EAST HARWICH — Not many kids become a pilot at 16 years of age, and even fewer of them built an airfield in their backyard. But Charles P.H. “Chief” Bascom attained both those accomplishments.
Few people remember the East Harwich Airdrome which operated in a limited fashion for close to 50 years, with planes taking off from the dirt runway over Orleans Road (Route 39) or Church Street, depending upon wind directions.
Those familiar with the old airfield knew it by one of several names: Cashen's Airfield, Bascom Field or East Harwich Airport, according to Paul Freeman's “Abandoned and Little Known Airfields: Southeastern Massachusetts.” But Bascom called it the East Harwich Airdrome, although it was technically his backyard.
When Bascom was eight or 10 years old, his mother, Catherine Bascom, and his aunt Jenny Mahoney, took him for his first ride in an aircraft at Chatham Airport, where a 10-minute ride could be purchased for $3. It was a memorable experience for him and he became a pilot at age 16. When asked why, he responded: “I believe every young person that looked up at a small aircraft in a blue sky has the desire to do that.” He would later say the “learning to fly was easier than driving a car.”
Bascom connected with another young pilot from East Harwich, Ralph “Gump” Cashen, Jr. from Pleasant Bay Road, who bought his first airplane when he was 14. Cashen was several years older and served in the Navy in World War II, said Debe Bascom Schiavi, Chief's daughter.
Schiavi spent time with The Chronicle recollecting the history of the airfield and the two pilots who flew from there. When she turned 50 years of age, she asked her father to put together a journal on a number of experiences throughout his life, including his recollections of being a pilot and the creation and use of the airfield. Bascom passed away in 2016.
Schiavi said Cashen was an accomplished pilot. Together he and Bascom purchased an Aeronca Champ for $600 from someone at Chatham Airport. With the purchase came the need to house it and they began clearing the land behind the Bascom home between Church Street and Orleans Road.
She said they cut down trees and every kid in the neighborhood came to help. They had a Model A Ford tractor built from a 1929 Ford front-end and a Ford truck rear-end. The tractor had tremendous torque and was used to pull stumps out of the ground. The work on the runway was done around 1946.
“The field was partially ready when Ralph flew from it for the first time,” Schiavi said, skipping through her father's journal.
When the runway was completed it had a landing strip 1,800 feet long and 180 feet wide along the edge of the Priscilla Pine's development. There was also a lean-to, an open-ended structure to house the aircraft. Bascom also had a PT-13, a Boeing training plane built between 1936 and 1944.
The East Harwich Airdrome was a challenge. Bascom said it was similar to landing on an aircraft carrier. There was no room for error. The runway was banked up at the end at Orleans Road to assure lift. But errors did happen. Schiavi recalled an incident in the 1960s when Cashen got a plane caught in the wires along Church Street and it dangled, nose just off the ground. Town Clerk Anita Doucette, who grew up in the neighborhood, said she remembers her mother also telling that story.
“It was used for fun,” Schiavi said of the airfield, “They didn't have a business where they gave people rides. But Ralph was a good sport and would take the neighborhood kids for a ride.”
The pilots did a lot of beach flying and would land on Monomoy Island, which was not a federally-protected wildlife reserve back then. There is a reference in Bascom's journal of taking his friend George Small for a ride, and when Small needed to get to Harwich Port, Chief landed the plane on the Harwich Port Golf Course, let him out and took off.
Debe Schiavi said as a kid she didn't recall going up in a plane from there. It was her backyard and she remembers running and hiding in the bushes, picking flowers and a playground set there. “It was great to have that big backyard. How many people can say they had an air strip in their backyard?”
In 1951 Charles Bascom joined the Air Force and ironically that pretty much ended his years as a pilot. He did not serve as a pilot in the military, though after being home on leave, he flew the Aeronca Champ to Sampson Air Force Base in Geneva, N.Y. and had some trouble with the plane, which never made it back to the East Harwich Airdrome.
While Bascom was in the military, Schiavi said Ralph Cashen went to Earle Bascom, Charles Bascom's father, who owned the property, and asked if he could lease the airfield. An agreement was struck and Cashen took over the air strip. He built a hanger to house two planes and flew out of the field for many years.
Earle Bascom also owned the 12-by-eight-foot Gulf gas station across Orleans Road from the end of the runway. In 1939 the station had no electricity and the pumps were manually operated. A gallon of gas cost 17 cents. It cost $2 to fill a Model A.
Schiavi said her father's first recollection of the gas station was going there as a boy on Dec. 7, 1941 to tell his father about the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. At the time, Bascom's journal states that he knew where Wychmere Harbor was, but not Pearl Harbor.
A decade later, Bascom would joint the Air Force and proudly serve his country for 41 years. During the Korean War he was stationed at Brady Air Base in Kyusho, Japan.
“My father was a real patriot,” Schiavi said. His love of country had a strong impact on his children. Several of them also served in the Air Force. His son David served 39 years; daughters Diane 33 years, Debe 23 years and Dawn six years, and there is a grandson now serving. Debe's husband, Retired Brigadier General Anthony Schiavi, served for 30 years. All tolled, the family members gave more than 200 years in military service to this country.
“Ralph Cashen spent a lifetime in the air,” Schiavi said. “He was very personable and easy to like.”
In 1996, she said Cashen was unable to renew his license due to medical issues. “Abandoned and Little Known Airfields, Southeastern Massachusetts” quotes a resident of the area saying the field was still being used by ultralight pilots in the mid-1990s.
“I recall driving by and seeing a bunch of rescue workers responding to an ultralight crash that attempted a landing/takeoff from there,” the resident stated.
There was also a reference by John Nichols, who recalled: “There was a private airport in East Harwich in the 1950s. I worked at Chatham Airport (in the) summer of 1956, and a guy who lived in East Harwich used to fly over from there to get fuel.”
Back in those days it was not unusual to see planes taking off from small grass runways on the Cape. There was Skymeadow Airport in Orleans, which was cut into the grounds near the Captain Linnell House and ran down toward Cape Cod Bay. Skymeadow was owned by a private group of pilots and operated by Frank Joy, Will Ketchen and Hunter Craig during its period of operation.
In “Abandoned and Little Known Airfields,” author Freeman reported: “Bill Quinn (a longtime Orleans photographer) recalled flying out of Skymeadow Airport to take the first images of the MS Stockholm and passenger liner SS Andrea Doria in 1956.”
There was also the Brigg's Field/Eastham Airport/Nauset Airport located just to the west of Route 6 in North Eastham around this time, Freeman notes in his book.