Tanner-Hiller Airport's Future On the Rise
Nestled next to the Ware River in Barre Massachusetts, quietly placed just a dozen or so miles northwest of Worcester, Tanner-Hiller airport has awakened from this year's milder than normal winter to a flurry of activity. 2012 will be a very pivotal year for the public airport's operation, as the downturn of general aviation activity in the Northeast combined with its' small amount of home based powered aircraft (four total) has led to some quiet times and lean years for the 3027 X 40 foot runway and adjacent facilities. The public airport has an FBO - Burchard Aviation - that can accomplish minor airframe and power plant repairs, and offers 100LL fuel. There's a possibility of adding non-Ethanol auto fuel for sale as an alternative to the standard 100LL avgas in the near future too. As airport and FBO manager Bob Burchard puts it: "This will help us build up a broader clientele for the airport and hopefully increase the number of tenants on the field."
For the past few summers, activity at the airport has increased though the Silver Wings ultra-light flying club, which moved to the airport two years ago after the Palmer (Mass.) airport closed. The Greater Boston Soaring Club operated a winch launch for gliders during 2011, but their plans for using Tanner-Hiller for 2012 are still "up in the air" as this is written.
In Bob Burchard's own words: "Last year the Greater Boston Soaring club was training glider pilots in the fine art of Winch Launch. They were able to launch a two place glider to an altitude of 1,200 to 1,500 feet above the airport. This is probably the most thrilling launch you could have just short of an aircraft carrier launch. A winch built in the 1950's uses a rope stretched the length of the airport and is connected to the CG (center of gravity) tow hook on the glider. When local air traffic is clear of the pattern, the launch controller signals the winch to take up the slack rope. Again traffic and glider pilot are checked for Ready To Launch condition. The winch operator is signaled again to proceed with the launch. There's a lot coordination between the glider pilot and the winch operator as how fast the rope is pulled in and how steep of a climb the glider pilot attempts. A good climb puts the glider at a 45 degree climb angle in the first third of the climb. As the glider gets higher, the angle will flatten out near the top of the climb. The winch operator must reduce power near to top of the climb so as not to pull the glider down as the rope is wound in. The glider pilot can tell when the winch operator stops pulling in the rope, and at this point the glider pilot releases the tow rope. With a good head wind and launch coordination, the glider will reach a height of 1,500 feet when starting out with a launch rope length of 3500 ft.. The glider pilot does not have much time to find a thermal and climb away, but at least they are over the airport and ready to land when reaching pattern height. It's a lot of fun to watch and even more fun to do." Bob also reports that the winch launching doesn't use much fuel, but it does take a large, well coordinated team effort to launch a glider in this "greener" manner.
More activity is buzzing around Tanner-Hiller: the Mass DOT Aeronautics Division will repaint runway lines and the compass rose at the airport later this year, and a search is on for funding to repair the old restaurant building for the dual use of a coffee shop and an Airport Operations Office too.
Finally, a hanggliding operation, Hangglide New England, has begun operations from the airport. Currently it's a weekend operation, with weekday flights by appointment only. Owner/operator Rhett Radford has more than 20 years of experience using an ultralight towplane to carry aloft hanggliders, initiating more than 25,000 flights via this method. He's quite excited about the scenic farmland and serenity around Tanner-Hiller, far away from the hustle and bustle of a big city. Rhett likes the idea that the airport is central to New England's hanggliding activity, and "the lift seems to be really good" for gliding operations. He continued to say that dual introductory flights will introduce the uninitiated to "about the purest form of flying there is...", and the newer technology flex-wing hanggliders are much more capable aircraft than original designs. The tandem aircraft even has a video system to record your flight; for more information go to: www.hangglidenewengland.com
The airport began operations in 1946, and is named after two of its owners, Fred and Catherine Hiller, and Leonard Tanner. The airport was originally opened by the Hillers; unfortunately Fred died a few years later. Catherine continued to developed a flight school business at the airport, both as an instructor and as an FAA examiner. A series of different owners passed through between 1973 to 1980, until Leonard Tanner bought it. Over time Len worked on restoring a pair of British World War II fighters - a Spitfire and a Hurricane, but the projects moved on before they were completed. His sons Bruce and Glenn developed the small snack bar into a full gourmet restaurant at the airport too. One of the more interesting aircraft that has called the airport home was the prototype of the Lockheed YO-3A quiet observation aircraft, a type later used during the Vietnam War. It too was restored in a hangar at the airport before moving on.
Tanner-Hiller is a privately-owned Public Use Airport operating under a commercial license issued by the Massachusetts Aeronautics Commission. There is a parking lot at the airport, and it offers "a clear view of all flight operations" according to Bob Burchard. The operations building is closed right now; hopefully funds will be found to repair it and operate a coffee shop for aviators and spectators alike... right now there's only a soda machine available. With such a diversity of flying machines in the area, Tanner Hiller airport might just be a great destination for a few hours of outdoor relaxation and to watch some "grass roots flying" in central Massachusetts. Better yet, fly in and say hello!
Special thanks to Bob Burchard and Rhett Radford for their information.
Story by Ken Kula
Photo credits: Bob Burchard