A Quiet Place: Flying to New York’s Fishers Island

FLYING Magazine October 17, 2022
By Jonathan Welsh

Residents are protective of their 5 square miles in Long Island Sound

For flights to Elizabeth Field’s short runways, you will want an aircraft with decent short-field performance, like our Cessna 172 or the 180 sharing the ramp with us. Photo Credit: Jonathan Welsh

While I long ago gave up phone books and faxes, and more recently let print newspapers and catalogs go, I plan to hang on to my sectional chart subscription for the foreseeable future.

I love the tactile interaction and familiarity that a chart brings to the cockpit. There is also a nice dose of nostalgia that comes with the sectional, protractor, kneeboard, and other analog gear I purchased when I started taking flying lessons. But what I love most about the chart is its spread-across-the-kitchen-table format, which makes it easy to pick new airports to visit.

At this point, I have been to most of the “big” airports within a reasonable radius, meaning those that have fuel on the field. Lately, I have focused on remote, often unlikely spots that, for some usually interesting reason, have runways. That is how my wife and I wound up landing at Elizabeth Field (0B8) on Fishers Island last weekend.

Fishers Island covers about 5 square miles in Long Island Sound, just off the Connecticut coast, but is part of New York. We flew east from Sussex, New Jersey (KFWN), and had no trouble spotting Fishers near the east end of the Sound.

The island’s rich history dates to the 1600s and involves members of the Winthrop family of Massachusetts Bay Colony fame. The Winthrops owned the island for generations, mostly raising sheep and cattle there before selling the property during the 1800s. Keeping the story short, one could say the island’s residents have fought for hundreds of years to keep the place from changing very much.

More recently, their main goal has been to discourage the kind of seasonal tourism that some would say has made nearby vacation destinations, like the Hamptons, Martha’s Vineyard and Block Island, impossibly crowded. They have succeeded. The island has no hotels, one grocery store, one bar, and a couple of cafes but none of the trappings associated with “the summer crowd.”

I wondered how such a place wound up with an airport, which seems more inviting to outsiders than the long ferry ride from Connecticut. We have the U.S. Army to thank for that. Early in the 20th century, the federal government bought land on the island’s west end to build Fort H.G. Wright, an artillery complex for shore defense. By World War II, the Army was operating blimps from an airfield that eventually got two crossing paved runways.

After the war, the government decommissioned the base and sold its land at auction, which is why families now occupy what clearly used to be officers’ homes along the main road. Today, private pilots and air taxi services use the airport, but you will not find the ramp packed with jets because the runways, at 2,345-feet- and 1,806-feet-long, keep them out.

With a steady 10-knot headwind, the 172 needed only about a third of Runway 30—the longer one—and easily made the turn to back-taxi on Runway 25 to the ramp. For much of our stay, the island seemed deserted. We encountered perhaps a half-dozen people and heard a lawn mower in the distance but never saw it. Everything was closed, either for the season or  because it was Sunday, so we sat on the beach and enjoyed the beautiful scenery over coffee and glazed chocolate doughnuts that we brought from home. The experience really could not have been any better.

We debriefed during the flight home, chatting about what life might be like on the island while my wife looked up homes for sale, reading the descriptions and prices aloud. We could certainly see the appeal, though Fishers probably is a bit too quiet for us. Scrolling through screens, my wife also reminded me that pilotage—a point of pride for me—is only as good as the pilot.

“Can you see that airliner coming out of Sikorsky (Bridgeport, KBDR)?,” I asked.

“You mean Tweed (New Haven, KHVN)?” she replied.

Sure enough, I had completely overestimated our rate of progress and misread the coastline. We clearly were over New Haven, not Bridgeport. If her Google Maps can make me look this bad, maybe I should finally subscribe to ForeFlight.

Jonathan Welsh is a private pilot who worked as a reporter, editor and columnist with the Wall Street Journal for 21 years, mostly covering the auto industry. His passion for aviation began in childhood with balsa-wood gliders his aunt would buy for him at the corner store.

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