Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Blue Ash Airport


When it comes to abandoned suburbia, one might think about closed fast food joints, shuttered gas stations or foreclosed homes. In Blue Ash though, there stands a small, closed airport. A piece of aviation history is set to be demolished for a new community park in a growing suburb amidst a political controversy that raises questions about the modern day pursuit of truth.

- The first of the demolition equipment on the Blue Ash Airport scene.

When I was a kid, all I ever wanted to be was a fighter pilot. I had a VHS tape of a documentary on The Blue Angels that I watched repeatedly and every summer my Dad took me to the Dayton Air Show. Despite all that, I had never actually flown in a plane. When I turned 14, my parent's surprised me by taking me to The Blue Ash Airport where Jerome, a coworker of my Dad, took me on my first flight in a small two-seater propeller plan above the suburban landscape.

Eventually my interests shifted from being an aviator to being a photographer, but I still have an admiration and love for flying. Sometimes, I get to combine the two and shoot photographs from planes. Blue Ash was where my good friend Gabriel kindly took me and my camera into the air multiple times.

In its last days, The Blue Ash Airport (which had the callsign of ISZ) was a solitary runway in the middle of one of Cincinnati's most prolific suburbs, flanked by office parks and hotels. There was no control tower, no baggage claim, no Homeland Security; just a small and friendly regional airport that catered to recreational pilots and a few business flights. Plans for the airport had once been more ambitious and despite being located in the suburbs, it was actually owned by the city of Cincinnati.

- A barrier preventing vehicles and aircraft from entering the airport's tarmac. Yellow X's had also been pained on the runway to alert any overhead pilots that they can no longer land at the facility.

ISZ was born in 1921 as Grisard Field by the Grisard Company. Just four years later, the Grisard Company eyed another potential airport location and sold off ISZ to Hugh and Parks Watson. Grisard went on to create Cincinnati's famous Lunken Airport while the Watson Brothers continued to operate Blue Ash. As commercial aviation continued to grow in demand and technology, Lunken was viewed as Cincinnati's choice location for an airport. Things changed in 1937 when the nearby Ohio River completely flooded over Lunken Airport.

- The closed tarmac of ISZ.

After the flood waters receded, Cincinnati began to consider the Watson's Blue Ash Airport  as the site for its major airport. Over the next several years, civic leaders went back and forth in deciding which location would become the region's main airline hub - Blue Ash or Lunken? The Watson Brothers sold their airport to Cincinnati in 1946, a year before Northern Kentucky was successful in receiving the first federal funds that would eventually lead to the birth of the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG). When the jet age arrived, CVG had made itself the dominant and preferred location for commercial flights and Cincinnati abandoned the idea of expanding Blue Ash or Lunken into international airports. Lunken had no room to expand and by 1961, Blue Ash had incorporated itself as a city. The rapidly growing suburb had quickly surrounded Cincinnati's airport and would've been a serious obstacle towards any major expansion. Blue Ash had successfully countered any plans Cincinnati had for building a major passenger airport on this side of the river. ISZ remained a single runway and CVG across the river grew into an international hub.

- Abandoned hangars and offices at ISZ.

As the years went by, Blue Ash grew at a rapid rate. Office parks began and continue to spring up around the airport's location. The City of Cincinnati continued to own ISZ and funds from the Federal Aviation Administration helped keep the airport running as it served mainly recreational pilots.

In 2006, the cities of Cincinnati and Blue Ash began negotiating a sale of the airport. Blue Ash wanted a park, Cincinnati wanted to sell the land for capital revenue. Blue Ash voters approved a .25% earnings tax increase to fund various community projects such as a new recreation center and a new park at what would eventually be the former location of the airport. The two cities came to an agreement - Cincinnati would sell Blue Ash a portion of the airport land for $38.5 Million on which Blue Ash planned to build the park that voters had increased taxes for.

- Former aircraft parking spaces.

A year after the first airport deal was made, Cincinnati began studying the construction of a modern streetcar.  In the streetcar's financing plan, Cincinnati determined it would use $11 Million of the nearly $40 Million Blue Ash airport deal to partially fund streetcar construction. A snag was hit when the Federal Aviation Administration pointed out a clause in the deal that stated Cincinnati had to spend its sale proceeds solely on airport improvements. The FAA then recommended that if Cincinnati wanted to use the proceeds elsewhere that they renegotiate the deal with the City of Blue Ash. The cities came together again and a new deal was brokered on August 10, 2012. This time, the funds were free'd up for Cincinnati to use at its will and Blue Ash was cleared to begin building its new park. ISZ prepared to close down for good.

- Rendering of the City of Blue Ash's new park.

On the evening of August 31, 2012 I left work and drove over to the airport where I had gone on my first flight. Barriers had been erected to prevent vehicles from entering the airport, all the buildings and hangars had been abandoned and the airport sat quietly along with demolition equipment that had already arrived on site.


The airport's original hangar had been graffitied with messages of thanks and goodbye.



Some messages wished the airport to "rest in peace:"


Others recounted "life-saving" memories like the one below:


A few attacked and blamed Cincinnati's Streetcar Plan for the airport's demise:

The graffiti highlighted a problem, but the problem was not Cincinnati's Streetcar. In the Blue Ash Airport's final days it became the political backdrop for a different transportation project due to the manipulation of a special interest group and the failed reporting of local media.

The Coalition Opposed to Additional Spending and Taxes (COAST) had unsuccessfully tried to stop Cincinnati's Streetcar two times before. In 2009 and 2011 the "tea party" aligned group penned legislation aimed specifically at halting the streetcar project. Both times, Cincinnati voters turned down the group's self-authored ballot initiatives and allowed the streetcar project to move forward. Since Cincinnati had announced plans to use a portion of the airport sale revenue for the streetcar, The Blue Ash airport became COAST's next target. The group pleaded with Blue Ash City Council to halt the sale, repeatedly crying to the local media about how the sale was a vast conspiracy by both cities to solely fund the streetcar - despite the fact that the streetcar had come to fruition after the original airport sale and only a proceed of the sale would be used to fund it among other capital projects in Cincinnati. Unfortunately, the local media ate the "controversy" up. Talk radio played host to COAST and local news outlets featured quotes by COAST members while repeatedly failing to mention the details of the sale or a timeline of events. Blue Ash City Council saw through the political charade and went forward with the re-done sale agreement anyways, affording a win-win situation for both cities.

- The Blue Ash Airport when it was known as Hugh Watson Field. Photo via CincinnatiViews.net

As the airport is prepared to be destroyed for park space in the near future, its final days serve not only as a historical look into the aviation history of Greater Cincinnati, but as a lesson regarding political hyperbole and modern journalism. The above graffiti message highlights a misinformed opinion of the events that transpired. Even if the streetcar had never been thought of or planned, this sale would have happened. Since the streetcar was factored into Cincinnati's plans after the initial sale, the Blue Ash Airport deal became then became a target for a special interest group hell-bent on attacking on a project that got them repeated media exposure with little accountability. In Cincinnati, voters had twice spoken in support of the streetcar and in Blue Ash, voters raised taxes to build a new park for their community. The message scribbled above shows that COAST's political spin had been successful at hoodwinking some into believing this was all an elaborate plan to build a streetcar when in reality it was an opportunity for two cities to pursue improvement by replacing an airport that served little advantage to either party. In the wake of all this, the local media had failed so miserably at investigating the story that Blue Ash City council had to pen an editorial to the Cincinnati Enquirer explaining their actions. Jake Mecklenborg of the UrbanCincy.com blog was the only one to highlight the finer details and timeline of the sale, while larger news outlets rode the waves of fabricated controversy.

- The sole remaining plane at Blue Ash on August 31, 2012.

As I stood on the abandoned airport tarmac that evening, trucks were already hauling off airport equipment in preparation of the demolition. For many, The Blue Ash Airport's closure was the capstone to great memories, memories that even I had shared. I'll never forget the first time I flew at Blue Ash - the way the sky looked, how nervous I was, the buzz of the propeller and the excitement I felt. But just as my passions changed from aviation to photography, so changed the story of ISZ. The airport's closure wasn't just about aviation, it highlighted a growing concern in modern journalism and the quest for political truth. May these photographs serve as a memory of the airport's history and these words serve as a lesson in misinformation and the modern quest for truth.

Updates | Oct. 21, 2017:
  • The airport has now been completely demolished and replaced with a new, massive park that's nearing completion.
  • The Cincinnati Streetcar opened in September, 2016.


  1. This website is pure amazing. Thanks for the update. Keep posting so I can keep reading!

  2. I'm a Cincinnati ex-pat living down South. I love your blog, as it's a very visually interesting way for me to keep in touch with what's happening in the Queen City. This was one of the finest posts I think to date on this blog -- the weaving of history, photography, and current events blows me away. Keep up the good work.

    -E. Tansey

  3. I did my first 5 hours of training here at ISZ, all within a couple months of closing. Best 5 hours of my life.

  4. I had my first 20 hours of training at ISZ in 1998/1999. ISZ will always be a part of my life; I hope the park does it justice. I've been to your site a few times. I wondered originally as to the fate of Surf Cincinnati, and found your amazing pictorial. I actually came back looking to view those same pics again and found ISZ. It's rather painful to see scenes from my adolescence in such states if disrepair. In another sense, it's cathartic of sorts, and I'm grateful that someone like you is around to record the death throes of these venues. You do good and meaningful work.

  5. Thanks for the post and the memories.

    You correctly said it. There was much misinformation and misleading media coverage. It is also misleading to say that the streetcar is not the problem because it came after attempts to sell Blue Ash Airport or that voters twice turned down opponents’ attempts to stop the streetcar. Given the referendum wording, voting "no" meant no transportation planning, so many light rail supporters reluctantly said yes even though they do not approve of the streetcar. A number of yes voters did not want to rule out LRT or any other major transit initiative. If the authors had made it a referendum about the streetcar only, many more voters would have rejected it the second time. Even those generally favorable toward streetcars, could not be more opposed to this streetcar at this time. Ironically this ill-planned, revenue sucking project may derail support for any future mass transit plan.

    But what will be even more objectionable is if LUK doesn’t get a dime from the sale of ISZ, not even reimbursement for the quarter million spent on the consulting attorney hired by the city to get around the FAA regulations. If not, LUK will be lucky to get any future money from the feds, and who would blame the FAA if the city doesn’t invest any of the nearly $40 million payout into LUK?
    You are so right to call out the media for failed reporting. It’s time journalists start asking hard questions, or LUK might be next.

    1. Anon, thanks for your comment! Glad you enjoyed the article.

      "It is also misleading to say that the streetcar is not the problem."

      - I disagree. I stand by what I said and believe I said it right. While the city of Cincinnati wants to use funds from the Blue Ash airport sale for the streetcar, that is irrelevant. It all comes down to the fact that the airport provided little benefit to the city. Blue Ash wanted the land and the city was willing to sell.

      "Given the referendum wording, voting "no" meant no transportation planning, so many light rail supporters reluctantly said yes even though they do not approve of the streetcar. A number of yes voters did not want to rule out LRT or any other major transit initiative. If the authors had made it a referendum about the streetcar only, many more voters would have rejected it the second time."

      - The ballot referendum wording did not come from the city. BOTH ballot initiatives were authored by the coalition who was against the streetcar. Attorney Chris Finney to be exact was the man who authored both. He could've chosen to word them any way he wanted. The "yes/no" confusion can be attributed to him. Also, the SECOND ballot initiative specifically said "STREETCAR' and failed at the polls - the streetcar supporters emerging victorious.

      - It's also worth nothing that the past two Cincinnati city council elections have had majority pro-streetcar representatives elected. The people have spoken multiple times at the ballot box in support of the streetcar issue.

      "Even those generally favorable toward streetcars, could not be more opposed to this streetcar at this time. Ironically this ill-planned, revenue sucking project may derail support for any future mass transit plan. "

      - I disagree, there's a huge swell of support for the project at the grassroots and voter level. And it wouldn't derail future mass transit planning. In fact, had "METRO MOVES" passed ten years ago, a streetcar with an almost identical layout would've been the FIRST piece built in a county-wide mass transit system.

      "But what will be even more objectionable is if LUK doesn’t get a dime from the sale of ISZ"

      - I can't speak with authority on Lunken, as I don't know much about that situation, but I'd have to say that'll come down to what, if any improvements Lunken needs. Not to mention, the land is too small and ill suited for major airlines and expanding from what it already has would probably anger nearby residents.

  6. There remains one last plane abandoned at the top of the airstrip as of 12/1/13

  7. I visited this airport when I was little (early 2000's) I miss the little airport but all that's left know is memories and a city park they should have kept it open but they did not. I know this article will keep its spirit alive thanks for doing this