The Southern Coalfield Airports: Where Did They Go?
Amid the rolling hills and strip-mined mountain tops that stretch through Logan County, West Virginia is Route 10 -- a newer highway that was 20 years in the making. It made road travel in southern West Virginia more accessible, but it also replaced the McDonald airfield.
And like most airports in the coalfields, the McDonald airfield is but a faint memory, recalled only by a few who used to fly there.
“We loved our little airport, and so we always took good care of it,” said Andrew York, a professional pilot from southern West Virginia.
York learned to fly at McDonald airfield in the 90s. It was known by locals as Taplin airfield, for its proximity to the unincorporated town of Taplin.
“It always looked good in the spring and summer in the fall,” he said. “It was always nicely mowed and trimmed and we'd have cookouts, and it was a throwback airport. There was nothing new there.”
The Way It Was
In the mid-1900s, the southern coalfields were once home to at least 40 airfields, or landing strips for airplanes, but today there are 28.
York’s grandfather, Edsel Varney, a legendary WWII fighter pilot, helped found Taplin airfield after the war. At that time, Taplin was a big deal.
John F. Kennedy flew into Taplin for a campaign stump speech before he was elected president. Also, actor Lorne Greene who played Mr. Cartwright on Television’s ‘Bonanza’ flew into the small Logan County airport.
In fact, local airfields popped up across southern West Virginia in the 1900s. At least 12 were opened between the 1930s and the later 1960s. They were used as training facilities, military fields and as a way to get around West Virginia.
Flight revolutionized travel in the Mountain State, said Merle Cole, Raleigh County Historical Society marker program officer.
“It took 50 minutes to fly, what would take you almost seven hours on a train and nearly as long by car,” Cole said.
Two Industries Intertwined
Many of these historic airfields have disappeared, much like Taplin. They have been replaced by highways, strip malls and some have been overtaken by the forests.
There are not many people left who still know the history of these tiny airports, and very little history was written down. Like so much else tied to the once prosperous coal towns throughout Appalachia, many of these stories have been forgotten with time.
But the airfield history that we do know, Cole said, is partly related to the boom and bust cycle of coal mining.
“Flying is an expensive business. You gotta’ have a lot of money invested in airplanes, and airports and runways and staff and crew,” he said. “If you're operating a small, private or personal strip, you still got to have the money to keep that plane in the air.”
While the coal industry soared in the mid-1900s, financing the airfields was not an issue, Cole said, adding that flying was relatively new and exciting, only invented a few decades earlier.
“People had extra cash on hand, people got their pilot's license and learned to fly,” Cole said.
Pursuing his passion for flying, Edsel Varnie, Andrew York’s grandfather, used his fighter pilot experience to work his way up from being a coal miner to flying coal barons through the southern coalfields.
“If you're a coal president or you're in charge of the coal mines or something, I guess you don't want to drive, you know, an hour and a half, two hours depending on what part of the southern coalfield you're coming from,” York said. “But you had all these little communities that had their own airport, and it gave them access out of the coalfields.”
An “Uphill” Battle
Although flying was more efficient than driving, the topography still made flying difficult. To land a plane one needs long stretches of flat land, something the mountain state, especially the southern coalfields, lacks.
Runways have to be built either on top of flattened mountains or in flat land near the rivers, Randy Coller, pilot and airport inspector, said. Coller has inspected airports all over the country, including West Virginia.
“Generally, they're shorter runways. And if they're built in a valley it makes it extra difficult because there'll be fog in the valley meaning it takes a while for the fog to lift out of the valley for it to be used,” Coller said.
The Taplin airfield, remember the little Logan County airport, was listed as ‘hazardous’ even while it was still open. It was about 2,600 feet of unpaved, grass runway. For comparison, a more typical runway is paved and around 6,000 feet.
Taplin was also in a valley and shaped in a curve, or what pilots call a ‘dog leg,’ making it tricky to land, York said.
“You might be able to see some of the airfield but not a lot of it because you had a ridge between you and the airfield. So, you followed the river, a windy river,” York said. “So, you wasn’t really flying straight to the runway. And then all of a sudden you get around at one point at Rich Creek, and bam, there's the runway and you would land. That's not normal.”
Within the regional pilot community, it was thought that if one could land a plane at Taplin, one could land a plane most anywhere, York said.
The End Of An Era
With the decline of the coal industry and along with it, West Virginia's economy, Cole, the historian in Raleigh County, said the smaller airfields were no longer used.
“When the coal industry started dying off, many went away, and people simply didn't have the money to pay for their hobbies or their transportation in some cases,” Cole said.
But the decline was not solely related to the coal industry. Randy Coller, the airfield inspector, said there are several other factors not specific to West Virginia.
“After WWII there was kind of an upsurge in pilots because a lot of the veterans had access to the GI Bill and they learned to fly, but that generation of pilots is dying out,” he said.
Also, the opening of larger regional airports and more stringent regulations made it harder for local operations to stay open, Coller said. But some communities hold out, Coller added, hoping to one day reopen their airfields.
One in Wyoming County is not used much for flying these days, but it is still maintained for other reasons.
“I myself have walked at the airport or ridden my bike as a young child. And now I enjoy taking my kids up there as well,” said LeAnn Biggs, a West Virginia native.
The airfield is a long strip of empty pavement, much like a running track, great for recreating.
“We take long walks up there, my children ride their bikes, splashing the mud puddles, and just enjoy the scenery,” Biggs said.
Many of the airfields in West Virginia’s coalfields have disappeared with time, taking with them much of the rich history. Some have turned into strip mines or chemical factories, others reclaimed by the forests. But there are some clues left behind.
In Welch there is a locked gate, with an old metal sign that reads, ‘Welch Airport.’ Along Route 10 in Logan County, there is a turnoff that is called, ‘Airport Road.' It takes you to what is left of Taplin Airfield - an overgrown field lining the banks of a windy river, that offers a glimmer of what it once was.
This story is part of West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s Southern Coalfields Reporting Project which is supported by a grant from the National Coal Heritage Area Authority.
**An earlier version of this story misquoted Merle Cole. The correct version is, “It took 50 minutes to fly, what would take you almost seven hours on a train and nearly as long by car," instead of, “It took 15 minutes to fly, what would take you almost seven hours on a train and nearly as long by car."