Listening to Bruce Bateman reminisce about his lengthy career as a part-time airplane pilot on the North Shore is a truly eye-opening experience for those unfamiliar with the local aviation scene — and a nostalgic trip down memory lane for fellow fliers.
A long-time Danversport resident who moved to Salisbury three years ago, Bateman has flown as a student or licensed pilot for the better part of four decades.
He was introduced to the world of aviation in 1939 by his uncle, who walked the 5-year-old down the street to an airfield operated by Carl Jackson. The modest facility, which would close a few years later, consisted of a grass runway with no buildings and a few planes. One end of the runway was situated between the present-day bowling alley on Water Street and William Penn Hussey's estate, "Riverbank," the other behind what is now Bishop Fenwick High School.
Bateman's first actual flight came about courtesy of a complete stranger he met at Beverly Airport when he was 12.
"From a distance I was watching a man washing a beautiful, bright red Dart," Bateman recalled in a recent interview. "I kept moving closer, and suddenly he looked up and said, 'Help me wash it and I'll give you a ride.' I did and he did and I was hooked on flying."
Beverly Airport was an important flight training facility in Bateman's time — and still is — and it was there he finally earned his pilot's license in 1968. Two years later he was certified as an examiner of ultralights at the airport on Plum Island in Newburyport.
Ultralight owners, says Bateman, used the still-active Plum Island field as their "unofficial headquarters" for many years.
Bateman was one of a handful of licensed pilots who spent their weekends towing banners over beaches and ballgames for Harley Mansfield's National Aerial Advertising firm. In the early years they flew out of Beverly Airport, but as it got larger and busier, Mansfield switched to airfields at Plum Island, Lawrence and Haverhill where there would be fewer potential disruptions to schedules.
"It was dangerous work" says Bateman. "I lost a few friends."
Bateman also towed gliders from various airports in Essex County and southern New Hampshire. One of his repeat customers was television personality Rex Trailer. For many years Haverhill had two airfields. The Haverhill (Dutton) Airport dated to the late 1920s and was owned in the 1960s and '70s by Howard Dutton, a top-shelf flight instructor and stunt pilot. Bateman said Dutton "could land a plane on a specially equipped truck moving at 55 miles an hour, and then take off at the same speed." Tragically, Dutton died in a crash in 1977 while flying upside down.
Bateman had his own interesting experience with inverted flight. He was trying out a new model Decathalon, one of many new or experimental aircraft he would test during his career, and was flying upside down with his wife Nan in the seat directly behind him.
"Part way through the trip" says Bateman, " Nan yelled that she was 'hanging lower than I was,' and asked if that was all right. It turned out one of her seat belts had come loose."
Not far from Dutton's airfield, near the Merrimack River, was William Slavick's Haverhill Riverside Airport and Seaplane Base. According to the wonderful "Abandoned and Little-Known Airfields" website, it was built around 1960 and closed in the mid- to late-1990s. In 1970 it featured a single runway, a hangar and another building or two.
Bateman remembers "Red" Slavick as a seasoned pilot and a "colorful character" who also offered boat rides on the Merrimack River to the public.
Lawrence Municipal Airport, which is actually located in North Andover, was created in 1934.
"It had grown into a busy, full-service airport by the time I began flying professionally" says Bateman. "Like Beverly Airport, it attracted a lot of corporate business."
Bateman made it a point to visit as many small New England airfields as he could. One he remembers was just a grass field owned by the Reardon brothers and situated west of Route 1 in Newburyport. Prone to flooding, it closed in the mid or late-1960s. The site is now part of an industrial park.
Earle Robbins' airport was sited near the intersection of Collins and Holten streets in Danvers, and in its prime boasted a half-dozen hangars. Navigating the single runway could be tricky.
"I flew in and out of there many times," says Bateman, "but only after Earle felt comfortable with my ability to handle the short runway, trees, and nearby Sylvania warehouse. He ran a tight, safe operation. "One airstrip Bruce Bateman never used was owned by Crocker Snow. The legendary aviation pioneer had a runway on his property in Ipswich.
According to Bateman, "out of respect for the man and his privacy, I never even considered asking permission to land there."
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Jim McAllister of Salem writes a column on the region's history. Contact him at email@example.com.