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A legend in his own time
“Takeoff to the east. Land to the west.”
So cautioned the large painted sign greeting aviators on their approach to Duke’s Airport, a private airstrip once located along the former U.S. Highway 101 just east of downtown Sequim.
Owned and operated by its namesake pilot Duke Teitzel from the early 1960s to late 1980s, Duke’s Airport included a single, self-maintained airstrip that in its heyday ran a reported 2,000 feet and stretched roughly from the current Sequim Post Office to the Mariner Cafe. Sharing the same field as the Teitzel family’s horses, the non-commercial airport was situated on the back of their highway-front property that included their home, automotive repair and towing businesses, and wrecking yard.
“I remember many years being out there picking rocks on the field when we were little. We’d pick rocks from the airfield so he could land,” Shelli Robb-Kahler recalled of her late father’s airstrip. “When he was flying and if the horses were in the field, he’d buzz over once and they’d all run up to the front of the house. They knew to get out of the way.”
In addition to running charter flights to Seattle and Bellingham and providing visiting pilots with weekend tether space, Robb-Kahler said her father also regularly made memorial flights to scatter people’s ashes over the Strait of Juan de Fuca. One such flight, made in his North American Navion nicknamed “Yellow Bird,” was to scatter the ashes of his good friend Perry Elliott, owner of the popular Bandit’s Pizza Parlor in Sequim.
“Every few times we got in the plane after that, he’d always say, ‘Say hi to Perry’ or ‘Say hi to the Bandit,’ because some of the ashes blew back out on the dash,” said Robb-Kahler, recalling Duke’s sense of humor. “Perry was just that comical kind of guy anyway, so he would have enjoyed that.”
Other memorable flights, as Robb-Kahler and her mother Mary Lou Teitzel recall, include chauffeuring Santa Claus and beloved Seattle-based children’s television show clown J.P. Patches, star of the “J.P. Patches Show” that ran locally in the 1960s and 1970s. The latter remains a treasured memory for Robb-Kahler, who was about 6 or 7 years old at the time.
“J.P. Patches came to the demolition derby and rode in a demolition car that Dad was driving. At the time, he was a big deal on TV,” she said, noting her father served as chairman of the Sequim Irrigation Festival’s Destruction Derby event. “I got to ride with J.P. Patches in the airplane. He was just your friendly clown, kids grew up with him.”
Local legend takes flight
Mary Lou Teitzel recalls four as being the most airplanes her husband owned at one time, although the specific planes changed throughout the years and at various periods included a PT-22, North American Navion and Aero Commander 520. She said Duke took great joy in flying, which he learned to do from Fairchild International Airport namesake William Fairchild, and assisted in search and rescue air operations as a Coast Guard Auxiliary member.
“When Duke started to learn to fly, I did not see him except breakfast and maybe dinner for about three months because every minute he had, he was out,” Teitzel said, noting Duke’s first airplane was an engine-roaring World War II-era Vultee basic trainer aircraft purchased from surplus.
In those early years of flying in the late 1950s to early 1960s, before Duke’s Airport had taken flight, Teitzel said Duke would store his airplanes in local fields. Parking his PT-22 out amid roaming cattle in Dungeness, however, presented a unique challenge.
“It had cows and they liked the fabric on the wings,” Teitzel recalled with amusement. “They ate it.”
In addition to the PT-22, Teitzel noted, her husband bought a Howard airplane that had been used for emergency medical runs by Alaskan bush pilots and had its wings taken off for repair. Soon, both planes were parked outside the family’s repair shop and home behind Lehman’s store in downtown Sequim so that Duke could work on them as time allowed.
Not having a suitable place to park his planes, however, did not deter Duke from fashioning a test strip when and where needed. In one of the most illustrious tales of Sequim lore, Duke is recounted as taking off airborne from Highway 101 – a legend made all the more illustrious because it’s completely true.
“He had worked on the PT-22 and I think he was doing wing repair on it, so I asked him how he was going to get it (the airplane) off and he said he thought he’d wait until the middle of the night and take off down 101. I thought he was kidding,” Teitzel recalled of that early 1960s test flight that began by steering the airplane through the main downtown intersection and up present-day West Washington Street. “So help me, he did. He started that up, went up the alley, turned by the bank, went down the street, and revved it up and away he went. It was pretty much fun to watch. There wasn’t any traffic. It was strictly a very small town.”
“My dad, he was kind of a legend in his own time,” Robb-Kahler added.
From sky to slide
Teitzel and Robb-Kahler recall the only memorable mishap at Duke’s Airport came in 1974 when Duke was attempting to land his twin-engine Aero Commander 520 with his young daughters aboard.
Described by Robb-Kahler as a “heavy, boat-like thing with wings,” the engine-roaring airplane was significantly larger than any other in the pilot’s collection.
Teitzel said she noticed something was wrong as the airplane kept circling the airport to burn fuel and her calls to Duke via two-way radio went unanswered. As it approached the grass runway, she could clearly see the problem – it was coming in on its belly.
“I can remember him pumping furiously trying to get that landing gear down, pumping and pumping and pumping, and I was like oh this isn’t good,” Robb-Kahler recalled. “The brakes went out and thank God there was an irrigation ditch at the end of the post office because that’s what stopped it. We got out, went and got the tow truck and towed it to the shop.”
“They landed fine, it was really amazing,” Teitzel added. “It was a really good belly landing because it just slid in on the grass.”
An aviation era ends
Robb-Kahler said her father sold a piece of property at the end of the airstrip in the mid-to-late-1970s for what would become Edquist’s Shop Rite grocery store, now the site of Evergreen Collision. The shortened airstrip lead to decreased usage of Duke’s Airport and in the late 1980s, with Duke’s health declining, the Teitzels sold their highway-front property.
A colorful chapter in Sequim aviation history came to a close when Duke died on Jan. 16, 1989, at age 61. Teitzel said that despite Duke’s love of flight, her husband of 42 years had requested his ashes not be scattered midair like that of his friend Perry so she found a meaningful alternative.
“I scattered his ashes and his mother’s ashes in the wrecking yard,” she said. “I just decided one day that that would be the proper place for them because that’s where he spent a lot of time. So, they’re there.”