By DAVID RAUZI
GRANGEVILLE, Idaho – All it took was 30 minutes to turn a sleepy rural airstrip into roaring runway of Warbirds.
Scrambled together within a few months and hurriedly promoted, the Idaho County Airport’s first Warbird Weekend event held July 14 last year exceeded all expectations: The region exploded with cars filling the set-aside parking area and spilling onto and along Airport Road. The main runway roared with continual traffic as small aircraft taxied on and took off with eager kids, many experiencing their first airplane flight.
The crowds were hundreds thick, packed around aircraft to visit with pilots, take a peek inside or — for a lucky few — to feel the horsepower of radial engines on their own vintage plane ride. Firefighting aircraft, working early season incidents, kept the drama moving, as did helicopters from the Idaho National Guard and LifeFlight.
All totaled, nearly 2,000 people packed onto the airport that hot July day for an experience that frankly took everyone off guard from organizers to participants.
Now the pressure’s on for this year’s event — how do you top a blockbuster?
It all started with one question: “Why not an airfair in Grangeville?” In decades past, the airport had hosted such aircraft come-togethers, but nothing in recent memory for a facility that has, for the most part, sat mostly forgotten on the edge of this rural Camas Prairie community of more than 3,200 people. Quiet, except for the start of spring crop-duster activity and then those frantic mid- to late- summer months when the runway and tie-downs resemble a kicked-over ant’s nest as SEATs (single engine air tankers) and belly-dump helicopters buzz across the sky on wildfire missions across the hazy smoke-choked skies of North Central Idaho.
“Nestled amidst the 5.4 million breathtaking acres of Idaho County, the airport offers access to rocky mountains, river valleys, wilderness and extensive public lands,” said Melisa Bryant, economic development specialist, Ida-Lew Economic Development Council, based out of Grangeville. “Not only is the Idaho County Airport the gateway to a plethora of recreation opportunities, it is also an emerging hub of economic growth.”
Looking to capitalize on and promote the region’s strengths, the Idaho County Commission saw its airport with new eyes, recognizing it as an underdeveloped resource for regional economic development through both business creation and recreation/tourism. An Airport Development Authority was created to advise on facility operations and comprehensive planning, and to develop private and public sector opportunities.
In the midst of this, the airport was already seeing renewed economic activity due to the relocation from California to Grangeville several years prior of Anderson Aeromotive, an FAA-certified repair station specializing in Pratt and Whitney and Curtiss-Wright radial engines. Anderson was seen as key player in the airport’s renewal, and along with county cooperation in helping the in-town business expand hangar space at the facility, the commission was envisioning Anderson’s offerings as a draw for ancillary aircraft services. Idaho County as America’s Warbird workshop? Why not?
As the county worked to improve and promote the airport, Bryant and airport manager Mike Cook came up with the airfair idea, spurred by the success of a fly-in event at a backcountry airstrip that drew 150 participants. The pair felt they could do something similar.
“Idaho County wanted an opportunity to showcase the airport and available facilities to the community and pilots outside the local area,” Cook said. “The airfair provided an excellent way to let many participants know ways the airport could be utilized to access the area for aviation-related business and play.”
Who participated? The Experimental Aviation Association’s Young Eagles program brought six planes to provide kids with introductory airplane flights: 81 total. Several classic aircraft attended: an N3N U.S. Navy biplane, a Lockheed PV2 Harpoon, a Vultee BT-13A Valiant and a North American T-6. Helicopters included one from LifeFlight, two Idaho Air National Guard Lakota LH-72A, and a nearby USFS Sikorsky Sky Crane CH54.
This year’s event is slated for two days, July 13-14. Again, the Saturday will be filled with events, including free plane rides for kids, historic aircraft on display, with a few offering rides, and a tour of the U.S. Forest Service Grangeville Air Center smokejumper facility. Sunday will continue both young people and paid flights, as well as a remote control aircraft demonstration — and more is being planned.
For more information: Facebook.com/WarbirdWeekend.Idaho