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From a cow pasture to a jetport

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  KEN BECK/ The Wilson PostGrowing Lebanon Airport offers home to 105 planes   

By KEN BECK Special to The Wilson Post

After taking his first airplane ride at age 5, Myron Lasater walked away with a fear of flying.

The notion is near laughable today to anyone who knows the 22-year veteran pilot and vice president of RediAir, the company that manages Lebanon Municipal Airport. Nobody is a bigger booster of flying through the friendly skies of the wild blue yonder.

“I grew up at the airport here. Dad took me up for my first flight when I was 5 in Arch Agee’s plane,” said Lasater, 38. “My first taste of flying scared me to death. I didn’t like it one bit. Later, I enjoyed it.”

And how. He was drawn to planes and pilots like a bronco buster drawn to a corral full of wild stallions.

When Lasater was 13, he rode the school bus out Franklin Road and got the driver to drop him off at the airport where Dixie Airways paid him to pump gas. He loved hanging around his heroes, the pilots, and would beg for rides with the flight instructors. The day of his 16th birthday, Lasater soloed four different airplanes and got his pilot license.

“Where the barnstormers landed spawned aviation in most towns,” said Lasater, who knows the flight history of Lebanon as well anyone. What he doesn’t know, well, then he knows the Wilson County aviation pioneers who do.

While he looks to the future with ambitious plans for growth for Lebanon Airport, he also relishes the rich history of local aviation. Today, he’s looking forward to the Southeast Fall Classic Fly-In which begins at 10 a.m., Saturday at the airport. The event attracts 300 to 400 plane enthusiasts as about 50 pilots land their planes and exhibit them for the day.  

“There will be a diversity of airplanes and people as these type of events bring airports and pilots together, and gives the public a chance to views what these pilots take pride in.

The fly-in also shows the airport off and spawns activity,” Lasater said.

Four rocking chairs in front of the terminal beckon visitors to take a load off their feet and watch planes landing and taking off. Inside, a lounge offers couches and a TV set usually tuned into the Weather Channel. Photographs of military aircraft swath several walls. There’s hot coffee at hand as well as popcorn in a cart beside the water cooler. A showcase contains numerous Lebanon-made products.

Currently, the airport is home base to 100 airplanes. It features two runways: a 5,000-feet paved runway and an 1,800-feet turf runway. About 20 planes land or take off here daily. 

Southeast Fall Classic Fly-In

What: About 50 airplanes, ranging from amateur-built planes and antique classic to warbirds and modern-day aircraft, will be flown in and displayed for the public.

When and where: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Saturday at Lebanon Municipal Airport, 760 Franklin Road

Admission: Free, hosted by Experimental Aircraft Association chapter 863

Other attractions: Food concessions and rides offered in WWII Stearman biplane for a fee.

For more info: Call 444-0031

The airport is owned by the city, and its facilities are leased to RediAir, a flight support company that Lasater along with Sonny Belew and Kerry Bay formed in 2008.

The city leases two hangars to RediAir with13 tenants, and ground for nine corporate and private hangars, including Cracker Barrel, LoJac and Vanderbilt Lifeflight. They also lease 35 T hangars with more than 20 customers waiting for a spot to open.

Development of the airport’s west side is ripe as sites for five new corporate hangars are ready, and the city’s airport commission is pursing construction of a new terminal building.

The airport of today is a far cry from the grassy turf runways remembered by Mt. Juliet native Sam Burton, 90, who soloed April 1, 1941, and has flown a plane every April 1 since. Now residing in Lake Worth, Fla., Burton ran the Lebanon Airport from 1950 to 1955 and taught Castle Heights cadets how to fly.

“It was a country field back then with about a 3,300 feet north-to-south runway and another runway out toward Cumberland University east to west and a third northeast to southwest,” said Burton, a veteran of World War II, a hump pilot who flew over the Himalayas for the Air Force in China, Burma and India.

Burton also flew such “Grand Ole Opry” stars as Hank Williams and Minnie Pearl during his stint with Nashville Flying Service. He retired from Eastern Airlines in 1979 after close to 20 years as a commercial airline pilot. Among his proudest accomplishments while managing the airport was putting in the first set of runway lights.

“Lebanon is way ahead of anything around here (Middle Tennessee), but it’s not finished. There are still things that need to be done.” said J.J. Tomlinson, 80, of Lebanon, who learned to fly here and served on the airport commission for 15 years, most of them while Tex Maddox was mayor.

“The airport was my home away from home. I spent as much time out there as anybody around here,” he said. “I made my first visit in 1939. I sat all afternoon on a cedar fence post where the main runway is now. My dad wouldn’t let me go on the other side. He thought it was too dangerous. That was my 9th birthday gift, and he couldn’t have given me one better. My life’s been in aviation ever since.”

That first visit was on the day of an air show in which Cumberland University law student Pierce Knighton fell to his death after he failed to pull the ripcord on his parachute after jumping from a plane at 3,000 feet.

LEBANON AVIATION TIMELINE

1919: First airplane lands in Lebanon on April 301933: First Lebanon Airport approved by city in December1939: Cumberland University buys airport for $5,0001939: During March 19 air circus, Cumberland University law student Pierce Knighton plunges 3,000 feet to his death as parachute ripcord was never pulled1942: New runway built for WWII1943: Cumberland University sells airport to Nashville Flying Service for $5,0001945: Tornado strikes airport and hanger is demolished with 10 planes destroyed and two Army aircraft damaged; a new concrete block hanger and office are built1946: Paul Crockett and James Driver buy airport1950: Airport leased to Sam Burton1953: City purchases airport for $10,0001955: Arch Agee begins 23-year stint as airport manager1956: North to south runway paved1968: Work begins on new office and hanger1979: Arch Agee killed in plane crash on March 21982: Dixie Air of Nashville takes over operations1990: First private hanger leased1997: Mike and Mary Priest begin managing airport2008: RediAir begins managing airport 

Sources: J.J. Tomlinson, Lucille Agee, Mike Priest, Steve Thaxton, Robert Redmon and Helen Taylor Schlink from her book “This Is the Place”

About seven years later, Tomlinson took his first plane ride with Wayne Hodges in his J-3 Cub in 1946. In 1947, he entered the Army Air Corps and served 24 years in the Air Force as a mechanic and flight engineer working on B-29s, P-51 Mustangs and C-97s among other aircraft.

Tomlinson bought his first plane in 1953 and has never been without one since. “Flying is my greatest pleasure. I can fly anything with wings that has got power,” said the veteran of thousands of hours in the air.

Proud of his years on the airport commission with men such as T.O. Cragwall and the late Neely Butler, he said that was when things really began changing at the airport.

“One year the state had a total of $3 million to spend on airport improvements, and there were 96 airports. We pulled as many pegs out of the wall as we could and got the whole $3 million and it only cost the city half a million. That’s where we got our (modern) runway and the T hangars. We’ve had 100 percent occupancy since we built them,” said Tomlinson, who holds the late Arch Agee, who ran the airport for 23 years, and his widow Lucille in high esteem.

“Arch Agee held that airport together when nobody else could. He kept that airport together on a shoestring. I thoroughly admire the man, and his wife is a most amiable lady.”

A stone memorial pays tribute to Agee in front of the Lebanon Airport. A born pilot, he shared his passion with many others and taught hundreds of people how to fly. Agee operated the airport from 1955 until his death in a plane crash on March 2, 1979, in Galesburg, Ill., when he was 65.

His wife Lucille served as his right hand at the airport.

“He was there 23 years. I was out there 13 years. He began in 1955, and I came around 1965. I did the books,” said Lucille, 90. “He just liked flying. It was just part of his life.”She recollects the airport having a grass runway and a hangar with a lean-to. “I just enjoyed helping him,” she said modestly.

Lucille and Arch’s nephew, Mike Agee, also spent years of his life connected to the Lebanon airport. His first memory of the place goes back to 1958 where he recollects an old hangar with block walls and a round roof, a block shed on the front with an office and lounge and a maintenance shop down the side.

“I lived on a farm, and they sent me out here to mow the airport and wash the planes for my Uncle Arch,” Mike said. “Then I worked there after school and would see all the pilots come in. I thought, ‘I need to get with that.’”

At age 17 Mike got his pilot license and at 18 had his commercial instructor license. He helped his uncle teach a lot of Castle Heights cadets to fly in the mid-1960s. He later flew chartered flights and from 1988 to 1998 piloted for Cracker Barrel and Lebanon lawyer Jack Lowery.

“Flying was all that Arch liked to do. He was at the airport seven days a week from daylight to dark,” Mike recalled. “Back then, the biggest part of the business was flight training.

“As things progressed, they started using twin-engine planes that could haul six passengers. People started using for them for commercial transport, mainly businessmen who could fly out in the morning and be back home that night. So by the mid-1960s, corporations began using the airport.”

Nashville businessman John Baugh learned that lesson quicker than most.

“I learned to fly in 1964. It was my passion, still is. It started out as a hobby and then became business. It allowed me to expand my business,” he said, alluding to the fact that he could fly hundreds of miles quickly and thus beat his competition which traveled by car.

He moved to Wilson County in 1984 and to Lebanon in 1994 when the city gave him the opportunity to build his own hangar.

“I moved my airplanes here because it was so busy at Nashville Airport. There were so many flights, I couldn’t get in and out,” said Baugh, 76, who lives less than a quarter mile from the airport.

A restorer of ex-military aircraft, aka war birds, he owns six airplanes and a helicopter, including two Navy T-34s and a 1946 J-3 Cub. A member of the airport commission, he remembers that there were but 25 airplanes based at the airport when he came here.

“If a prospect comes to Lebanon, I offer to take them up in a helicopter to show them the city. An airport that is progressive along with a mayor and government means all kinds of progress,” Baugh said. “Lebanon has been as stable as much as any place. They are very pro-aviation here.

“I have visited as many as 15 airports a month, and I’ve watched airports change. I know airports that would swap with us in 5 minutes. People flying in here love it. It’s safe, and you can rent a car and take care of business. If you don’t have the airport, you’re not in the hunt,” he said.

A couple beloved by aviators here and there, Mike and Mary Priest were mainstays at the airport from 1997 to 2005. Mike began working at the Lebanon airport as a mechanic in 1988.

During the Priests’ tenure, a number of capital improvements were made including construction of corporate construction of new private and T hangars and the extension of the runway across Franklin Road via a bridge.

“I did the maintenance and customer relations, kind of interacting with all the residents and the transient people. Mary was in administration and customer service taking care of transient and local people, anybody needing fuel and a cup of coffee, and she kept everybody well fed,” Mike said.

“(Mayor) Don Fox said we put Lebanon airport on the map. It was a lot of fun,” Mary said. “We loved the people.”

While Myron Lasater has always enjoyed his peers in the world of flying, it still has to be a business first.

“If you love what you do, you never work a day of your life,” Lasater said, repeating some famous words that he believes in. He has 7,000 flying hours under his belt and 22 years of flying jets for major corporations.

“Other than six years with Martha Ingram and her family (of Nashville’s Ingram Industries), I spent my whole life here,” Lasater said. “This airport allowed me to gain knowledge of pilots and flying. I rode many times with Mike Agee, who is like a second father to me. I cut my teeth in corporate flying with him.”

Working at the airport until he was 17, Lasater then worked part time for Cracker Barrel as he cleaned and worked on their airplane. He earned his commercial license at 18, but Cracker Barrel Founder Danny Evins told him, “You will not fly that plane until you have a college degree in your pockets.” Three short years later, Lasater had his business administration degree, and Evins hired him to fly for the company from 1992 to 2000.

He flew for the Ingram company for the next six years, and then helped RediAir get off the ground two years ago.

“Our plan was to build a new fixed base operation at Lebanon and bring back what it deserves in the aviation industry. We presented a plan to the airport commission in fall of 2007 to develop the west side,” Lasater said.

“My philosophy and heartstrings for the airport at Lebanon is to continue to improve it and advance it and present it to the aviation world and business world as the front door of Wilson County and the community. This is not a recreational facility for rich people, but the front door of this community and the place that makes the first impression to business leaders,” said Lasater, who realizes that in many ways he serves as a liaison for the city in drawing new businesses.

“A first impression that is made by an airport can determine whether a business leader will bring his or her company to the area. That comes from my own personal experience from visiting airports across the country. I want this airport to be the gateway to the city and the county.”

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at kbtag2@gmail.com.

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