Chester Martin Remembers Chattanooga's Airport - Old And New

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

When I was growing up there was a lot less to do on Sunday afternoons than there is today. We usually visited family in north Georgia, yet on occasion dad would take me out to Lovell Field, the original name of our airport. The main building was approximately the same size as the Steak and Shake restaurant on Gunbarrel Road and was decorated in the same 1940's Art Nouveau style. It had a nice atmosphere about the main ticketing area, and I have no memory of the waiting areas - if any.

Inside the front door was a stairway which attracted my attention because it was protected by a thin chain with a "No Admittance" sign on it. This led to the Control Tower and Weather Bureau which were both upstairs, very tantalizing to young boys, I had no idea that I would ever work in an airport control tower. This entire downstairs layout was small enough it could fit into a typical living room.

When you exited that small building to the back you would be standing on a concrete apron about 20 or 30 feet wide with a chain-link fence so you could not stray out onto the tarmac. Eastern Airlines was the giant airline of the day. They advertised a "Great Silver Fleet" of aircraft at your service to take you to exotic far away places. There were frequent arrivals and departures at Chattanooga, so any trip to our airport would assure you the pleasure of seeing at least one of those "monster" DC-3 aircraft up close at the gate. You could watch a flight land, turn off the runway and taxi straight up to where you were standing, its mighty engines spinning. As the passengers debarked from the plane, and new ones went aboard, a postal clerk would rush out to the pilot's side of the cockpit and climb a small ladder-device to exchange pouches of air-mail with the pilot. There were no police or sniffing dogs anywhere to be found on the premises. When the plane was ready for take-off a few minutes later you were in for the thrill that you had come for in the first place: the plane swung gracefully around, suddenly wafting jets of cold air, dust, and other harmless debris back onto the waiting crowd. This could knock a person down if not prepared for it. What a great feeling - and it sort of connected you with the act of flying. Everybody wanted to try it sometime.

Those were days when flying was relatively new, and while you were waiting to see the action at the gate, a nicely dressed gentleman waving tickets would pass by on the other side of the fence shouting, "Nice long ride for a dollah!", and he probably had some takers, although we never took one of his long rides. At the time we could not begin to imagine where such a flight might take us, or what we would see, so did not feel any great loss for not buying a ticket.

Chattanooga was one of the early airports in the U.S. Aviation was long attracted here for some reason. Johnny Green had actually built a small plane in the basement of the Ross Hotel when my father was living there after 1913. It made news when a brick wall of the hotel had to be opened for removal of that plane. Chattanooga was the hub for many an airshow, and the old national comic strip, "Smilin' Jack", always had a listing of airshows around the country, with Chattanooga's name appearing when applicable. Our 1940's neighbor, Col. Ray Moore, had been one of the original "barn-stormer" pilots and his dining room walls were plastered with pictures of those days.

But those old airport days came to an end when our population grew, and when jet airliners took over from the reciprocating motors of the earlier aircraft. Modern systems were being used to protect passengers from the elements - a system that our old airport could not support. (It used to be common to have to walk a considerable distance through rain or snow to either board or de-plane at the old airports). As a result, a lengthy building program eventually got underway in the mid-1980's which enlarged the Chattanooga airport to its present size and shape, allowing for the modern innovations. I personally have admired it and have been proud to either greet visitors there, or send them on their return journeys from it. While waiting for a certain flight to be announced, I have liked to point out to foreign visitors the names of all the world cities with which we share a "sister city" program. All of them are listed high up in the main lobby. (My Spanish friends say we need to add a city in Spain to that list - and I second the motion, and would like to add an Austrian city as well).

The new Chattanooga airport IS a vast improvement over the old one. In the old one, spaces were small and cramped. The new one gives the feeling of much light, air and space. Fortunately this is a trend forced upon us by larger populations, for when I re-visit old schools I have attended the spaces are so small and dark that I almost become claustrophobic!

Someday, if John Wilson will let me, I want to write a short article about Air Traffic Control. He might not like that idea because it CANnot relate only to Chattanooga, but to a much bigger picture which is world-wide. I would want to write such a story because in early 2016 there have been so many two- and three-hour delays reported in the ticketing and security lines at major airports. THESE ARE NOT THE FAULT OF THE CONTROLLERS!  As a former USAF Controller I would simply like to tell how such confusion and earthbound delays are purely the internal problems of the airports - not of the skies! The skies are controlled by a very sober "tried and true" set of rules which are applied by an equally sober, "tried and true" group of dedicated people. These men and women are rarely seen and "make no waves". Their stash of rules which govern all air-lanes go back into the 1920's - to the very earliest days of cross-country aviation, actually having originated in England. Controllers work both in visual (VFR) control towers, and in dark places where all IFR (Instrument) flights are controlled. These places are called Air Route Traffic Control "Centers", and can actually be located underground or in any dark place where the radar scopes are best seen, and make sure your flight is always in safety. Except for externally caused turbulence you rarely have any sensation of motion while aboard a commercial flight. But what happens when the power goes off and the scopes go dark? I may tell you a bit about that sometime in the future as it is a very interesting topic. Someone has compared Air Traffic Control to a kind of world-wide ballet, where the ballerinas (representing the individual flights) suddenly awake from the dark night and start their intricate, but well-choreographed, motions. The action increases in speed and flawless activity until every flight has landed safely at its destination. The long lines you waited in at the airport are not caused by the controllers in the towers and centers. Few air accidents can be attributed to “controller error”.

When the old Chattanooga airport closed after so many years of service, the act was well publicized and people flocked to it for “one last look”. As the new airport building was being constructed it was necessary to access the old public areas by very long temporary hallways which were constructed out of plywood and were not very pretty to look at. These hallways were constantly being changed as the new building progressed. No one could see what was being done, and the focus was on the very long walks necessary to reach your flight. But finally, about 1990, all the plywood was removed and we could finally see the beautiful new construction – which I continue to admire as a most creditable addition to our city of Chattanooga.

PS As writer of the current “Memories” piece about “Airports” in this Chattanoogan online newspaper, I have been flattered by the number of responses to it. Seems everyone old enough to remember the former airport buildings at Lovell Field think fondly of them. Only thing I did not stress was the observation deck at that facility, and made no mention of the one at the new building. The new observation deck extended the entire length of the main concourse and was so popular that it was almost always filled with observers. Unfortunately, that deck had to be closed for security reasons early-on in the new airport’s history. Its high vantage point allowed you to see clearly the activity taking place as you got a bird’s-eye view of planes, passengers, baggage transfers, etc. Several parked aircraft allowed you to see and compare different makes and models of aircraft in close proximity. The far (west) end of this concourse connected you more closely with landings and departures, both features working to give you a well-rounded view of airport life. How sad it is for all the young people, who might otherwise be interested, to be deprived of such close-up views which might lead them to a life in Aviation!

(Chester Martin is a native Chattanoogan who is a talented painter as well as local historian. He and his wife, Pat, live in Brainerd. Mr. Martin can be reached at )

Chester Martin
Chester Martin

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