Owners Vow to Keep Forgotten Airport Open

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio — Chris Tornello climbs into the cabin of his 1966 Cessna 172, presses the ignition and taxis down the runway. When the aircraft reaches the top of the strip, it pirouettes, stops and prepares for takeoff into the wind.

Just before revving the engines, Tornello is heard over the Cessna’s headsets identifying his location – “Lansdowne” – and requesting any information on air traffic in the vicinity.

Lansdowne Airport? For many in the Mahoning Valley, it’s a name that brings back memories of a bygone era of aviation, not one usually associated with an active airport on the east side of Youngstown.

“All clear.” Seconds later, on a sparkling November afternoon, the Cessna streams forward, lifting into the air about halfway down the runway, breathing life back into this piece of Youngstown aviation history.

“I learned to fly here,” Tornello says after a short flight that took Business Journal reporters and photographers circling over the city. “We usually fly out of here every three days or so.”

Tornello, his wife, Roberta, and a handful of other pilots are striving to keep this small airport alive. Its hangars have seen better days, while another building on the grounds sits empty and the foundations of other structures could be seen peeking through the grass.

The site today is owned and maintained by the Lansdowne Airport Association, a partnership that has volunteered time and money to salvage what is left of this important chapter in the golden age of flight.

“It was established in 1928 when they first started to fly airmail from the East Coast westward toward Chicago,” says manager Arthur Tobey, one of the co-owners. “This was one of the last stops originally until they added more airports.”

The airport was dedicated as Lansdowne Field and named for Lt. Cmdr. Zachary Lansdowne, an Ohioan killed a year earlier when the airship he commanded, the USS Shenandoah, crashed in Ava, Ohio. The airfield served as Youngstown’s only city-operated airport until 1940, when it opened the Youngstown Municipal Airport in Vienna, today the Youngstown-Warren Regional Airport.

Throughout this era, the airport welcomed dignitaries from all over the country and served as the site for at least one record-breaking moment in aviation.

On June 4, 1933, Youngstown aviator Mary Ann Campana, then 19 years old, landed her Taylor Cub single-engine plane at the airfield after breaking the world endurance record for a light aircraft – 12 hours and 27 minutes.

Lansdowne is today the lone airport that operates within city limits.

“It’s just a private airport now,” Tobey says. “We have to keep the runway to a point where it’s useable. We want to keep it from deteriorating.”

When he learned to fly here in the 1980s, Tornello relates, the empty T-hangars across the field were filled with airplanes and many more aircraft were tethered outside. “It had flight training, business aircraft and commercial aircraft here, full maintenance and fuel – a full-service airport,” he says. At that time, the airport was leased by Midtown Aviation, which ran the flight school, maintenance shop and other operations at Lansdowne.

The city’s loss of population, as well as the lack of corporate activity that resulted from the region’s industrial retrenchment, affected Midtown’s operations.

Tobey and four others who purchased the airport in the late 1980s envisioned the transformation of the 112 acres into an industrial park. About 10 years ago, Tobey says, there was strong potential for an industrial tenant at the site, but the company chose to expand in North Carolina instead of the East Side.

Since then, two of the airport’s partners have died and the other two have expressed little interest in running its daily operations, Tobey says. “I’ve been a pilot for 50 years,” he says, and has made a career flying corporate planes for companies such as Liberty Steel, Greenwood Chevrolet, the Cafaro Co. and Youngstown Tube Co.

Still, Tobey says, it’s a struggle to keep the airport active and it was deteriorating rapidly. “I tried to get some more people out here, and I’m lucky to have found Chris,” he says. “He’s really helped a lot.”

Tornello and his wife own four aircraft that are based at Lansdowne, while two other pilots store their private planes there. Tornello makes sure the grass is cut and helps with the maintenance of the facility.

The Tornellos own the Cessna 172, two Cessna 150s and a Flight Design CTLS, the latest acquisition. As long as the aircraft are maintained, the planes could fly forever, he says.

“It’s a quiet airport with nice grounds and it’s kind of a labor of love for all of us,” he says. “It was always an aspiration of mine to fly. And when I was able to purchase a plane, I inquired of the association about keeping a plane here and that’s what started it all.”

Roberta Tornello – also a pilot – says all who store their aircraft and fly out of Lansdowne make a contribution to keep the small airport viable, operational and safe.

“We help cut the grass. We do grounds keeping. We did a lot of patching on the apron,” she says. “Just the fact that we’re here and we use it helps to keep it open.”

What made Lansdowne appealing to the Tornellos is that they offer free hangar space in exchange for making the effort to help maintain the entire airport, because the operation generates no revenue. “We don’t like airlines,” she says. “And, we were one of the fortunate people to get our own airplane and we fly in and out of here all the time and take trips all over the United States.”

Just a day earlier, the couple flew in from Florida and Roberta emphasizes that as long as there is interest, Lansdowne will be an active airport.

“We’re in it for the long haul,” she says. “It will continue as long as we have interest and can continue to pay for it and take care of it. I hope it’s here for another 100 years.”

Pictured: Chris and Roberta Tornello help maintain the grounds and runway at Lansdowne Airport, working with airport manager Arthur Tobey, right. 

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.