We were sipping coffee one day as the sun started to go down and the evening light of summer started to pour in. The best kind of light. I nagged Nick: "we should go shoot something, find something to photograph."
"What about the abandoned runway right next to my work?" he said.
For as long as I'd know Nick, I'd never heard about this supposed forgotten runway, the remnant of a former airport. I accosted him for having never mentioned it before. When your friend runs a website that often features abandoned places and history, you'd think knowledge of a closed airport would be something to bring up. I know Nick's brother, Zack, too. He'd also never mentioned it.
I get it now, though. Why would they? It's just a piece of the background to them, part of the scenery where they work and where they grew up. They're employed at Royce Machine, a manufacturing outfit in Lebanon, Ohio just between Cincinnati and Dayton. The shop is owned by their father and boss, Mark, who continues the traditions started there by his grandfather. It's hard to notice the former runway when you pull onto the property. There's the house, their shop, and lots of land. At first, it appears as nothing more than an old parking lot, ripe with weeds. Hidden further in the field though and amongst the foliage is a story of ambition and local aviation history.
|- The former runway.|
What's left of the old airport runway is cracking apart with plenty of room for anything ranging from tiny weeds to full blown shrubs growing through. Looking towards the East you can see the pattern repeat as far as the eye can see, where the runway still runs into the distance even if it's not active. Nick drove us further down the asphalt, avoiding the brush where it's growing too high for a vehicle to pass. Ironically, driving on this asphalt years ago is what eventually would cause its demise.
|- The runway asphalt cracking apart, what ultimately lead to its demise.|
Out in the distance, power lines run off into the horizon and we saw several deer sprinting from the field to the woods, startled by our approaching vehicle.
We got to the end, spent some time making photographs and wandered into the woods a bit.
|- The easternmost edge of the runway.|
Heading back, we found the old trailer that once provided office's for the airport's operations, now nearly fully swallowed by the surrounding trees.
Nearby, the field is mowed and maintained to create a parallel runway, an active one in a sense, although it's made of grass. We headed back to the house and to the shop where Mark was pulling into the driveway, ready to tell the story.
Warren County owns an airport just west of Lebanon, Ohio. This is the airport still in existence today known as Lebanon-Warren County and featuring John Lane Field. From here, a medical helicopter is based and there's plenty of charter and private operations as well as skydiving. It's a full service facility. At one point though, it wasn't the only airfield in the area nor was it the first "Warren County Airport." The first, came from a man affectionately known as "Brownie."
Back in 1951, Clifford "Brownie" Brown and his wife Ruth purchased 150 acres of farmland from Corwin "Skeet" Fred. Those familiar with South Lebanon may remember Skeet as the owner of Fred's Mushroom Plant. Brownie relocated his machine shop business onto his newly acquired property where he also tended to cows on a dairy farm that he had set up. Brownie's son-in-law, Royce Burton, joined the family business in 1965 after serving in the United States Air Force.
Before Brownie Tool Works (and dairy farm) had arrived on the property, Skeet had already established a grass runway that was laid out east-west. With Brownie's blessing, Skeet and a few others were allowed to keep their aircraft on the property and utilize the makeshift airport. Their aviation operation attracted the attention of a man named Charlie Smith along with his grand plan and vision. Smith purchased the runway and some other surrounding property from Brownie In 1959. He carved out more land, paved the runway and lighted it for night operations. He built an office, installed gas pumps and hired a mechanic. With Brownie's machine shop still humming in the background and dairy cows still grazing, Charlie Smith had established a full fledged airport. It became the original Warren County Airport. By 1960, the first skydiving tenant began operations at the airfield.
|- Brownie Lebanon Airport in its heyday. Note the runway's close proximity to nearby Lebanon Rd.|
Smith would eventually sell though, using the proceeds of the airport sale to fund a new project. It became the property of Homer Duff, a name familiar to locals in the former "Duff's Smorgasbord." Duff had little interest in aviation though and began having the state test the runway to see if it could be used as a road. Duff was seeing what has now become reality: the large growth of the suburban region between Cincinnati and Dayton, two cities that now share a combined metropolitan statistical area of 2.1 Million. He was planning for a subdivision and the main road would've been the airport's former runway, which itself starts within a few feet of Lebanon Rd.
|- An Ohio Department of Transportation survey detailing the airport.|
Meanwhile, as Brownie had kept his machining business going nearby, he had also received his pilot's license. He convinced Duff to hold off on the subdivision idea and purchased the airport himself. In 1968, Warren County Airport and its land was once again back in the hands of Brownie. He promptly renamed the facility "Brownie Lebanon Airport," or "Brownie's" depending on which signage you come across. He consolidated his machine shop office with that of the airport, relocated the gas pumps and made other improvements.
The entire property was now under the ownership of Brownie and his Air Force Veteran son-in-law, Royce. Despite having sold off the airport some years prior, former owner Charlie Smith was still keeping his Cessna 150, a trainer aircraft, stored in a hangar. He also had the plane marked for sale. Royce proposed something to his father-in-law: buy the trainer, I'll learn to fly it and we'll make a go at the airport business.
|- From the same ODOT survey mentioned earlier, not the documentation for both an "asphalt" and "turf" runway at the bottom.|
Royce became the backbone of the airport, serving as a pilot and then a flight instructor before eventually reaching the rank of chief flight instructor. He also became a licensed aircraft mechanic and did this all while still managing and manufacturing parts at Brownie Tool Works. He and Brownie would eventually start a charter flight company. One of their frequent clients were those of Deerfield Manufacturing, who also did business with machine shop. Brownie and Royce weren't just filling orders for their clients, they were helping them travel. Their manufacturing and tool business would continue to thrive for years while their charter and airport business did the same, utilizing two runways: one paved, one grass.
In 1970, Cincinnati Skydiver's was formed, the club would begin performing regular jumps. By 1972, another skydiving operation had also begun, but specifically to support the amusement park nearby. Kings Island Amusement Park and its iconic replica Eiffel Tower sit about twelve minutes away by car, even quicker via airplane. For years, part of the park's entertainment was its signature "International Air Show." The show took place in the evenings and would begin with a hot air balloon being inflated then finally lifting off from the park's main midway. Meanwhile, biplanes would perform stunts and recreate dogfights above. The show's finale featured skydiver's who would start on the ground at Brownie's, jump out over the park from a double engine Douglas DC-3 piloted by Royce, and then land on the same midway where the show began. A four person team would perform these jumps on a daily basis, each time having to land in a "boxing ring" sized landing zone. The show was a staple of the park for years until Firestone eventually dropped their sponsorship after the fiasco of the late 70's (the one where they knew a tire was defective and later found it to be responsible for the deaths of 250 people).
Kings Island kept the air show going, albeit scaled back a bit, but didn't return the show after the 1981 season. The show was notable in that it featured famed English skydiver Jackie Smith, one of the sport's first prominent female jumpers. She authored a retrospective piece on the Kings Island Air show here.
"There was literally nowhere else to land in Kings Island apart from the small arena; fortunately, none of us ever had a malfunction or had to deploy our reserve parachute. It was an amazing season of nightly jumps into the park and the crowd went crazy, screaming at the trailing smoke as we performed a four-way formation..." - Jackie Smith
The 80's were tough at Brownie's though. Not only had the KI Air Show ceased, but the Cincinnati Skydiver's club had also called it quits. The machine shop took a hit. Royce eventually left Brownie Tool Works, but would come by in the evenings to perform aircraft maintenance and flight instruction. However, as the Reagan era recession wore on, the rising price of aviation fuel was keeping away once active pilots. The airport had peaked around 83/84 with just over thirty airplanes based in its hangars, but with Royce's mechanic skills only available in the evenings, most of the pilots started to move on. One day when the fuel finally ran out, the decision was made to not buy anymore.
|- Former hangars now repurposed as storage.|
By 1987, the airport was sold off to a Mr. Singh. Approximately 3-5 planes were still using the facility on rare occasions. Singh was more interested in the land though and had purchased the airport as an investment, Warren County was rising in population and housing.
In 1994, things had the potential to start looking up, maybe the airport could return to its glory days. A man named Art Lebron came to set up shop. He brought with him two Cherokee 160's, a tanker truck, and even hired a part time instructor to help with flying lessons. He also offered charter services. By this time, the runway was still serviceable, but needed some love. Art laid wire for new lights to be used in night operations and surfaced the runway himself in an attempt to save money. Not that it had mattered, Art only kept his business around for about a year and a half before moving on. By the time of his departure and the closure of his business, a new subdivision had been built nearby and only two planes were still housed at the airport. Some residents of these new homes happened to be plane owners and would keep their aircraft parked out back, near the runway and opposite of their cars in the driveway. By 1997, a new kind of flight operation began at Brownie. Gentle Breeze Hot Air Balloons would launch their excursions from the airfield for about three seasons before relocating. Today, they're still in business, but launch from the nearby Lebanon-Warren County Airport.
In 2003, as a nearby golf tournament was happening and the airport remained in pseudo-existence, Mr. Singh had offered to allow parking on the airport land. Attendees of the Kroger Senior Classic were able to park their cars alongside the paved runway as shuttle busses picked them up and ran them to and from the golf course. The runway had initially been laid with a about an inch and a half of blacktop, Lebron's renovations in the early 90's added only a slight bit more. That had worked well for light aircraft, but it was no match for the large busses that pounded it all day during the tournament. The busses created large ruts and throughout the day, gravel had to keep being brought in so that the busses could run. By the end of it, the paved runway was unserviceable for aircraft and only the previously neglected grass runway remained.
|- What's left of the runway as seen in a recent satellite view.|
Inside the Machine Shop it's quiet. Everything's done for the day, in its idle position for the weekend. Mark takes his time to answer any questions I have. He tells me the history of the airport, what his machines do. Nick chimes in here and there. Mark recalls stories of his skydiving and all the people that have come through: those that landed and took off just outside of his bedroom window and business.
|- Keepsakes of Brownie Lebanon Airport as well as Mark's skydiving gear on display in his home.|
He runs Royce Machine now, originally established by his father who first began business here with Brownie all those years ago. Now Mark's two sons, my friends, join him on a daily basis. In the front of their office, they keep a tribute to their family and the property's aviation legacy. There's family photos, airplane instruments, and other historical items from their business and flying past. To be quite honest, it's more like a museum than the office a machine shop.
|- The lobby of Royce Machine honoring its aviation and manufacturing past.|
Everything is displayed with care, curated to help tell the story of the airport that is seemingly no more. Driving by, you'd have no idea. Step inside and you can experience the history of a family, a legacy still living today through Mark, Zack, and Nick.
|- Nick and Mark Burton. Zack isn't pictured, but he's a pretty good dude too.|
In the years since the golf tournament incident, a few local residents have kept their aircraft stored at their nearby homes to still utilize the grass runway, but most have relocated to Warren County where there's full repair and fuel services.
|- A nearby resident keeps an aircraft parked behind their home in order to utilize the remaining grass runway.|
As the Lebanon area has developed, new power lines run right by the former airport. Due to restrictions, aircraft can now only land and take off in the same direction. It's one way in, one way out. The only reason anyone can land their at all is because Mark keeps the grass runway adjacent to his machine shop mowed.
|- Mark still maintains a machine shop on the property as well as a grass runway parallel to the former asphalt runway.|
On a nice evening, he can make the ten minute Drive to Warren County Airport, hop in his Cessna 172, and land right next to his back deck. He and his wife can then jump in and head to Greensburg Indiana for dinner and ice cream before flying back.
|- What remains of the asphalt runway butting up to the field.|
When he was a kid in school, he'd get into arguments with young classmates about if the airport actually existed south of town on State Route 48. It definitely did, he lived there and grew up there. On the property and in the skies above. Mark's original flight instructor still flies over on occasion and will remark how hard it can be to spot Brownie's. It's still there though. As a small patch of clean cut grass and in the story of the Burton family. Mark hasn't just preserved his family's tradition in the machine shop, but in the grass runway as well, the one that keeps Brownie Lebanon Airport physically existing in a sense.
Maybe it's not lost after all?