By Jane Keller Gordon, Assistant Editor
Stow – The course of Rob Albright’s life changed when he met Rick Kemp, his ex-girlfriend’s husband. During the summer of 1974, the Colorado-based Kemps arrived at Albright’s log cabin in Stow, having driven their Volvo station wagon cross country with was a long tube on its roof. Albright remembers saying, “’What’s that?’ Rick said, ‘It’s a hang-glider. You open it up, run, jump off a hill, and fly to the bottom.’ I was in.”
Forty-five years later, Albright, who is now almost 80, and his wife Annette, own the Crow Island Airpark in Stow. He is a well-known pioneer of ultralights.
Albright shared with Fifty Plus, “The day after I met Rick, we took the hang-glider to Nashoba Ski Area. Once I flew off that mountain, I said to myself, ‘Holy mackerel, I have to have one of these.’”
That same year, Albright attended “Get High,” a hang-gliding school in Aspen, Colo. He was a quick study and his athleticism helped — at the time Albright was a gym teacher and coach at Winchester High School.
“The first time I soloed was off Independence Pass, which is 14,000 feet high. That was the day when Richard Nixon resigned,” said Albright.
He was hooked. When Albright returned to Massachusetts, he opened “Get High East” at Nashoba and became a hang-glider dealer. In the summer, he would glide from the mountains and when the winds blew east, from the dunes on Cape Cod. He ended his ten-year gig at Winchester High.
Technology was about to change.
“It was like a cell phone, every month or two there was some improvement… When someone mounted a motor on a hang glider, that was the beginning of ultralights,” explained Albright.
He was quick to buy an Icarus, a high-winged ultralight.
“In September 1976, I took off in the Icarus from a sheep farm in Stow in one of the very first flights of an ultralight. A month later, I took off from there again, got up under a cloud, turned off the motor, and soared for a couple of hours — at 11,000 feet — above Maynard. I was in a big thermal that was filled with bumble bees and oak leaves,” he recalled.
Next up was an ultralight called an Easy Riser, and then a Vector.
Back then, Albright was teaching people how to fly ultralights at Stow’s Minute Man Airport.
“It was really tough. How do you teach someone when there is only one seat? We didn’t have radios. We used hand signals,” he said.
The solution came in 1982 with the advent of the Quicksilver, a two-seater ultralight. But there was a problem.
“At Minute Man, airplanes were going 100 mph and we were buzzing around at 35 mph. That was a bad mix,” said Albright.
That’s when he found Crow Island, tucked into a bend of the Assabet River in Stow.
“It was owned by George Morey, who was a gravel barren,” he said.
Starting in 1978, Morey allowed Albright and his crew to fly at Crow Island.
By 1983, after much negotiating with Morey and the town of Stow, Albright and Annette purchased Crow Island for $100,000. They paid the town another $150,000 for permission to remove the gravel.
“It was basically a sand pit with bushes. Kane Perkins removed about 100,000 yards of gravel, creating a 2,350 feet runway and a pond now used for float planes and swimming. We broke even on the purchase,” said Albright.
In 1983, he built some hangers and has added more over time. He rents space to about 30 planes, split between ultralights and antique taildraggers.
Albright commented, “Taildraggers kind of want to spin around when they land, you have to work hard to keep them straight. Landing here on a summer evening — I don’t have the proper words to describe how cool it is.”
Respecting neighbors, planes only take off and land at Crow Island, he noted.
“We don’t do any training here. We take off and fly to Minute Man, Fitchburg, or Sterling airports for practice,” he said.
For the 30th time, on August 7 through 9, Albright will host a fly-in.
“There will be a great gathering … (and) my band, Final Approach, will provide entertainment,” he said.
As for the future, Albright’s daughter and her husband will own the airport, which will be managed by a group that saves old airports.
Albright shared, “I want Crow Island to be an airport until bicycles can fly. Who knows — that could happen! … I want this to be a green place always, this special part of aviation, not the other part that’s everywhere.”
Photos/Jane Keller Gordon