Aviation has long played an important role in the growth and development of eastern Baltimore County.
Logan Field in Dundalk provided commercial service prior to Friendship International (now BWI Marshall) and military service during the War. literally put Middle River on the map when the aircraft manufacturing company relocated here in the 1920’s.
During World War II, the Martin Company was the largest employer in the area and as a result created a population and housing boom the likes of which may never be seen again.
These large airports were not the only ones in the picture, however. Many smaller municipal airports began to appear as aviation became a faster and in many cases less expensive mode of travel.
One of these small airports (which played an equally important role in our history) is still in operation just off Back River Neck Road in Essex. Today it is known as Essex Skypark, but it had a completely different name, appearance, and outlook back when it was begun almost 70 years ago.
Essex Skypark began life back in 1943. It was originally called Diffendahl Airport after the owner William Diffendahl. An early “Washington Sectional Chart” for aviators shows Diffendahl as having a 2,500 foot unpaved runway.
A 1947 Maryland Airport Directory listed the airport as having two intersecting grass runways. The north to south strip being 2,200 feet in length, and the east to west strip being 1,800 feet in length. Buildings on the airport (which was owned and operated by Isabelle Diffendahl) included an administration building, a 44-foot by 60-foot hangar as well as eight t-hangars.
The early years were very good to the airport. At one time, it is reported that more than 200 pilots called the field their homeport. These pilots included crop dusters, air traffic reporters, traveling salesmen, daredevils and more.
After completing their flights, pilots would make their way to the administration building where they could relax by the fireplace and enjoy their favorite beverage while telling stories of their exploits.
Sometime around 1949 the land was purchased by J. S. Shapiro and renamed Eastern Airport. The airport continued to flourish and prosper throughout the 1950’s and 1960’s. The addition of a seaplane base with adjacent water runways on Back River was a part of this growth.
By 1964, the longer of the two turf runways was paved and taxiways added. Also that year, well-known local aviator John Hinson opened a Cessna dealership at the site,
One negative item that might have evolved on the site in the early 1960’s was a proposal to use the land for port-related industry.
Somewhere in my files, I have old newspaper clippings from The Baltimore Sun showing this development that included a dam at the mouth of Back River to prevent contaminants from entering the Bay. Great community opposition arose to this development and the plans were eventually scraped.
In 1967 the airport was renamed Essex Skypark. Many factors led to a decline in growth and revenues in the following years. By the 1970’s however, things began to turn around as the team of Earl and Lois Wilson assumed management.
The Wilsons are credited with breathing new life into the business and making it profitable again. An increased number of private planes were stored there and the addition of a flight school meant that the average citizen could obtain a pilot’s license.
One of the more memorable characters to come out of the Skypark from this era was a man by the name of Charles “Buddy” Gnau Sr. Sometimes known as “the Red Baron," Gnau flew a vintage red and white Stearman Biplane.
Always visible were his leather jacket and leather helmet complete with the old-fashioned goggles and red scarf flowing in the breeze. I had the honor of being a passenger on one of his flights sometime around 1971. After several loops and barrel rolls, I had had enough and was ready to land.
Buddy seemed to enjoy watching the blood drain from his passengers' faces and the expressions of illness they made. Buddy also made the evening news broadcasts on several occasions.
Once for flying his biplane underneath the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and once for “accidentally” dropping a banner on the White House Lawn the read “Kill the Commies in North Vietnam.”
The Skypark itself also made the news one day when a small aircraft based at the airport and rented to a pilot, not long after takeoff crashed into Memorial Stadium at the end of a 1976 NFL playoff game between the Colts and the Pittsburgh Steelers.
In 2000, the Shapiro family sold the Skypark and adjourning 588-acre site to Baltimore County using money from the Maryland’s Rural Legacy Program. Many different uses have been discussed for the site's future. They have included a rehabilitation area for the Chesapeake Wildlife Sanctuary and environmental research facilities for Johns Hopkins University and the University of Maryland.
As of today, the airfield area is leased to an organization entitled the Essex Skypark Association. They maintain the facility as well as operating flight instruction and a ground a ground school.
A branch of the Civil Air Patrol and a model airplane club also use the facility. In 2006, Baltimore County accepted a grant from the Maryland Aviation Administration to repave the runway, taxiways, and apron along with a 15-year commitment to keep the airport.
The Association sponsors many “Family Fun Day” activities throughout the year that are open to the public.