A driver on Interstate 90 would not guess that this Eastern Washington farm community has formed strong bonds with Japan.

Share story

MOSES LAKE — A driver on Interstate 90 would not guess that this Eastern Washington farm community has formed strong bonds with Japan.

There’s no hint in the clusters of fast-food restaurants and motels at the exits, or in the irrigated fields and open spaces that surround Moses Lake.

You wouldn’t guess at the connection, unless you happened to look up and see the rising sun.

That emblem is on the tails of Boeing 747s that Moses Lake residents have seen overhead since 1968, when Japan Airlines started training its pilots, co-pilots and flight engineers at an airport the U.S. military opened less than a year after Pearl Harbor.

This week, save 90% on digital access.

The company came to the former Larson Field — known as Grant County International Airport since it was decommissioned in 1966 — because there was no suitable place in its own country to conduct touch-and-goes with jumbo jets.

The airport, five miles out of town, had one of the largest runways in the United States and hangars big enough to house 747s. And in a town of 10,000, at the time, there were few people to complain about the noise.

But JAL is switching to 787s for passenger flights. Boeing’s new “Dreamliners” are not only more fuel-efficient than 747s, they also require shorter runways, prompting JAL to give up the expense of sending trainees and instructors and sometimes their families to Moses Lake. Training will be done instead at Oita Airport in Japan.

There will be an economic impact, of course, when JAL leaves town in March. Although the company has only five permanent employees in Moses Lake, about 10,000 crew members have been trained here, eating at local restaurants and golfing at local courses. JAL reserves two floors at the Ramada Inn and buys fuel and other products in Moses Lake.

The cultural loss may be greater. Hundreds of Moses Lake residents have visited Japan compliments of the airline. Others have formed friendships with Japanese visitors. Christmas cards and e-mails go both directions.

Thousands of Moses Lake children took their first flights aboard JAL airplanes. For 30 years, until the practice became too expensive, the company brought flight attendants from Japan to host one day of scenic flights for every sixth-grader in town.

“I’ve got tears in my eyes just thinking about it,” said Lorna Bolyard, a Moses Lake resident since 1953. “I’ve been active with JAL ever since they came here. I catered the first banquet they ever had.

“They flew over my house the first time they flew.”

Doug Sly, president of the Moses Lake Sister City Committee, prefers to think of what the town has gained over the decades rather than what it’s about to lose.

“Forty years is a nice run for any relationship, and we’re just glad we’ve had them.”

Capt. Kazuo Noda, director of the Moses Lake training center, said he’ll miss the town where strangers say hello when he’s out walking.

“We love Japan also,” he said of himself and his wife. “But in the United States, people are very happy. There is much room.”

Custom-curated news highlights, delivered weekday mornings.