You might call Cindy Jo Proctor a “plane whisperer.” She perches for hours at a time on the observation deck at DeKalb Peachtree Airport (PDK) and sends telepathic signals to incoming and outgoing aircraft.
“First, I Google the serial number on the tail to see who the plane belongs to,” she says. “I listen to the engine and note the speed. Then I’ll think, ‘Keep your nose down,’ or ‘Bring down the choke.’ There are so many things a pilot needs to be aware of.”
Proctor grew up among the clouds. Her father was a pilot who owned a Luscomb and a Cessna 172. “He wore a leather flight jacket, and he would hand-polish the silver aluminum exteriors until they gleamed in the sun,” she recalls. “When I was a child, I sat on his lap while he flew, and he would explain the instruments. I don’t have a pilot’s license, but I know how to fly a plane.”
Her dad died in 2002. “When I’m at PDK, I can look up in the sky and feel his spirit,” she says. “Being up close to a takeoff- is so exhilarating. It’s just a special place to be.”
You don’t have to be a pilot, or a pilot’s daughter, to enjoy spending time at this airport, located squarely in the middle of a residential part of Chamblee. More than just a bustling transportation hub, it is also a hangout and a “scene” rich in history and atmosphere. There’s something for everyone here, from an aviation-themed children’s playground to two restaurants with picture windows looking out on the tarmac.
FLIGHTS OF FANCY
PDK celebrated its centennial last year. It began as a cavalry station in World War I, and then served as a naval air station in World War II. The military handed the site over to civilian control in 1959. Today, it ranks as the second-busiest airport in Georgia.
Sprawled across 745 acres, it comprises three runways, 100 hangars, 409 aviation-based businesses, and seven flight schools. PDK has averaged 230,000 takeoffs and landings annually for more than 30 years, or around 550 per day. It is also home to Angel Flight Soars, a nonprofit that coordinates a network of 1,000 pilots who transport medical patients to out-of-state hospitals.
“PDK really functions as a small city, and I’m the mayor,” says Mario Evans, airport director, noting that its economic impact for metro Atlanta is $211.7 million. “We try to be good neighbors in our community. Local kids play at our park every day, year-round, and thousands of people come to the air shows [Good Neighbor Day Airshow and Warbird Weekend are two popular events] and open-houses we have several times a year, with the Blue Angels and other acrobatic air performers. You can talk with the pilots and check out what 75 vendors are selling. There’s always something interesting going on here every day.”
And you don’t have to stay earthbound. Two businesses (Prestige Helicopters and Helicopter Rides of Atlanta) offer visitors sight-seeing helicopter rides—you can get close to the bas relief sculptures on Stone Mountain. For a more retro experience, check out Biplanes Over Atlanta, which provides views of downtown Atlanta, Stone Mountain, and Lake Lanier in a 1930s-era, open-cockpit biplane designed for two passengers. “For couples, we recommend the ‘romantic sunset tour,’” says owner Steve “Old Boy” Collins. “You can watch the sun slip below the horizon as the lights come on in Atlanta.”
At the Downwind Restaurant & Lounge, located in the administration building, you can eavesdrop on the pilots who are wolfing down their burgers while Piper Cubs circle outside. Family owned and operated for 28 years, this Zagat-rated spot offers kid-friendly meals and great views, not to mention adults-only live music on Friday evenings and team trivia on Wednesdays.
The sentimental heart of PDK, though, is the 57th Fighter Group Restaurant, home to a bastion of museum-worthy World War II memorabilia, including a tattered Nazi flag, in a building designed to look like a 1940s-era French farmhouse. A “Wall of Heroes” invites veterans to leave their autographs. You can borrow a headset to listen to the broadcasts of the PDK Tower, or the speeches of Winston Churchill. And come out on the weekends if you like to dance, especially if you can tango. The restaurant is owned by Pat Epps, an Air Force vet who is considered aviation royalty—his father was the first pilot in Georgia to man a plane with an engine.
“For me, flying is a family tradition,” Epps says. “There’s nothing like the freedom of being in the air in my Bonanza. It’s a feeling we try to celebrate at PDK. I hope that once I’m gone, someone will still maintain the restaurant.”