If you’re looking for an old-fashioned fly-in, the annual Aviation Migration at Lee Bottom Flying Field is the place to go.
With no planned activities other than catered meals, “it’s the most nothing you’ll ever do,” say Rich and Ginger Davidson, co-owners of the expansive grass strip located in a scenic river bottom south of Hanover, Indiana.
“The event is set up like a car show and attendees are encouraged to look at airplanes and talk to the owners as they relax and enjoy the day,” says Rich. “Airplanes are the ice breaker.”
“Campers make the event,” he continued, “and this year the turn-out of campers on Friday night was the best ever. About 30% of the attendees at each fly-in are new to the event and people come from as far away as Florida and Michigan.”
Lee Bottom is a beautifully-manicured 4,100-foot by 100-foot privately-owned, public use airport dating from the 1930s. It runs parallel to the Ohio River between Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky.
Formerly called the Wood, Fabric and Tailwheels Fly-in, this year’s event, held Sept. 18-20, was rebranded to make it more inclusive and hopefully draw more attendees. However, weather to the north that finally moved in briefly on Saturday afternoon kept attendance below the previous record of more than 400 planes when the weather was favorable.
With 2015 marking its 19th edition, the fly-in has been dogged by bad luck in recent years, with a complete wash-out in 2009, when only one plane made it in. But the worst weather event was when a tornado hit the field in March 2012, causing severe damage to the Davidson’s home and hangar that has still not been fully repaired.
The Davidsons depend on fly-in sponsorships and admissions revenue to support their efforts to preserve the historic field, which they operate as a labor of love. After all, you’ve got to be dedicated to keep 60 acres of grass cultivated and mowed.
“Basically, we open our back yard and invite everyone to visit,” says Rich.
A small group of volunteers called the Lee Bottom Family make the fly-in possible. They even went together to buy a used replacement tractor when the Davidson’s old one swallowed a valve. The volunteers also came to the rescue when a freak downpour in 2005 washed away 4,000 pounds of grass seed that had just been sown on a 1,000-foot runway extension.
A professional pilot who loves to fly antique airplanes on his days off, Rich first landed his Aeronca Champ at Lee Bottom in 1996. He soon started helping the owner, retired military and airline pilot Fritz Hagamann, with maintenance. As a friendship developed, talk turned to the field’s future and Davidson made a deal to start purchasing the property on a time-payment plan.
When Hagamann died in 2000, his will conveyed the balance due as a gift to Rich, who met Ginger at a hangar party soon thereafter. Married in 2003, they make a great team, with Ginger keeping the field running while Rich is away with his flying job.
Recently hired as a UPS pilot, Rich had to be in a training class through Friday of the fly-in, leaving the bulk of preparations to Ginger, who Rich says does 90% of the work around the field “and never gets enough acknowledgement.”
“I guess Rich figured if I could find the place, I was a keeper,” said Ginger, referring to the one-lane road that leads from Hanover to their remote river bottom airstrip home. “One year, Rich asked me what I wanted for our anniversary, thinking I would say jewelry, but I said I’d rather have a tool box,” she added with a grin.
A computer expert, beekeeper, and accomplished pilot in her own right, Ginger has multiple ratings, including Certified Flight Instructor. Since she owns a Cub and Rich is partial to Champs, this year the couple sponsored a good-natured challenge to see which brand would have the most planes in attendance. The Cub crowd won, but it was a close contest.
Although Lee Bottom Flying Field receives no government support, it is certified as a public use airport and the strip is open for anyone to land at will. Visitors are welcome, but there are currently no public facilities beyond a couple of picnic tables and a basic restroom.
To make Lee Bottom more sustainable, the Davidson’s goal is to make their “antique flying field” a year-round destination, with a museum dedicated to airports and a perhaps a bed-and-breakfast aimed at pilots.
Also, once a proper facility is constructed, they hope to resume their monthly “Sinful Sundae Fly-ins” during June, July and August, which featured ice cream sundaes and sometimes drew crowds as large as the annual September weekend fly-in.
But, at present, the next planned event is the 2016 edition of the Aviation Migration, which is scheduled for Sept. 16-18 next year.
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