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Brockton Airport Once a Center of Local Aviation



December 17, 2003

Brockton Airport Once a Center of Local Aviation
Brockton Enterprise, MA

BROCKTON — Robert Hanitsch grew up reading paperback novels about World War I 
flying ace "The Red Baron" Manfred Albrecht von Richthofen and building model 
airplanes.

A World War II B-24 pilot, Hanitsch flew 30 missions in the Pacific with the 
5th Air Force 22nd Bomb Group 19th Bomb Squadron, which was known as the "Red 
Raiders." His first airplane ride was in a Ford Trimotor at the Brockton 
Airport in the mid-1930s.

"I got my father to take me," said Hanitsch, 80.

They boarded the small plane parked on the gravel strip. His father took the 
middle seat, allowing his son to sit near the window. The youngster immediately 
leaned over and pressed his nose to the glass, looking down.

"Don't do that. It will tip," Hanitsch recalled his father, "who looked like a 
frozen stick," saying.

Today marks the centennial of the first flight by Wilbur and Orville Wright in 
Kitty Hawk, N.C. Since that historic day, many have winged their way into the 
skies. The advent of flight changed the way wars were fought, it was a passport 
to far-off lands and later space, giving aviators a new frontier to explore 
that was no longer a fanciful dream.

The airport in Brockton sprang up in the 1920s on Main Street in Campello and 
had a single gravel runway. It was later owned by James Keith, who was a 
"Mid-western cowboy transplanted to Brockton," said N.A. Trager. In 1945, 
Trager and Joe Messina, who were both World War II flight instructors for the 
Army Air Corps, met in a hangar in Nashua, N.H. On a handshake they decided to 
make a go of an airport in Brockton called Brockton Airways.

The two dickered with Keith and leased the property, later purchasing it while 
Keith held the mortgage.

Trager, a former West Bridgewater resident who now lives in Sunny Isles Beach, 
Fla., said Keith never learned to fly.

"He had no interest in flying," Trager said. "I don't think he was interested 
in anything faster than a horse."

Trager and Messina operated Brockton Airways together for 18 months, starting 
the venture in October 1945. During that time, the airport trained numerous war 
veterans who learned to fly on the G.I. Bill, also known as the "Servicemens 
Readjustment Act of 1944" signed by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

Hanitsch, who years before had taken his first flight at the airport, was hired 
as a flight instructor and the former Jean Mirling, a 1945 graduate of Brockton 
High School, worked as the secretary.

The allure of flying was not the only romance at the airport. Hanitsch, who had 
spied Mirling sitting behind a desk, fell in love with the blue-eyed girl. They 
married in 1947 and today reside on Thornton Avenue.

During their time at Brockton Airways, Jean Hanitsch said about 150 ground boys 
took flying lessons. At a time when the weekly wage was between $35 and $40, 
solo flying lessons cost $8 an hour. The airport also offered $2 flights around 
Brockton on Sundays.

Flight instruction was given in Piper Cub planes. The airport also boasted 
Aeroncas, Taylorcraft, PT-19 planes, BT13 aircraft, and single and 
double-engine Cessnas, as well as a Steerman biplane.

Under Trager's direction, the airport expanded to have two runways; one running 
north to south, the other east to west. It also had two hangars. In the winter, 
planes were equipped with skis as the runways were not plowed.

"It was easy to land," Hanitsch said.

There was also a restaurant called The Stair Club, which was operated by two 
brothers, the late Ken and Bob Fisher.

Jean Hanitsch said in the good weather the airport operated from dawn to dusk.

"They had to make money when they could," she said.

Her husband gave flying lessons to one aspiring pilot after another. The 
airport was also the home of the Brockton Flying Club.

It was a popular destination, particularly on Sundays when cars lined the fence 
to watch the planes take off and land.

Andy Ward, 78, is a former Brocktonian who now resides in Lake Havasu City, 
Ariz. He served in World War II as a Marine Corps sergeant who was assigned to 
an aerial photographic reconnaissance squadron based on Guam in the Marianas 
Islands. Like Hanitsch, he took his first airplane ride at Brockton Airport.

At the age of 12 with money in his pocket and a Western Union uniform on his 
back, he paid 75 cents to ride in the co-pilot's seat. The experience made an 
indelible impression on the pre-teen even as he made his way to the front of 
the airplane.

"Some wise guy said, 'If that's the pilot, I'm getting off,'" Ward recalled.

The Ford Trimotor, to his surprise, lifted easily into the air.

"When they took off, I thought they were never going to clear the wires off 
South Main Street," Ward said.

Like Hanitsch, Ward was enamored of flying, even winning trophies at the 
Brockton Fair in 1939 and 1940 for his model airplanes.

In 1946, he traveled to Lock Haven, Pa., with Jean Hanitsch's father, Sanford 
"Sam" Mirling, to ferry a Piper aircraft back to Brockton. During the same 
year, Ward photographed Brockton from an airplane. His collection of 
photographs can be viewed at www.banjow.com.

Years later, he still thinks about the old airport.

"I kind of miss the fact that we had an airport and we gave it up," Ward said.

Trager operated Brockton Airways until 1964. After Trager and Messina ran the 
airport for 18 months, Messina partnered with two other men in running a crop 
dusting business from a Wareham airport.

At the same time, Trager began operating a crop-dusting service for cranberry 
bogs from Brockton Airways, using a converted J-3 Piper Cub.

"It was very successful," Trager said.

Trager had hired an experienced southern pilot to fly his crop duster. He urged 
Messina to do the same. However, his one-time partner opted to fly himself.

He died in a crop-dusting accident, and the Wareham airport was phased out.

"He was a great fellow. One of the finest fellows I've ever met," Trager said.

As the city evolved, Brockton Airways struggled to stay alive.

"I believe it would have been better if we had city support," Trager said.

The airport, where Santa Claus used to fly in seated in a Piper at Christmas 
time, closed. The Sky-View Drive-In movie theater was built on the grounds. The 
area has subsequently become a shopping strip mall.

Although Brockton Airways is but a memory, Jean and Robert Hanitsch, Ward and 
Trager remain friends. None has lost their affection for the wonder of flight.

Robert Hanitsch's blue eyes shine as he recalls swooping in and around big 
white puffy clouds.

"It gets in your blood," he said.

The centennial of the Wright brothers' first flight holds extra special meaning 
for Trager. Today is also his birthday.

"Flying to me was something that was very satisfying, I could even use the word 
'thrilling,'" Trager said. "I would like to do it all over again."
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