As the peaceful, soft light of dawn enveloped Antique Airfield (IA27), hundreds of flying machines quietly awaited another day of celebrating the freedom of flight and the warm camaraderie of fellow aviators.
Bejeweled dew drops twinkled and sparkled across the field as the sun rose above the silos, and in the western sky a nearly-full moon was shining boldly as the cool morning air whispered past the propeller of an Aeronca Chief doing takeoffs and landings.
Suddenly there was the delightful sound of a radial cranking up, then another, and they steadily settled into a rhythmic chorus. These sights and sounds swirled together in a beautiful wake-up call, rousing sleepy aviators from their campsites.
Blue skies and joyful spirits prevailed during the 67th Antique Airplane Association/Airpower Museum‘s (AAA/APM) Invitational Fly-In, despite the clouds of uncertainty arising from the COVID-19 pandemic.
The preliminary tally for airplanes in attendance this year was a remarkable 280.
“I expect that number to go up a bit when we finalize the count,” says AAA President Brent Taylor. “The 2019 fly-in had 300 aircraft attend, so considering what this year has been like, that’s an outstanding turn out.”
Taylor noted that even with the COVID-19 pandemic, he always felt that they should move ahead with the 2020 event.
“If, for no other reason, than to maintain the continuity and momentum for the continued support of the AAA and APM into 2021 and beyond. We were fortunate that our board of directors for both organizations, our volunteers and service providers, and even the local communities felt the same way and were willing to help make the event a success.”
“Of course, holding the event on a private airport that receives no federal, state, or local monies made the decision to go ahead easier,” he continues. “Since our fly-in ended, I’ve noted that a number of aviation events will be held in the upcoming months, and I’d like to think the success of the AAA/APM Invitational Fly-In in such unknown and trying times may have had something to do with the decisions to move forward and hold them.”
A variety of COVID-19 abatement actions were taken, and AAA members were, of course, requested to act responsibly regarding their personal health and safety. The Hy-Vee catering service provided onsite meals, and volunteers and security personnel were cheerfully working hard to ensure the safety and success of the fly-in.
And successful it was — there was so much flying going on during the week that Classic Aviation at nearby Pella Municipal Airport (KPEA) sold 2,454 gallons of fuel during the event, with a new daily record of 1,450 gallons on Saturday.
Highlights from The Flight Line
One of the early arrivals was a 1940 Waco YKS-7 owned by Steve Fulton of Washington, who enjoys flying into backcountry strips.
Steve grew up in Griffin, Georgia, and soloed a Cessna 150 when he was 16. He earned his private on his 17th birthday, and soon after that met Ron Alexander.
“Ron changed my life. He was the type of person to invest deeply in young people,” says Steve. “I was probably the first he’d taken under his wing and there have been many, many since. We became lifelong friends.”
Steve recently purchased NC2629 from Bill Parent.
“Bill restored it about 10 years ago. He bought it just a few years before that as a project from Arizona. It had been wrecked in 1948 and wasn’t flying until he got it going,” Steve explains. “Bill had the 275-hp Jacobs engine built by Radial Engines down in Oklahoma, and he’d only flown it about 140 hours in a little less than 10 years.”
“I had flown quite a bit of tailwheel in recent history when I started flying this. The first takeoff, I just gave it full power, got a little bit of airspeed and pushed forward on the control wheel to lift the tail up so I could see, and oh my gosh! It just took off hard left, and I zigzagged down the runway, got it off the ground and thought, ‘holy cow! What was that?!’ I called Bill and told him what happened when I pushed forward on the stick and all he said was, ‘yeah, it doesn’t like that,'” Steve recounts with a laugh. “That was the only time I’ve ever had a bad deal on this airplane. It’s the nicest flying airplane. It lands so beautifully and I’ve had it in all kinds of wind and runway conditions. It carries a little under 1,200 pounds and goes about the speed of a Cessna 180. I was over in central Idaho on one of the backcountry strips in June with a whole gaggle of people and the speed of this airplane surprised them. It was faster than they thought an old biplane would be.”
1935 Stinson SR-5
Corporate pilot David Jackson and his wife, Lorraine, flew their 1935 Stinson SR-5 (NC14585 ) from Penn Yan, New York (KPEO) to Blakesburg for their first time at the fly-in.
David soloed a Cessna 150 as a teenager in 1975, and watched the old timers flying Champs and J-3s. He started as a line boy and worked his way up the ratings ladder, eventually flying Dassault Falcon 900s and now Gulfstream 550s … but he loves flying an antique airplane.
“I used to have a Luscombe, and was going to buy one, but I found out they shrunk in the last 40 years! This is one of only three SR-5s known to be flying, and I purchased it in restored condition out of a museum in Cottage Grove, Oregon, about two years ago. It took us 20 hours to fly it home.”
“We use it as a going to breakfast airplane and usually just travel locally,” says David. “It has a 300-hp Lycoming and was overhauled several years ago by Radial Engines in Guthrie, Oklahoma. They’ve been very helpful chasing oil leaks and such, and the engine only used a half quart an hour coming out here. This airplane flies like a big Cub. It cruises about 120 mph and holds 70 gallons of fuel. For this trip, I figured a fuel burn of 20 gph, but it didn’t top 16 gph the whole trip.”
David and Lorraine met when she started flying lessons.
“By the second lesson we both came to the conclusion that the skies are much more friendly without me in the sky, except as a passenger,” laughs Lorraine. “I do enjoy it, and David said I was a trooper because we flew five hours Monday!”
Justin Niemyjski arrived from Wisconsin in N160, a Beech D17S Staggerwing that he purchased in February 2020.
Justin has been leading the Sunday morning Gone West service at the fly-in for about eight years now, and especially enjoys visiting with people at Blakesburg and giving airplane rides.
His Staggerwing was originally a Navy GB-2, and a previous owner changed the N number to match the original military serial number.
“It was restored in 1986 by Arnold Whidmer of Whidmer Flying Service in North Dakota, and I bought it from his widow,” shares Justin. “It has very similar flying characteristics to my Beech 18 — same speeds, same control inputs. The Staggerwing was originally designed to have fixed landing gear, and when they redesigned it they put the landing gear mechanism in the side panel, so the cabin became tight and the rudder pedals are right next to each other. I had to get used to that, and I felt goofy sitting in it at first with my feet so close together, but now I feel perfectly fine and I really enjoy this airplane.”
NX899H was the last Pietenpol that Bernard (pronounced Bernerd) Pietenpol built, and is powered by its original six-cylinder Corvair engine.
“When Bernard finished it, he flew it until he was satisfied that he had everything the way he wanted it,” recalls Forrest Lovley of Minnesota. “And then he gave it to me. That was around 1974.”
“They call the Corvair a 110 hp engine, but you probably get 70 hp out of it the way it is in this airplane,” he continues. “The engine has 800 hours on it now. It’s a pretty straight forward light airplane, but it’s a little different for people who fly it the first time, because they usually go across the runway the wrong way — the prop turns the wrong way! This one’s fuselage is longer both in the back and in the front, so there’s more room for the pilot and passenger.”
Although NX899H has changed hands a few times through the decades, it’s been back in Forrest’s hands for about five years now.
Integral to the success of this busy fly-in is air traffic control, in the form of red and green flags (no radio). Iowan and pilot Bob Grimm has been volunteering for about 20 years now as a flagman.
“You figure out which airplanes are fast, which ones are slow, and whether you’ve got a gap in the pattern that you can fill. We try our best to organize it and I think we’re pretty successful at it,” explains Bob. “Brent (Taylor) gives a good safety briefing every morning. He and I will talk beforehand, and he’ll ask, ‘what did you see, what’s been going on, and what do you want me to tell them?’ The pilots here are all tuned in to what we’re trying to get them to do. It works splendidly and it’s a lot of fun — it’s the best seat in the house! I wouldn’t want to do anything else here.”
There are, of course, a few challenges.
“We have something that we affectionately call amateur hour, which is the hour before sunset when everybody goes and tries to get in that last flight of the day,” he says. “That can get a little tough because we might get 15 to 18 airplanes in the pattern, but you just learn what you can do and what you cannot do. We have a flagman on the middle of this undulating runway, and he’s cueing us because we can’t see the flagman at the other end. This year three of the ladies from the flight line decided they wanted to get involved with this, so we’ve been training them and they’re picking it up great.”
Taking a moment, Grimm thoughtfully reflects about the nature of the annual fly-in: “Blakesburg is a throwback — it’s about the way it was and where we came from. We want Antique Airfield pilots to take the time to slow down and get their eyes outside the cockpit. I’m a touch passionate about what we do, because going back in time is the essence of this special airport. I tell my fellow flaggers — Toby Hansen, Tom Gehman, and my son, Dallas Grimm — when you are out flagging, take it all in, because nobody else in the entire world is seeing, hearing, and doing what you are at this very moment!”
Save the Date
These brief highlights from the flight line only begin to capture the flavor of the fly-in. There were numerous aircraft, including Monocoupes, Fairchilds, Cessnas, Pipers, Luscombes, Aeroncas, Porterfields, Piel Emeraudes, Hatz biplanes, Culver Cadets, a Ryan SCW … so if you’re intrigued, make plans now to attend next year’s fly-in, Sept. 1-6, 2021.