John Follman buys airport that was created by Felstead family
KNOWLESVILLE – A quaint runway carved out of a farm field will continue to see flying activity after the recent purchase by a former Air Force pilot and soon-to-be-retired captain for Southwest Airlines.
John Follman of Kenyonville has purchased the property known as Knowlesville Airport and owned by the family of Herb Felstead since the end of World War II.
The runway was developed by Herb, who grew up on a farm north of Knowlesville and became fascinated with airplanes the first time he was hoeing in the garden as a child and saw a plane fly over.
Herb soloed in the early 1940s out of the old Medina Airport on Marshall Road, but World War II broke out and civilian flying was not allowed. As soon as the war ended, Herb went back to flying, got his private pilot’s license in 1946 and bought a Piper Cub, according to son Ron Felstead of Medina, who is also a pilot.
“Dad’s hobby became my career field,” said Ron, who learned to fly at Genesee County Airport in Batavia and soloed in 1957.
Although Herb loved flying, he was also a good mechanic and that became his career field. He operated a repair shop on Route 31 at the end of Knowlesville Road, until he retired and sold it to Allan Kropf for a Ziebart Rustproofing shop.
Herb and his wife Irene purchased the small farm on Taylor Hill Road from Charles Curtain with the intention of building a runway, according to Ron. The late Zeke Royal of Culvert Road, who was Ron’s first flight school student, helped Herb build the runway and put up one of the first hangars.
Ron’s brother Gary also became a commercial pilot, flying F106s with the Montana National Guard for 20 years, advancing to squadron commander flying F16s.
Ron’s son Keith became a pilot, soloing on his 16th birthday in December 1984. His dad was his flight instructor.
Ron had received his commercial pilot’s license and began giving flight instruction in 1962 at Cornell University in an ROTC training program with the U.S. Army, Navy and Air Force. He soloed Gary during that time.
After two years, Ron went to work at Page Airways in Rochester doing charter corporate flights and giving flying lessons. He next gave flying lessons at Edison Tech and Occupational Center in Rochester. Between flying at Page Airways and Edison Tech Ron was a flight instructor at Genesee County Airport and an FAA pilot examiner for four years.
After Herb died in 1986, Ron acquired the airport. While he was honored to care for the airport and carry on his father’s tradition, he said it was a lot of work. It was sometimes difficult to keep the runway mowed, a job which he enjoyed, but which required five to six hours, while still holding down his job and teaching flying.
In its peak years of operation, Knowlesville Airport was home to 14 hangars. In the mid 1990s, Governor Pataki used the airport to land in his helicopter when he came to Orleans County to announce funds for the towpath trail in Knowlesville. Ron said he couldn’t believe it when the governor’s office called and asked if they could land there. Ron asked if they realized it was a short, grass field, and was told the governor would be arriving in a helicopter.
Ron wasn’t too optimistic when he decided to put the airport up for sale.
“I didn’t think there’d be many people out there looking to buy an airport,” he said. “But I was thrilled when I heard from John. I couldn’t be happier to have someone carry on what my father started.”
Follman, who has an illustrious career as a pilot, was born in Ithaca in 1955. His family moved to Pine Hill in 1964, when his father, who worked for Farm Bureau, was transferred to Orleans County. John attended fourth grade at Albion Grammar School, then his family moved to Kenyonville in 1965 and he graduated from Lyndonville Central School in 1973
“In high school, someone once said to me that I had to decide what I wanted to do after graduation, or I’d end up flipping hamburgers all my life,” John said.
Perhaps John inherited his love of flying from his father John Sr., who learned to fly from Ron. John Sr. had bought a Stinson with Doug Lockwood and used to take his son John flying over Lake Ontario.
After high school John was accepted at the Air Force Academy Prep School, where the first plane he flew was a T41, the Air Force version of a Cessna 172. He graduated in 1978 and came home to marry his high school sweetheart Yvonne Strickland.
In June 1978, Follman went for pilot training at Williams Air Force Base in Phoenix. He was in the first class of the fiscal year 1980, graduating in October 1979. He stayed there to take pilot instructor training in the spring of 1980. He became an instructor on the Northrup T38 for three years.
By then he and Yvonne had two children and he went to Bergstrom Air Force Base in Austin, Texas, where he flew the RF-4C fighter. Next came three years (1984 – 1987) at Zweibrücken Air Base in Germany, which is now closed. When he came home, they were looking for pilots at Niagara Falls Air Force Base, which was flying F4C and D Phantom jets. He also flew air defense versions of the ADF16, and ended flying KC135s refueling aircraft, including the Stealth.
When Follman retired as a lieutenant colonel from the 107th National Guard Refueling Wing in January 2000, he went to work for the former Northwest Airlines, flying DC9s with them for seven years. In December 2006, he went to work for Southwest, where he will retire, effective September 30.
He learned Knowlesville Airport was for sale when he attended a wedding where he met the grandson of the late Dwight “Buzz” Hill, whose home was next to the Felstead property.
“Jeremy Hill asked me if I knew the airport was for sale,” Follman said. “This was a Saturday and on Sunday I called realtor Jeanne Whipple and told her I was interested. I made an offer and after some negotiating, Ron and I made a deal.”
This is the first time the airport won’t be owned by a Felstead, Follman said.
Follman owns an Ercoupe 415C, which he keeps at Knowlesville Airport, and a Cessna 150, which he keeps at Gaines Valley Airport and will use to give flying lessons.
He plans to use both airports for his flight instruction, doing classroom work at Gaines Valley and utilizing Knowlesville Airport for “engine out” exercises, touch and goes, and pattern entry.
He is thrilled to be able to keep planes flying at Knowlesville Airport.