships off the U.S. coasts and for pilot training.
Several others in Army service were fitted with rockets under their wings that gave them an additional thrust which enabled the aircraft to take on heavier loads and take off and land on small airstrips and even roads.
During testing of an Ercoupe in 1941 at March Army Air Base in Southern California, the plane’s propeller was removed, six rockets were attached to its wings, and the plane took off, flew and landed safely. The Ercoupe’s pilot, Capt. Homer Boushey, that day became the first American to fly an airplane flown solely by rocket power.
Topken, 63, a Fallon native who attended local schools (he was in the first graduating class at E.C. Best School), is the son of a World War II and Korean War army combat infantryman as well as a long-time military veteran himself.
Currently employed by a civilian contractor at Naval Air Station Fallon as a ground support equipment specialist, Topken served in the U.S. Air Force and then the Nevada Air National Guard for a total of 31 years before retiring as a master sergeant (E-7) in 2010. His service includes 18 months in Vietnam and three months at the Ali Air Base in Iraq, and when he retired from military service three years ago “I was the last Vietnam veteran still serving in the Nevada Air Guard,” he says.
Topken’s tour of duty in Vietnam from 1970 through 1972 was the most demanding and hazardous of his military career.
“I was stationed at Da Nang Air Base in the northeast coastal area of the Republic of Vietnam, and the base was regularly bombarded by rockets thrown at us by the Viet Cong. Five men in our unit who lived in a barracks just 100 yards from where I was billeted were killed one day when rockets hit their building,” he adds.
Topken and his wife, Laurel, an English instructor at Western Nevada College, are the parents of three daughters and a son (he recently completed Army boot camp) and the grandparents of four.
Flying is his favorite pasttime, said Topken, and the Fallon airport is a “great place to fly from. The weather is usually fine, there are no mountains to worry about when I take off and land, and there’s a lot of open country to fly over the explore.”
When I was visiting with Topken, I thought of the many experiences I have had at the airport covering stories for this newspaper, and one in particular stands out.
It occurred in mid-2002 when I spent a half-hour at the airport with Hillary Clinton, then-U.S. Senator from New York, who was in Fallon as a member of a special Senate subcommittee investigating the local cancer cluster and other rural health issues.
When the day-long meeting at the WNC Fallon campus ended in late afternoon, I followed Clinton’s motorcade to the Fallon airport, where she had landed in the morning and from which she was to depart by private jet for Las Vegas to meet her husband, Bill, who, several months earlier, had concluded two terms as president of the United States.
When we reached the airport, Sen. Clinton learned her aircraft and the airport were still being inspected by the Secret Service, and thus she had a at least a half-hour to kill before takeoff. She and I engaged in conversation about the just-concluded hearings, Nevada’s then-booming population explosion and the Navy’s “Top Gun” school at NAS Fallon which intrigued her because two or three Navy jets were flying above us at the time. Spying a Fallon/Churchill County Fire Department engine and its crew parked alongside the tarmac, I escorted Sen. Clinton there and she greeted the firemen, chatted with them for several minutes and posed for my photo of her, the men and their truck which appeared in the LVN the following day.
I then walked with her back to her aircraft which by then had been cleared for takeoff, we shook hands and said good-byes, and she flew off to Las Vegas to join husband Bill who was to give a speech at a major Strip hotel that evening.
David C. Henley is Publisher Emeritus of the LVN.