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Porter Flea at Cornelia Fort Airpark in East Nashville

>> Sunday, May 19, 2013

Cornelia Fort Airpark hangar East Nashville
The artists attending Porter Flea this spring are likely excited by the unique venue — Cornelia Fort Airpark in East Nashville — but I doubt they're as excited by the venue choice as my husband. Because he's a reporter at the local newspaper, he knows quite a bit about the quirky airpark, so this guest post is all his — a departure from the normal posts here and a bit longer, but worth it, I think.

Katie is right. I've become somewhat obsessed with the airpark, East Nashville's cozy home with ties to cocaine smuggling, a famous female military pilot, and the May 2010 flood. What more tease do you need than that?

The upcoming Porter Flea AirCraft event will be the first at the airpark since the flood closed it for good to air travel in 2010 (except for one infamous flight, but we'll get to that). The flood caused millions of dollars in damage to buildings and about 20 planes, as various YouTube videos have memorialized.

The city of Nashville bought the space in 2011 to add it to the Shelby Bottoms park system.

But its history reaches further back, to the airpark's opening in 1944. The year before, the airport's namesake, World War II pilot Cornelia Fort, became the first female American pilot to die while on war duty.

According to a Tennessean history article, Cornelia Fort grew up a southern debutante and learned to fly in 1940, after graduating from college. While she was a civilian pilot in Honolulu she had a close encounter with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. She survived that. But in March 1943, Fort collided in midair while ferrying a military plane over Texas.

Not a bad tale. But it'd be easy to argue that Fort ranks as the second most famous pilot associated with the airpark, at least in recent memory.

Last year, longtime airpark flyer Russell Brothers made national news by landing his powerless and malfunctioning 1961 Beechcraft 18 (think shiny aluminum and twin engines) on its belly in the grass alongside the strip. He did so, unscathed, in the middle of the night. Then he left the plane behind, called only his wife for a ride, and went home.

Police found the plane later, triggering an investigation that led to federal firearms charges against Brothers this year. He'd said at the time that he left his plane in the park because, well, it wasn't in the way of anything.

The firearms charges came down because felons cannot own guns — and Brothers was a felon. He had served 11 years in federal prison for international cocaine smuggling, using the same airplane, back in the 80s. The newspaper keeps a fat envelope of clippings from the trial, during which a judge referred to him as a "giant among giants" in smuggling.

I wouldn't normally do this, but if you want to learn more, I'd encourage you to splurge a couple dollars to read the whole story in the newspaper's archives ("Elderly pilot with criminal past explains East Nashville emergency landing"). Also, it appears, the plane could be rigged up for skydiving — with Brothers serving as "captain adventure."

Suffice it to say, I was intrigued when Porter Flea announced Cornelia Fort as the next craft show venue. When organizers invited artists to come help clean the place, which was still cluttered from the flood, we were probably first to volunteer.

The mission was simple: mop it out and clear out the hunks of junk. There was also a possible reward: any interesting finds were up for grabs, because the city had already cleared out what it considered worth keeping. Spoiler: they weren't scrappers at heart.

Our best find came from an airpark office. Behind a dingy desk, I found a large binder, splayed open and holding plastic ... somethings ... in small folder pockets. It was then that we learned a new word: aerofiche. 

In all their glory, hundreds of sheets of translucent aerofiche were still intact, capturing the mechanical diagrams and parts inventories for dozens of airplanes. They could be enlarged and read by a projector. It's an obsolete technology — one that carries an aura of another era of recordkeeping. I've snapped photos of our aerofiche cleanup, but we haven't determined what to do with them yet. Incorporating them into bookbinding, if I can convince Katie, could be a leading contender.

Here's a peek at what we found — but stick with me, because there was another thing that we were able to glimpse that day as well.
aerofiche
aerofiche
aerofiche

If it's not already clear, we had a lot of fun at the airpark that day. We also sweated it out among a couple dozen volunteers. We also got to look around the grounds a bit, which are mostly uninteresting, except for two things: One, a sort of birdhouse graveyard behind a hangar, and another something only partially visible inside that hangar.

Just like last year, it still doesn't seem to be in the way of anything.

Russell Brothers Beechcraft airplane East Nashville

2 comments:

Anonymous December 11, 2014 at 1:19 PM  

Nashville Parachute Club operated out of Cornelia Fort in the late 1960s; I jumped there as late as 1970. Master Parachute Rigger Louis Butler ran the operation.

Katie December 12, 2014 at 2:20 PM  

That's so interesting! Thank you for sharing this with me. I had no idea, but I mentioned this to my husband and he said he's seen some videos of the parachute club at Cornelia Fort before.

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