Doug DeMio climbed into his jumpsuit outside the now-empty hangar at Griswold Airport and, with a little help, lifted the motor for his paraglider onto the back of his pickup. The Westbrook resident is 52, fit and trim, and was running out of daylight.
``Hey, sorry, I gotta run, we're going to run out of sun soon,'' he said, before he drove off to the middle of the grass airfield for a final flight Friday. Above the field, two men already were buzzing around with engines strapped to their backs, dangling below paragliders silhouetted against a pale blue sky painted with peach clouds.
In a sad postscript to its 75-year history, tiny Griswold Airport, where hundreds of pilots earned their wings, is shutting down this weekend to make way for a housing development.
The band of devoted pilots and aviation fans who hang out there each weekend will gather today to fly, trade stories and enjoy a goodbye cookout before the airport officially closes at midnight Sunday.
``It's the end of an era,'' said a sad Loren Baker, the airport manager for the last decade. Baker said aircraft stored in the airport's aging hangars -- from general aviation planes to experimental craft and ultralights -- have all been moved elsewhere.
Over the past week, pilots have been gliding down onto the single paved runway to stop at the small clubhouse at the edge of the field to say farewell.
The owner, MaryAnn Griswold, who lives in Florida, plans to sell the 42-acre shoreline property to LeylandAlliance LLC, a New York firm that proposes to build 127 units of housing for people 55 and over.
The developer recently earned tentative approval from the state Department of Environmental Protection for a wastewater discharge permit, one of the major hurdles LeylandAlliance must leap before it can build the cluster of homes and apartments it calls Madison Landing.
Opponents have vowed to keep fighting, arguing that the marshlands along the Hammonasset River and the adjacent Hammonasset Beach State Park are no place for such a project.
In 1931, Jack Griswold, then the co-owner of Griswold and Dowd's Garage on Main Street, opened the airport, eventually turning operations over to his son, Sherman, MaryAnn's husband. By the 1970s, the airport was home to at least 60 aircraft, and visitors could book a charter flight or a sightseeing flight and take flying lessons.
Through years of battles over Madison Landing, Griswold Airport has remained a laid-back home for local pilots who fly in for a cup of coffee or to visit area restaurants. A couple of visitors Friday lamented that Griswold is one of the last wide-open spaces where all kinds of aircraft are welcome to fly. Other airports tend to be less friendly to the paragliders and ultralights.
Two picnic tables sit outside the small clubhouse, and it was just mild enough Friday afternoon to sit at one and watch the proceedings. While several men readied paragliders, a plane soared high above, flying loops and rolls and spins.
After the plane landed, passenger Rocco Albano, 53, of East Haddam walked over to the clubhouse and brimmed with excitement about the loop. ``I've flown powered parachutes, hang gliders, paragliders, ultralights, all kinds of airplanes, but that was the ultimate,'' he said. ``I've wanted to do a loop my whole life.''
His 10-year-old son, Daniel, was busy preparing a rocket for launch. Daniel has been coming to the airport on weekends with his father. Asked about the airport closing, he said simply, ``It sucks.''
Renee Granata, 26, of North Branford stood watching the activities Friday and talked about all the rides and flying lessons she has had from local pilots such as DeMio. She is now in class to earn her own pilot's license.
``We're all just enjoying it while it lasts,'' she said. ``We're getting everybody together and having one last hoorah.''
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