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Shooting the breeze with the flyboys

Charlie Swingle practically grew up at the Medford airport, scraping up funds for flying lessons and eventually acquiring an aviation-related business nearly a half-century ago.

The times were simpler, security threats were virtually nonexistent and opportunities abounded.

"I used to walk out here from my grandmother's when I was 15," Swingle said. "I pulled weeds, cleaned bathrooms and did whatever no one else would do. As soon as I had enough money, I took flying lessons."

Swingle joined a crew of like-minded aviators from the Fly by Night Aero Club Saturday at the Sky King Hangar on the east side of the airport, swapping tales and checking up on one another's latest endeavors.

Whenever he got the chance, Swingle said, he jumped into the cockpit. Mercy Flights founder George Milligan used to let him go along as co-pilot on medical ambulance missions, and he continued flying into the 1970s when he returned to the family farm to tend pear orchards.

Swingle bought Aero-Ag, a crop-dusting firm, in 1966 and sold it in 1972 rather than travel as far as Texas for work.

"It was one of the few times I saw things coming ahead of time," he said. "I saw crop dusting had no future, and it's all shut down here now and is strictly forest work."

Like many crop dusters, Swingle has harrowing stories to tell, including the time he returned to the airfield with a 270-foot length of power line trailing his tail.

"I taxied in, shut down and heard the phone ringing," he recalled.

"Are you OK?" asked the voice on the other end. "They had been following me on their big control board back to the airport, and I was tripping red lights all the way."

Fly By Night's hangar/clubhouse is a legacy of benefactor David King and his widow, Sandra, who shared a love of aviation with its members. The hangar's eclectic contents reflect the group's common interests and diverse abilities. Small-engine and appliance repair are right up their alley, and a Conn electric organ is right at home with stray components from just about any machining operation one might conceive.

Such donations are auctioned or raffled off to provide funds for the club, said Lyle Heigel, who has known many of the 30 or so members for decades.

The 3,600-foot hangar was built in 2008, and annual subscriptions pay the airport rent, insurance and utilities, said Art Lumley, the club's president.

"We call it a hangar full of junk, but there's a lot going on there all the time," Lumley said. "The other day, there were five projects going on at once."

Bud Liberatore's project was among them.

Liberatore has 100 hours into a rebuilt Preceptor Pup experimental airplane and reckons he has another 100 or so to go before he puts it in the air sometime this summer.

Like the surrounding collection of aerial puzzles waiting to take flight, Liberatore's aircraft has a long, sometimes fateful, background. A previous owner bought the plane in Indiana then ran out of fuel while flying home to Tennessee. By the time Liberatore obtained the plane six years ago, it was a collection of boxed parts in Colorado.

He counts himself among those who prefers building planes to flying them, and he plans to sell it when he's done.

"I'm learning a lot in building this one," he said. "It's teaching me about wing structures and how the cables work; they all have to balance like a watch. It will be my butt in the air when I'm testing it, so I'm having a lot of people looking at it. Someone else can see a problem you don't see."

Looking across the runway at hangars and support buildings that didn't exist when he earned his wings, Swingle recalled impromptu air races — held between commercial flights — pitting planes and pilots from local operations where control-tower personnel served as the starters.

"The sad thing is that it's just not as much fun to go to the airport any more," he lamented. "There was always something going on back then."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.