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Green Mountain Airport operator donates late husband’s 1947 Seabee to Hood River, Ore., museum

Sally Runyan: 'I wanted to give something to the community and leave a little bit of Ben'

By , Columbian Features Editor
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5 Photos
Jay Bell, left, aircraft-restoration specialist for the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum, works on a 1947 Republic RC-3 Seabee as Sally Runyan hops out of the aircraft with her dog, Luke, at Green Mountain Airport on Oct. 11. Runyan donated the aircraft to the museum in Hood River, Ore. She has gradually been letting go of planes restored by her late husband, Ben Runyan, who died in a 2008 plane crash.
Jay Bell, left, aircraft-restoration specialist for the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum, works on a 1947 Republic RC-3 Seabee as Sally Runyan hops out of the aircraft with her dog, Luke, at Green Mountain Airport on Oct. 11. Runyan donated the aircraft to the museum in Hood River, Ore. She has gradually been letting go of planes restored by her late husband, Ben Runyan, who died in a 2008 plane crash. (Photos by Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Sally Runyan’s husband, Ben, died 14 years ago doing what he loved best — flying a small plane that he had restored. She never remarried. A pilot herself, the 62-year-old still lives in the same house northwest of Camas. The property includes Green Mountain Airport, which she now runs on her own.

Ben Runyan had seven planes, and Sally has gradually let go of three of them over the years. Last week, she watched a fourth, his 1947 Republic RC-3 Seabee, fly to the Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum in Hood River, Ore. She knew the museum lacked a boat plane and decided to donate the Seabee.

“I wasn’t interested in selling it,” she said. “I wanted to give something to the community and leave a little bit of Ben.”

Sally Runyan declined to share the value of the donation. It’s difficult to put a price on a Seabee because Republic Aviation manufactured only about 1,000. Controller, a website for aircraft sales, lists a 1946 Seabee at $149,000.

Republic made its name producing World War II military planes, including the P-47 Thunderbolt fighter. After the war, the industry expected that aviators leaving the military would want to use their flying skills for fun. Republic began manufacturing the RC-3 Seabee in 1946.

Republic RC-3 SeaBee

  • Four-seat, single-engine, all-metal amphibian airplane with pusher prop
  • “One of the most unusual airplanes to appear on the post-World War II general aviation scene,” according to the Smithsonian, which has one in its collection
  • 1,076 made
  • Wingspan: 37 feet, 8 inches
  • Length: 27 feet, 11 inches
  • Height: 9 feet, 7 inches
  • Gross weight: 3,150 pounds
  • Top speed: 120 mph
  • Engine: Franklin 6A8-215-B8F, 215 horsepower

Source: Smithsonian

The company designed the Seabee “as an affordable, all-purpose sport aircraft,” according to the Smithsonian, which has one in its collection. Aviators seeking adventure, hunting or fishing could fly their amphibious plane into the wilderness.

The Seabee’s hull is an actual boat, unlike a floatplane, which has pontoons for landing on water. Both boat planes and floatplanes fall under the category of “seaplane.”

When the private aviation boom turned out to be a bust, Republic stopped making the Seabee in 1948.

Ben Runyan, a retired Delta Air Lines pilot and U.S. Air Force veteran, had flown a variety of large planes, including the McDonnell Douglas MD-11, but loved small planes most.

“With a little plane, you can get upside down,” he told The Columbian in 1996. “Land in a cow pasture. Go to the Bitterroots for a hunting trip.”

Not only did he enjoy flying small planes, he also loved refurbishing them, often with Sally working alongside.

“That was his passion,” Sally Runyan said. “I would get pressed into service — sometimes reluctantly, sometimes voluntarily.”

The couple met on a blind date and married in 1987. In 1989, the Runyans bought Green Mountain Airport, which had been operating since 1964. The previous owner, Robert Taylor, died in a crash shortly after taking off from the field in a twin-engine Cessna in 1986, and his widow wanted to sell.

Just a year after the Runyans moved in, a fire partially burned their house adjoining the airstrip. Sally Runyan remodeled it with a can-do, handywoman spirit cultivated while growing up on 30,000 acres of ranch and timberland near the Eastern Oregon town of Heppner.

Sally and Ben juggled their day jobs — his as an airline pilot, hers as a mortgage broker — as they ran the airport, fixed up planes, enjoyed flying and raised Ben’s two children. Later, Ben retired.

If you go

What: Western Antique Aeroplane & Automobile Museum

Where: 1600 Air Museum Road, Hood River, Ore.

When: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (except Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s days)

Admission: $19 for adults, $17 for seniors and veterans, $11 for active U.S. military members, $10 for kids 5-18, free for members and kids 4 and younger

Information: 541-308-1600; www.waaamuseum.org

Then on May 2, 2008, history repeated itself at Green Mountain Airport.

Ben Runyan, then 66, was piloting his Russian-made 1981 Yakovlev Yak-52 military training plane with his 31-year-old son, Ben Jr., as a passenger. The plane took off from Green Mountain Airport and executed an acrobatic roll but failed to gain enough speed to avoid stalling, according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation, which found no mechanical failure. The plane crashed into the woods a mile east.

“It would be hard to fill his shoes,” Sally said of her late husband.

She’s been careful about where his planes go. In 2016, she sold a 1936 Lockheed 12A, one of only 130 of the spy planes built, to a private collector in France.

She still has a 1934 Cessna Airmaster, a 1947 Cessna LC-126 and a 1948 Luscombe Observer.

A couple of days before the Seabee flew to its new home, the museum’s aircraft-restoration specialist and a volunteer visited Green Mountain Airport to tune it up. Sally Runyan watched their progress and then darted back into her house to check the scalloped potatoes and meatloaf she was making for their lunch.

She said she doesn’t fly as much as she used to. She called running the airport “a kettle of crazy” but enjoys Green Mountain’s community of aviators. She recently hosted a dance as a show of appreciation to the tenants who rent 10 hangars at the airport.

When the Seabee flew to the museum on Oct. 13, Runyan followed as a passenger in a chase plane to hand over the keys upon landing in Hood River.

“Ben always liked to say, with these historical airplanes, we are just stewards,” Sally Runyan said. “You never really own these airplanes.”

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