SHERIDAN – A man who dedicated his life to the Chautauqua County/Dunkirk Airport will forever be attributed to the workplace he loved so dearly.
County Executive Vince Horrigan attended the Dunkirk Rotary Club’s 51st Fly-In Breakfast fundraiser Sunday morning at the airport in the town of Sheridan to unveil a memorial plaque for the late John J. Nalbone Sr. Along with the plaque, the airport was recently renamed by the county Legislature as the John J. Nalbone Sr. Field to recognize the Jamestown native’s lifelong commitment to the airport, which he had a major hand shaping into what it is today.
“It’s a special honor for me to talk about a pioneer in aviation as we dedicate the field in honor of John,” Horrigan told the audience. “As a young kid, he had a desire to fly, an early love for aviation. After completion of duty with the U.S. Air Corps in 1945 … he returned to Chautauqua County to start a career in general aviation.”
Nalbone secured a job at the Dunkirk Airport to supervise the acquisition and construction of a hangar now known as Hangar Three. In 1946, flying operations halted and Nalbone seized an opportunity to own his own flight school at the former Werle Airfield nearby. The business grew as Nalbone took on aircraft and engine overhaul, in addition to being a flight instructor.
“In the 1950s, the city of Dunkirk appointed John custodian of the Dunkirk Airport,” Horrigan continued. “While there, his duties included helping transient aircraft that required services and repairs. In 1960, due to increased interest in corporations flying into Dunkirk, the city entered into a joint agreement for him to move his operation from Werle to the municipal airport. Thus started Dunkirk Aviation, which John managed until 1985, when the county assumed control. He became a fixed-base operator then and earned grants for the airport during his tenure.”
Before Nalbone took over the airport, operations had ceased to exist and vegetation covered the unkept runways. That all changed once Nalbone was in charge; he took it upon himself to expand runways and build even more hangars.
Nalbone continued his involvement with the airport until his retirement in 1991. Even then, he continued to fly until 2008, passing away at age 93 in 2011 after a fulfilling lifetime doing what he loved.
“This airport is a thriving location and something I consider a critical infrastructure piece for Chautauqua County,” Horrigan concluded.
Nalbone hosted the first-ever Fly-In event in 1963 as a way to increase community involvement and awareness regarding the airport and the importance of aviation, according to a 2008 OBSERVER article. Dunkirk Rotary took over the event in 1973, donating all of the funds raised to youth activities.
John Nalbone Jr. reminisced about time spent with his father, in which they heard about the Kennedy assassination over a radio in one of the hangars, as well as the first landing on the moon, both while working on planes together.
“We initially had an abandoned airport with weeds 6 feet high and the runways at that time were about 200 feet wide,” he said. “It was built for World War II activity and bombers were anticipated to use the place, but they never had to. We enjoyed the life here, even though it was slow growth and a lot of saving and hard work that we did ourselves.”
As the only daughter, Linda Nalbone-Liedke spoke to why the dedication to her father meant so much to his family.
“It was a wonderful way to grow up for all of us, having life centered around the airport,” she said. “It was definitely a mom-and-pop operation here, with my mom (Susan) applying for all the grants and my dad’s hard work. They built the place up.”
In addition to the dedication ceremony, upwards of 1,000 people grabbed some fresh-made pancakes, eggs and sausages and toured various light aircraft and vendors as part of the Fly-In event, which lasted throughout the morning. Rides in the airplanes were not given due to stormy weather.
The dreary sky did not seem to damper spirits during the event, however.
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