Kennewick's Vista Field closes Tuesday: Pilot prepares for new home

By Geoff Folsom, Tri-City HeraldDecember 30, 2013 

Burt Goranson's 1952 Cessna has been mothballed in a hangar at Vista Field Airport in Kennewick for 15 years.

But he has spent the past three weeks fiddling with the plane so he can fly it to its new home in Prosser before Vista Field closes for good at 5 p.m. Tuesday.

"I guess the pressure to get it off the field has caused me to do something," he said.

Port of Kennewick commissioners voted in April to close Vista Field, with intentions of using it for development.

The closure could open up 75 acres for the potential construction of more than 1 million square feet of retail, commercial, office and industrial buildings, according to a recent report. There also could be 1,400 condos or apartments on top of mixed-use buildings.

Goranson tinkered with the plane all day Saturday, despite freezing fog that made it impossible to see across the 112-acre airport's runway.

He and his wife bought the Cessna 170 in 1976 for their skydiving business in Iowa, and moved it with them to the Tri-Cities in 1978.

Goranson hasn't flown the plane recently because he was busy battling pancreatic cancer. He also was leading a Boy Scout troop in Pasco.

Goranson, 64, a nine-year cancer survivor, has upgraded the plane's dashboard, bringing it back to its clean 1950s look after previous owners tricked it up, and has replaced the windshield.

"It's taken me a while to find all the parts that I needed," he said.

He is confident the plane will be safe.

"Old airplanes are like old cars," he said. "They might not have all the push buttons and modern electronics, but the basic engineering behind an airplane hasn't changed all that much."

Only Goranson and one other pilot still have their planes in the long hangar on the east side of the airport, which has turned into an aviation ghost town.

"Once you lose them, you don't get 'em back again," Goranson said of airports. "I think there's still a need for general aviation. I think in 20 years, there will be innovations to make an airport like this more valuable to the community."

Remembering Vista Field

Goranson was too busy fixing his plane to attend a sendoff for Vista Field at Cadwell Laboratories, just over the chain-link fence from the airport. But about 70 pilots, aviation lovers and their families did turn out Saturday.

Organizers were pleased with the turnout, despite weather that kept some pilots from flying in from Western Washington.

"It has meant so much to so many people, and the loss -- it's hard on the community," said Marjy Leggett of Pasco, an airport supporter who tried to keep the airport open. "We couldn't let the airport close with nothing but a whimper."

Leggett put together a PowerPoint presentation for the event, showcasing the airport's history since Floyd Kelso brought the first plane to Kennewick in 1920.

The children of Clifford and Nimmo Rasch, who managed Vista Field as a fixed base operator from 1953-64, attended the event.

Ben Rasch, 61, and his sisters Clifton Rasch Door, 74, and Gretchen Rasch Carrel, 72, worked at the airport after school and on weekends.

The siblings say that when they arrived, the airport was little more than "sagebrush, rattlesnakes and jackrabbits." But the Rasches put in new buildings, including five interlocking T-hangars.

They met a number of men who worked at Hanford and flew in and out of the airport on their days off.

"They came and visited us in the evening and had dinner with us," Door said. "There were at least 10 of them, and some of them were friends until they died."

The airport was its own way of life, said Carrel, a former pilot.

"We lived it and we loved it," she said. "We didn't chase boys, and we didn't do most of the things girls do."

"We acted like adults from the time we were 8 years old, or else we wouldn't be allowed at the airport," Door added.

The fog forced John Townsley to drive from Spokane for the get-together instead of flying. But he didn't want to miss saying goodbye to a facility that had advantages over the other airfields in the Tri-Cities.

"It's convenient because it's close to town," he said. "It has excellent approaches, so it's a very safe airport to use. ... It really has an awful lot of opportunity to be used and provides a lot of immediate benefit to the area."

Looking ahead

Kathy White, a member of Kennewick's Historic Preservation Commission, hopes that whatever future development occurs at Vista Field, it can include a marker about the area's aviation history. She said she would like to see a green space with a plaque about the airport.

"These stories should be somewhere, maybe the Benton County (Historical) Museum," she said. "There is a rich history."

Attempts to redevelop old airports don't always go well, Goranson said. He points to an airport in Issaquah that was replaced with a shopping center.

"That shopping center is pretty ugly compared to the airport," he said.

But Door said the closure is part of the city's inevitable expansion.

"I've watched (the city) grow for the last 60 years, and I know nothing ever stays the same," she said.

Goranson does see one blessing in the airport's closure -- bringing him back to flying.

"I put all this effort into it, I might have to keep flying," he said.

But if he can't get his plane ready by the end of today, he will have to take its wings off and have it towed to Prosser.

-- Geoff Folsom: 509-582-1543; gfolsom@tricityherald.com; Twitter: @GeoffFolsom

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