By JIM ROBERTS
“Is this Heaven?” … “No, it’s Iowa.”
As I strolled the grass of Antique Airfield in Blakesburg, Iowa, surrounded by acres of antique and vintage aircraft, this memorable exchange from the 1989 movie “Field of Dreams” resonated in my head. Feet wet with morning dew, I drank in the sights and sounds of these glorious machines, and marveled at the dedication and persistence of the restorers and pilots who bring them here year after year.
Typical for Midwest weather, the forecast was first promising, then ominous. The reality was mixed, with morning storms moving through on the 29th and clearing out by noon. The passage of that system brought mostly pleasant flying conditions, inviting many pilots to enjoy the grass runway for the rest of the week.
The Antique Airplane Association was formed in August 1953 with the mission to “Keep the Antiques Flying.” According to AAA officials there are more than 20 active chapters, as well as close working relationships with many aircraft type clubs.
Founder Robert L. Taylor relates that the airport property was purchased in 1970, and the first fly-in at IA27 was held in 1971. Since then, a few annual fly-ins have been held at other airports, but now Antique Airfield is home base.
Each year brings a new theme for the gathering, and in 2019 it was the Historic Airfield Rally to the Antique Airfield Homecoming (HARRAH). AAA members were encouraged to stop en route to IA27 at historically significant airports, and 25 pilots registered for the event. Some planned to stop in Bird City, Kansas, where a young Charles Lindbergh performed as a flying circus wing-walker and parachute jumper five years before his famous Atlantic crossing.
Dave and Jeanne Allen, from Elbert, Colorado, stopped in Red Oak, Iowa, to visit the town’s popular history center. Growing up near a crop duster strip, Dave got the flying bug early. He remembers as a child waking up at 3:30 in the morning to the bark of a radial engine coming to life, whereupon he would throw on a pair of Levis, jump on his bike, and pedal to the airport. If one of the pilots waved, he recalls, “My feet didn’t touch the ground for the rest of the day.”
Today he and his wife Jeanne enjoy the symphony of their very own radial, a 275-hp Jacobs R-755. Their beautiful 1934 WACO YKC is a perennial award winner, including the prestigious “Antique Grand Champion – Gold Lindy” at EAA AirVenture in 2013.
The aircraft was operated by the Ohio National Guard from 1934 to 1939, then sold and flown by the Civil Air Patrol during World War II. It last flew in 1948, until the completion of a ground-up restoration in 2013.
Those flying into Antique Airfield are cautioned that operations are strictly “see and avoid.” The AAA website advises to “….put down the moving map GPS, turn off the radio, look outside the cockpit, and put your head on a swivel.” Some participating aircraft lack electrical systems or radios, so experienced flaggers control takeoffs and landings.
While everyone enjoys the fun and camaraderie of hopping rides and “beating up the pattern,” safety is foremost, and each morning begins with a Flight Ops briefing.
Pilots are reminded of the Antique Airfield traffic pattern rules, the runway in use, weather forecast, and flagger procedures for takeoffs and landings.
My favorite admonition is: “Aircraft equipped with smoke systems should not blow smoke on takeoff…it obscures the flaggers’ vision when the field goes IFR!”
When not viewing Iowa from the air, there’s much to be enjoyed on terra firma. Many appreciate simply wandering the rows of matchless aircraft or hangar flying in the shade of their favorite plane. At Antique Airfield, families and friends reunite against a backdrop of wood and fabric or steel and aluminum artwork.
Aircraft on display in 2019 ranged from the classic Cub family (J3, J4, and J5) to a heavy iron Beech 18.
Two aircraft in the spotlight were a 1928 Laird LC-B-200, owned by Vaughn Lovely of Webster, Minnesota, and a Luscombe Model 4, owned by Ron Price from Sonoma, California.
Lovely’s LC-B-200, which came out of the Laird Airplane Company’s Chicago factory in 1928, is powered by a 220-hp Wright J-5 engine like the one that pulled Charles Lindbergh to Paris in 1927.
It was the personal aircraft of company founder E.M. “Matty” Laird, who had a reputation for building custom, high-performance aircraft. Laird’s race planes won Thompson and Bendix Trophies in the 1930s. The LC-B-200 is known today as the “Honeymoon Laird” because Matty used it to transport his bride, Elsie, to their New York honeymoon. Vaughn characterizes the Laird as “luxurious — the Packard of its day.”
The aircraft flew for many years until it ended up abandoned at a crop duster’s operation in Hayti, Missouri, where it was discovered and purchased by Kenny Love in 1966. Restoration moved slowly until 1978, when Kenny enlisted the help of his friend and noted vintage aircraft restorer, Forrest Lovely (Vaughn’s father).
Forrest and members of “Marginal Aviation,” the Minnesota chapter of AAA, completed the project in time for the Blakesburg homecoming in 1982. The highlight that year was a visit by Matty and Elsie Laird, who were treated to flights in their “honeymoon” plane.
Though Kenny Love sold the Laird to Bob Howie in 1997, he continued to fly it until his death in 2004. Recalling the restoration project, Vaughn remembers helping with a rib-stitching party when he was three years old, so it’s no surprise that he acquired the plane from Howie’s estate in 2016.
Vaughn is a dedicated caretaker of the Laird, and notes that he is amassing a stock of Wright J-5 parts to keep it flying for years to come.
Ron Price’s 1938 Luscombe Model 4 is the only flying example of four produced. It was also known as the “Model 90,” owing to its seven-cylinder, 90-hp Warner Scarab radial power plant.
Ron relates that the Model 4 fell between the earlier Luscombe “Phantom” and the “Model 50,” which was powered by a Continental A-50 engine. Selling for half as much as the Model 4, the Model 50 rapidly eclipsed the 4 in popularity, relegating the radial-powered craft to relative obscurity. Today we know the 50 as the Luscombe Model 8 Silvaire.
Ron purchased the Model 4 in 1978 from a museum in Morgan Hill, California. The plane sat in storage until he turned it over for restoration to Mark Anderson and Bill Bradford of Kansas City, Missouri. The three-year project was completed in July 2019, in time to fly to EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, where it was awarded the Bronze Age (1937-1941) Outstanding Closed Cockpit Runner-Up Trophy.
Ron reports that the Model 4 Cruises at 110 mph on six gallons an hour. The plane has two flap settings and very effective ailerons, similar to a Model 8. The Model 4 arrived at Blakesburg from Brodhead, Wisconsin, under the capable pilotage of Ron’s son, Chris.
Besides the matchless display of antique aircraft, another aspect of Blakesburg that sets it apart is the family atmosphere. It is truly a multigenerational gathering, where kids get up close and personal with aviation history, and seeds are sewn for the next crop of pilots, mechanics, and restorers.
Most attendees remain on site all day, enjoying meals served in the 24th Fighter Squadron Mess Hall, socializing in the Pilots’ Pub, and watching nightly outdoor movies.
A perennial favorite is pie day on Saturday, when local bakers provide a delicious selection of homemade pies and ice cream. Sales benefit the Blakesburg Historical Preservation Society.
According to AAA President Brent Taylor, an estimated 300 aircraft attended this year. Pilots came from as far away as Seattle, San Diego, Kalispell, Montana, and upstate New York.
International visitors made the journey from Australia, England, Canada, and Switzerland. And the “Youngest Pilot Award” went to 17 year-old Brianna Hill, flying a 1947 Aeronca Chief from Belleville, Nebraska.
Brianna is a fourth-generation pilot: The daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter of long-time pilots and AAA members. If her smile is any indication, the future of the AAA and the Blakesburg fly-in convention is bright!