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Braintree's Expansion and Dangerous Flights Proved too Much for Old Airport

Braintree's airport existed in the western part of town near Great Pond from the late 1940s until the late 1960s.

Braintree's Expansion and Dangerous Flights Proved too Much for Old Airport Braintree's Expansion and Dangerous Flights Proved too Much for Old Airport Braintree's Expansion and Dangerous Flights Proved too Much for Old Airport Braintree's Expansion and Dangerous Flights Proved too Much for Old Airport Braintree's Expansion and Dangerous Flights Proved too Much for Old Airport Braintree's Expansion and Dangerous Flights Proved too Much for Old Airport

There were understandable, even heavy, concerns that led more than 200 Braintree residents to sign a petition to close the town's airport back in 1968.

For one, that summer a Milton man misjudged the runway and crashed into the trees near Great Pond, destroying his single-engine aircraft and dying in the crash. Residents had also been upset for some time that planes buzzed low over their properties, particularly on King Hill Road.

These concerns, along with the need for more water space in town, eventually did lead to the closure of the Braintree Airport, created shortly after World War II by a group of young aviators.

But the dangers that led to its shutdown were not the only story of the airport. For some, like Carol Heurlin-Connors, whose late half-brother Victor was among the Braintree Airport Association's founders, the memories are fond.

”I remember soaring up in the clouds and looking down at the earth below because there was space in the floorboards," Connors said in a recent interview.

She was not afraid of the space at the bottom of Heurlin's plane, Connors said, because it was a different, more care-free time, and her half-brother was a skilled pilot, who later went on to a career in flying business executives around the country.

Victor H. Heurlin Jr. graduated from high school toward the end of WWII, avoiding most of that conflict's fighting but learning to fly in pilot school and going on to serve in the Air National Guard.

He and about a dozen young aviation enthusiasts formed the Braintree Airport Association in May of 1948 and found a manageable spot for a 1,200-foot runway – a heavily-wooded swamp near Great Pond in Braintree, on land owned by the Water Commission.

They took two years to complete the runway, according to an account in the 1961 Town Report. "Money was scarce but youth and hard labor soon developed a flying field that allowed them to land their planes safely."

Along with private fundraising, an appropriation of $1,000 soon allowed the runway to grow to 1,500 feet, and over the next several years more money came in for expansion, making the runway longer and wider and attracting more than 100 South Shore residents to the association.

The location was said by the state's Civil Aeronautics Association to be one of the best on the South Shore, according to a survey of the Boston area made just before the airport was built.

In 1959, a new group of aviators set out to revive the association, clearing trees at the west end of the site and lengthening the runway another 200 feet.

Unknown to them at the time, soon the airport would face a series of difficulties, ultimately leading to its demise.

Throughout the 1960s, the Braintree Airport Commission fought to retain the airport despite a need for increased water storage right where the facility was. And so the commission promoted its benefits to residents, using a familiar pro-development argument.

"A town airport is a major factor in attracting large industrial plants with national distribution," the commission, chaired by William G. Brooks, wrote in 1961. "Every manufacturing and business enterprise that builds in Braintree is a means of reducing the ever increasing tax rate."

Local Civil Defense officials also weighed in, saying that the airport was "an important part of their plan of communication in times of emergency," the commission wrote three years later, in 1964.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Braintree was one of few communities in the area with an airport used by Civil Defense officials as a staging point for nuclear radiation monitoring, using geiger counters from the air, according to an article in the Ledger, "Flying Time," by E.S. Locke. Members of the public could also sign up for pilot lessons at the airport and even receive radiological monitoring training.

But by Dec. 1, 1964, the airport was closed by order of the Braintree Water Commission. Nearby the closed site, airport supporters found a 15-acre strip of land, also owned by the town, to the south-west of King Hill Road and north-west of Old Route 128.

"If the town sees fit to lease or part with the property, the association members are prepared to give up their spare time and get down to the back-breaking task of constructing a new 3,000 foot runway 100 feet wide," Ledger reporter Larry Masidlover wrote.

Town reports and other archives leave a gap in the timeline here. At some point between the 1964 closing of the airport and when it came back into the news with resident petitions and the Milton man's crash, the new airport was constructed and the low-flying antics of some of the pilots began to draw increasing scorn from Braintree residents.

Nearly 250 signatures filled a petition submitted in July of 1968 to the Board of Selectmen, asking them "not to renew the airport license due to the hazards and dangers to the lives and property of residents in the vicinity."

Braintree residents also cited noise as a concern, and mentioned an incident where a motorist was driven off the road because of a low-flying aircraft. The selectmen appeared inclined to agree, but left it to the Airport Commission to draft a report on the issue.

Mr. and Mrs. Arthur Sarney, according to a Ledger article from the summer of 1968, spoke out at a selectmen meeting. Their house was closest to the airport and they said they couldn't host cookouts because of the airplanes, adding that the air traffic pattern was usually "over our chimney."

Early president of the Braintree Aiport Association and co-founder Victor Heurlin was long gone by this time, Connors said. He had moved on to Illinois and become the private pilot for presidents of companies like Morton Salt. But Connors remembers that conflicted time in the late 1960s, recalling the concerns but also noting that she did not live under the flight path.

"People were afraid of the planes," Connors said. "It never bothered me any."

The drive to close the airport ramped up in August of 1968 when Wilfred Bleakely, who lived on Otis Street in Milton, died after crashing his single-engine plane into the trees lining Pond Road.

It was not the first crash at Braintree Airport. A year earlier, a student pilot crashed into the Ridge Arena parking lot, and a few years before that a plane hit the ground about 100 yards from the landing strip, in an area that became picnic grounds, according to a 1968 Boston Globe article.

Selectmen rushed the issue onto their September agenda, even as the Airport Commission sought to renew the facility's license, which in July had received a postponement awaiting further study. Before the Airport Commission could file its report, the Water Commission terminated the airport's lease, and called for the removal of all planes and other equipment.

The commission cited the deadly crash, as well as the petition. All that remained was for Town Meeting to decide the fate of the Airport Commission, which remained in limbo after the closure of the facility.

Members prepared a report for Town Meeting in March of 1969, exploring options – for a new airport, a runway just for emergencies, even a heliport at the .

"I think the town could be accused of short-sightedness if we did not delve into the case for an airport," the Ledger quoted commission member Silvio Ferrante as saying. "Looking ahead to the 1980s, the town could be missing a bet in not planning carefully now."

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