Michael Quallen and his son Jacob, 1, goof around as they watch for planes at Pittsfield Airport.
Michael Quallen and his son Jacob, 1, goof around as they watch for planes at Pittsfield Airport. (Stephanie Zollshan / Berkshire Eagle Staff)

Few things make a little boy's heart soar like a plane.

"They're awesome!" said 4-year-old Owen Tanner, his face lighting up as he recounted a recent visit to see WWII planes at the Pittsfield Municipal Airport.

On any given weekend afternoon, Owen and his brothers can be found at the airport with their parents, Amy and D.J., and grandparents, Betty and Dave Filkins. Ten-month-old Adam hasn't quite earned his plane-peeper wings yet, but Owen and his 7-year-old brother Donald Tanner IV, aka "Tanner," definitely have.

Tanner has been coming to the airport since he was 3, when his grandfather would take Fridays off and pick him up from pre-school to have lunch at the airport and watch the planes. Dave Filkins grew up on Barker Road not far from the airport, and used to watch the planes himself when he was Tanner's age.

It's become something of a family tradition ever since.

Airports are where we go to travel to faraway places -- often a means to an end, not an end in themselves. And yet, for some Berkshire County residents, they are the go-to destination for free family fun.

On a sunny Saturday or Sunday afternoon, and during the week, too, you'll find plane peepers young and old at each of the county's three public airports -- Pittsfield Municipal Airport, Great Barrington Walter J. Koladza Airport and North Adams Harriman and West Airport -- each with its own unique plane-watching scene that, in many ways, reflects the special character of the cities themselves.

Located on Tamarack Road, Pittsfield's Municipal Airport -- which recently completed a multi-million dollar runway expansion -- boasts the greatest diversity of aircraft. It's the only one of the three local aiports that can accommodate larger corporate jets like the Gulfstream and Global Express, in addition to the single engine Cessnas and other propeller planes.

The onlookers are a diverse group as well.

A lot of grandparents and grandchildren, and parents with kids too, come to watch the planes land and take off, according to Lynn Goodman-Leary, a receptionist at Pittsfield's airport.

"I'd say it's about 70-30 grandparents to parents," she said of the spectator ratio. "We also occasionally get busloads of kids from local schools and daycare centers, and there's a group of special needs children who come fairly often."

On an average weekday, Goodman-Leary might see only a few people sitting on the concrete stanchions in the parking lot behind the fence opposite the runway, or at the picnic table in the picnic area the city maintains on a small hill overlooking the runway and surrounding mountains. On weekends, depending on the weather, that number can swell to a few dozen, she said, and it's not just people with kids.

Christine Lyon Carlson, one of the owners of Lyon Aviation, the company that runs the airport, said a good number of retired veterans come to the airport and often will stop at the office to talk about the planes they flew on.

"There's a real sense of relaxation with a retired person," she said of the older plane peepers as they watch the planes and the view, which she calls "one of the best in the city."

The kids, on the other hand, who come to watch the planes take off and land are anything but relaxed.

Owen jumps up and down excitedly every time a plane turns its engine on. Tanner seems more interested in how they work on the inside, like his grandpa. Fortunately, there are often generous pilots around to oblige both types.

Amy said she and her husband bring the boys two to three times a month in the summer, and her parents also take them once a month or more.

"Anything you can do with your grandchildren is a great feeling," said Betty Filkins. She cites the lack of commotion and getting her grandchildren outside and away from the TV as two of the main draws of the spectator sport.

D.J. said he likes that it doesn't cost anything, and echoes his mother-in-law, "It's nice to be able to shut off the TVs and sit and talk. It's a lot more relaxing than going to a bouncy house."

Noah Meyerowitz, a 14-year-old Great Barrington resident, is perfectly poised between wide-eyed child and wise, old pilot. He's a student pilot himself, who comes from a family of pilots. His father, Steve, and brother, Ari, are both pilots, and the family owns a Cessna Cardinal, which they keep at the Great Barrington Airport at Berkshire Aviation Enterprises.

Meyerowitz calls the Great Barrington Airport "one of the most exciting places for families and children to go in the Berkshires." He said families come to the airport all the time, picnicking on the grass for hours, watching the planes go up and down.

Richard Solan, one of the airport owners, estimates they get about 10 visitors a day during the week and 20 a day on weekends between the two picnic tables and 15 to 20 chairs the airport keeps out in the picnic area, which, unlike Pittsfield's, isn't fenced off from the runways. He said there are others who prefer to watch from their cars.

According to Meyerowitz, the pilots love the onlookers.

"We think of them as the next generation of pilots, and want to embrace their amazing joy in aviation," he said. "Many times I've brought children as well as adults up close to our airplane. I even open the plane, and let them sit in it."

Lyon-Carlson from the Pittsfield airport agrees.

"Their faces just light up when they get in the plane and pretend to fly," she said.

Solan sometimes goes even further than that. If it's not busy, occasionally he'll stroll over to the picnic area, and take kids up for a ride.

Solan estimates Great Barrington's airport gets a couple hundred operations -- takeoffs and landings -- every weekend in good weather, and about 1,500 a week overall due to the high volume of flying lessons given.

Solan adds that, in addition to all the plane take-offs and landings, military helicopters land at the airport pretty much every night because the lack of light pollution at the relatively remote 70 Egremont Plain Road location gives the pilots perfect conditions to practice with their night vision goggles.

Attempts to reach a North Adams airport representative were not returned in time for publication.

Many of the same advantages of local airport luxury travel apply to plane peeping -- no crowds, body scans, lost baggage or passports required -- and unlike flying, peeping is totally free and "awesome."

Just ask Owen.