Tuesday, February 28, 2012

They're Out There

Inside the airline industry, aviators are rare.  Today they have been replaced by pilots. 
Pilots don't fly outside of work.  Most have no interest in flying small planes.  The majority of them would prefer the computer do all the work.  And they certainly can't do a visual approach.
Yes, I was exaggerating.  There are some pilots who can fly a good visual approach but not many.  Granted, nobody seems to care.  But for folks with an interest in real aviation, folks like me (us, you know who you are), it does get lonely at times.  I just wish there were more aviators than pilots and, at the very least, that the pilots had the slightest interest in aviation.  On the other hand, I suspect the pilots that fly with me are thinking, "I really wish this guy liked to talk about baseball stats, playing X-Box, or the difference in rivet patterns on the Airbus 319 vs 320".  I don't care for either.
Fortunately there is an upside to this disconnect.  Through the years I have learned how best to spot, seek out, and locate the old school underground.  You know; the aviators.  They're not easy to find for good reason.
Like rats in the city, the government wants rid of us and citizens wish we'd go away.  The final strain of aviators are marked for extermination.  Yet, like all well intentioned federal programs, the solution replaces perceived problems with real.  In this case mice.
Bred in FAA sanctioned schools, their rate of multiplication necessitates inbreeding.  Each one like the last, all chasing the cheese, they come out highly polished, spit-shined and creased.  Looking the part is all the feds want and that's what they get. 
Whenever I end up flying with someone whose existence lies within the bands on their shoulders, I find myself looking for clues; clues that my people are still out there somewhere.  Like tracks in the forest or broken twigs on a path, each little calling card lifts me up for although I cannot see them, I know they are there.
The photo at the very top is one such example.  Upon first viewing, you likely didn't notice anything special about it.  Yet I suspect a few aviators out there might have seen what I do every time I cross that threshold.  There, on centerline, just short of the runway end-stripe, are two sets of tire marks.  Those are aviator tracks.

How do I know? In subtle aviator code, the placement of the marks indicate they were clearly intentional.  Roughly translated they say, "I am a pilot and I will not go away".

Whenever I see them I start to laugh with great joy.  Beside me, pilots appear concerned as though I may have lost my mind.  In reality though, I laugh with renewed sanity; sanity returned with the knowledge that I am not alone.  

The Fly-In That Cried Wolf?

I really like that title. It’s funny. Plus, as one friend said last year when we asked if they would be attending, “Sorry, but I can’t be there. Plus, you’ve said this might be the last for the past few years”. The meaning there was that they thought we were crying wolf. That’s why I like the title. There is much more there than meets the eye.
Today, it seems everyone takes everything for granted. In turn, our world is filled with “looking back” headlines. Yeah, nobody seems to care or care enough until it is too late. They vote or don’t vote and then find themselves in a world of hurt because who was elected; people put things on their bucket lists and then get upset when that thing they always wanted to do disappears all together before they could do it; friends cry out in disbelief when one of theirs jumps off a bridge when all along the person was telling them they were going to jump off a bridge. Yep, nobody cares until something is gone. Then they get all worked up. Unfortunately, too late is too late.
How does this relate to Lee Bottom? Well, just in case you haven’t noticed, we’ve been telling everyone for several years now that the end of all the fun was coming unless we got some help. I love the old saying, “The man who spends freely has many friends”. And I must admit it often feels very much like a description of our fly-in. Though in reality, it is our fault for not fully explaining how much work and money goes into it. A few weeks back we corrected that error when we laid it on the table and asked for help. Last Tuesday we held a fly-in meeting to see if anyone got the message.
We have always said we have the best airport family and last Tuesday they proved it. Nearly 80% of the small cross section of people (38) we emailed, plus several more that were not on the list, showed up to see how they could help. That’s a pretty impressive showing and I think it indicates that as long as people are told up front what they are up against, and what they need to do to make things work, if they support the goal they’ll do their best to be part of the team. Thanks to all of you who attended; many of you driving several hours to be there.
What did the people in the meeting learn? We need help and we need sponsors and we need them by May 1st. That’s what it all comes down to. Thanks to those who attended, the fly-in moves forward.
Did you get that? The fly-in moves forward.
Wait! Don’t stop reading; there is more to do.
Lining the walls of the conference room were large yellow sheets of paper listing items with which we need help. These items were labeled A, B, and C. In past years, we had been responsible for all the items and even I found it hard to believe how many there were. By themselves, there were 32 A items. The “A’s” are critical to having the fly-in.
Thankfully many of the A items were accepted but we still need people to step up to help. As we told our airport family members in the meeting, when we say help, this is what we mean:
* Helping this year is of no help to us unless you are willing to commit to at least 3-5 years.
A person who volunteers only one year merely kicks the can down the road. When someone helps from year to year they know where things are and how to do it and nobody has to train them or watch over them to make sure things are being done correctly.
* If you commit to help you are actually committing yourself to help. In the past we have had to schedule surgeries around the fly-in, miss weddings, funerals, and sporting events, and have even worked the event with injuries that would make most people no-shows. Therefore, if you commit to be part of the team, you will be doing the same. You will tell your daughters that they will not be getting married on the weekend of the fly-in, games that you would love to see will be recorded and watched later, a plumbing leak in your house will be fixed by someone before hand or it will continue to leak until the fly-in is over, you will not be attending re-unions that fall on that weekend or the weeks leading up to it, and you will not cry about the nail you drove through your hand last night as it will have to stay there until the fly-in is over and cleaned up. That’s what we have to do and if you are telling the rest of the team you’ll be there to help, then you will.
* Helping means working year round, not just at events. We have a rule of thumb that if something isn’t planned by May, then it probably isn’t going to happen at this year’s event since May through September is spent on implementing the plan.
* Fun. Even if you have a nail sticking out of your hand, you’ll have fun. There is no reason for any of us to do this unless we are having fun. So, if all the planes and great people who attend the event don’t sound like fun to you, then there is no reason to volunteer. Yes, leading up to the event and during, it often feels very much like work. Yet without fail, half-way through the fly-in you always start thinking about the next one. Nothing worthwhile is easy and anything that is fun has a price.
Here I think it is important to share another thing we shared with our airport family members at the meeting. People often act as though, or think they are helping us, Ginger and myself, when they volunteer. Well, that isn’t the case. When you volunteer, you are helping aviation.
We are doing this for aviation and not ourselves. I realize that may be hard to understand but that’s the reality and if you aren’t in this for aviation, then you are in it for the wrong reason and you are keeping us involved in something we don’t need to keep doing. Yes, it can be fun but it is a lot of work and it is work we don’t need if aviation doesn’t want it. So just to be clear, when you help us just to help us you are not supporting our hobby or being helpful. You are perpetuating senseless work. If you get it, and you want to be part of the family, then there is plenty of room for you to help.
What do we specifically need? We still need volunteers to take charge of some A-items, and we really need sponsorship commitments. This year’s fly-in budget is $30,055 not including the airport operations budget which is an additional $20,000+. I should also note that by trimming costs everywhere we can find them, having a caterer do the food (they bear the cost), and by doubling last years attendance, we would just break even with $12,000 in sponsorship commitments. Any of this that isn’t sponsored we eat.
Those of you who have had the Lee Bottom Fly-In on your bucket lists for several years should take note. We are in the process of making long term plans for the airport and that involves the discussion of changing the flavor of the fly-in, Sinful Sundays, and even the airport in the coming years. Although we think the changes, if any, will be seen as favorable, with the future in mind everything is on the table for modification. Therefore, it is time for you to scratch The Wood, Fabric, & Tailwheels Fly-In off your list.
As for everyone else, our airport family members can work their butts off but if you do not attend, then it will all have been for nothing. Gas will be going up this summer, everyone will be complaining about it, and fly-ins everywhere will continue to thin with fewer and fewer people flying. If you would like to see this airport come out the other end as one of the survivors, you should start making your plans now to attend. Put September 29, 2012 on your calendar, set aside the money and time, find someone you’d like to share aviation with, and come hang out in one of the last places your kind are welcome.
With your support, enough volunteers, and the needed sponsorships, you’ll never hear us talk of ending the event again.

A-item coordinators still needed:
Medical Emergencies
Store Apparel and Cashiers
White Cone Adoption
Event Listings

Please let us know if you are up for doing any of these.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Volunteers Needed at Sinful Sundays


Started in 2004 as a destination for a Sunday flight, the Sinful Sunday events have grown over the years from a few visiting friends to an average of 100 planes on good weather days.
At last year's August event, we realized that if it were not for our family members and their friends, we would have needed to cancel the event because no one else was here to 'work' when things started to get into full swing.  Most of you have come to know Rich's Mom, Betty, and Ginger's parents, Wayne and Donna, as they are at most of the airport events.  You will also find them working hard and donating funds and items to ensure that everyone has a great time during all the events.  But, did you know that none of them are pilots?  And, did you realize that they travel around 200 miles, one way, just to be here and often return to their homes on the same day? 
In the past 8 years, we have continued to host these events through our own medical emergencies, while family members have been in the hospital, and with very little sleep.  We've re-organized and rescheduled appointments and work to ensure the grounds are ready for your presence.  Vacations are delayed or not taken, repairs and upgrades needed to our home are postponed, and we have to gracefully bow out of wedding invitations, parties, and family reunions.  Ginger shops diligently for days to find the best prices on the finest ice cream and supplies so we can continue to offer quality to you at an affordable price.  The car is packed to the brim with needed supplies during at least 3 trips into Louisville per event. 
Yes, we have had a few regular volunteers who have been great (and are not related to us).  Over the past 3 or 4 years, you’ve seen Jack at most every event serving lunches.  Jack is also not a pilot and it is sad to say that no one has ever offered him a ride in an airplane, maybe that will change this year.  Jim has done everything from washing dishes to serving up whipped cream to greeting people as they arrive.  And, Crystal and Mike have recently joined in on the fun by ensuring you register and can find a t-shirt or hat in the right size and color.  Bob and Berry are usually busy in the background with things no one else likes to do - like trash.  
Yet, we find that to do this event comfortably for everyone, around 19 or 20 people are needed.  And, to really be helpful, it needs to be the same 19 or 20 people at every event.  Additionally, they need to be able to be here before things start and stay until the last person departs for home and admittedly, some of it is demanding, fast paced, and requires standing.
So, we are putting it out to all of you to see if these events continue.  We know that we have personal commitments this summer that will take us away from some of these events and therefore can not do it without your help.  Do you want to ensure that others have a fun flying destination?  If so, please volunteer!   CLICK HERE

Saturday, February 18, 2012

A Future for Lee Bottom?

"An end result, imagined clearly and acted upon with expectation, will always force the circumstances necessary to bring about its own manifestation, no matter how unpredictable, unlikely, or even impossible those circumstances may have previously seemed." --A Note from the Universe
Lee Bottom Flying Field has some of the best supporters in the world. Over time, other airport owners have confirmed it. Most of them simply cannot believe how well our Lee Bottom Family steps up when needed. Every year, our calendars ship out to enthusiasts all over the world who share a single passion, the sport of aviation. Along with that, thousands upon thousands of people read our reports from the field and editorials found in NORDO News and elsewhere. Sometimes members of our family don’t see eye to eye with us but more commonly they do. Whatever the case though, they know they are welcome to say whatever they want as long as their passion, their goal, is the long term survival of the field. To all of you who do everything you can to support Lee Bottom and aviation, we want to express our most sincere thanks. As you read the following paragraphs, we hope you don’t get the wrong idea. Read it, absorb it, and if you have any questions send them our way.
At least once every year, usually around the fly-in, the wear and tear on us begins to show. Anyone who has been reading our NORDO News for the last three years can attest to that. But what causes it? Do you really know? Having discussed it at length between ourselves for many years, we have now decided it’s time for us to plot a new future for Lee Bottom Flying Field.
Before I discuss the future of the field, I would like to discuss some background issues. Let’s call these “Things we all know are true but may not discuss”. To help you fully understand what it is like to own an airport like Lee Bottom Flying Field in the modern world, I will have to break the green wall of silence; a code known only to flying field owners. This unspoken vow of silence is best described by a very well known and well worn quote from the movies, “YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!”
Although I believe that most people can’t handle the truth or, at the very least they don’t want to hear it, I firmly believe it is far better for everyone to know it; all of it. Therefore, let me get straight to the point. Owning and operating a flying field is not always that fun. Really, it isn’t. In fact, it can be, and often is, a huge pain in the ass. As any owner could tell you but they won’t, it sucks money far faster than any aircraft, and it requires the expenditure of most your spare time to maintain it. There, I said it. That’s not the first time though.
Through the years, Ginger and I have explicitly warned people, those who excitedly notified us about their intent to purchase land and construct their own field, that is was a bad idea. To date, every single one of them has, at some point in time, conceded they should have listened to us. Acres of valuable farmland that produce profit, leveled and maintained for the use of aircraft, is the most illogical and financially unsound bit of thinking I have ever known. Yet, whenever we drop our guard and share this with people, they look at us like we’re joking. We aren’t. If you want proof, just think of all the airports and strips that have closed during the past two decades. If they’re so great, where did they go?
So why then do people think flying field ownership would be great? We know why. Every day of every year, some pilot who loves to fly goes to the airport, jumps in their airplane, and does just that. Along the way to the air they see friends, other airplanes, and they think about something they enjoy; flying. Once in the air, they have fun. If they fly to an aviation event they see more people like themselves, they have a good time, and then fly home still having fun. When they land at home, having just had a great flight, the airport is the last thing they see. All this combines in the mind to form the subconscious notion that the airport is the source of all aviation fun. But ask yourself, how many vintage automobile enthusiasts take out twenty acres of farmland to build a lane and a half, pot-holed, gravel road to drive around on? None. Yet, the simulated 50’s diner in a garage is so cliché that there are companies devoted to selling items that help you build such a thing. To old car enthusiasts, the diner is the airport, yet none of them go out and try to build and operate a full scale diner just to attract cars. That would be stupid. And yet people still think owning an airport would be great. Maybe that’s our fault.
Ginger and I have always tried so hard to be positive in telling people how great Lee Bottom is and how much we love meeting all the new people, we’ve actually made airport ownership seem easy. When we were up to our elbows in crap, sometimes literally, we put out posts about the joys of mowing the grass. When more dollars went out than came in, we posted about how nice it is to watch planes take off and land. But for the longest time, we never told people how hard it really is because when someone asks you how you are doing, they want to hear “I’m doing great” and when things are not good they really don’t want to hear it. There comes a point though where people should be told how difficult it really is and that’s what we’re hoping to do. Yes, there have been many great times and we have made some great friends because of the airport, but it certainly hasn’t been a cake-walk. Admittedly, if it weren’t for all the people who contribute every year, we’d have sold the place ages ago when we had the chance. And of course, there’s the fact that we love it and want to see it survive against harsh realities.
Hanging in there? We realize this may be a lot to digest but there is a point to it all.
Airports may be absolutely critical to the sport of aviation but when they are not used or supported they are not fun and they make no sense and they go away. In a world where so much is out of your control, the use and support of your favorite airport and aviation event may seem like a no-brainer. But in the real world, when it comes to talk or action, talk too often talk wins. Let me give you some examples.
1) A few years back, a local power company began erecting towers a few miles south of the airport and making plans to run power lines across the river. We only found out because a local pilot asked us about them. Being so busy with the airport, we had not flown in months and had not seen them ourselves. When we started looking into the issue, it became apparent they had conveniently “missed” our public use airport on the charts. Immediately pointing this out to the FAA brought their project to a halt while a determination on the project was sought. During this process, we put the word out to everyone on our list (around 7000) with emails, phone calls, etc. This was done because the FAA was allowing comments on the project and we wanted to give everyone the chance to speak up for an airport and the sport of aviation. Many people responded with disbelief, others snipped about greedy electrical companies, and others grumbled louder than usual. In the end though, three people commented; three people. YES, you read that right; just three people.
2) Being a mere thirty miles up-river from Louisville, our area has one of the highest concentrations of pilots in the country. This is thanks to the UPS air hub being based at Standiford Airport. Known also as a company that is very philanthropic to local causes, one of three fly-in planning volunteers, who is also a pilot at the company, attempted to gain UPS sponsorship for the fly-in. After several conversations, she was told that if enough UPS people could show they volunteer time at the airport then we would have a good chance of gaining the sponsorship. It was also pointed out that it should be easy because UPS values volunteering so much, they have a way for employees to sign onto the company website and list their volunteer time. Now, I’m not going to tell you how few employees actually did that. Instead, I will just say that we didn’t get the sponsorship.
3) The final example I would like to include is this. Over the past decade, as many as four EAA Vintage board members have lived within 100 miles of Lee Bottom. None of them ever visited the airport or attended a single event.  After years of assuming they were interested in supporting aviation and inviting them to events, we gave up (and took a different approach).
Are you seeing a pattern here?  Ultimately, I believe a lot of people think we get more support than what we do. 
Why are we discussing the subject? Late last year, Ginger and I began planning the next twenty years of our lives. To many of you that may sound odd but that’s how we think; current, five, ten, and twenty years. Our plans included what we’d like to be doing and where we’d like to be at each sign-post. Critical to them all was Lee Bottom.
One thing I’ve never shared about the airport is something Fritz told me shortly before he died. He said he knew I would do everything in my power to keep Lee Bottom an airport but if I couldn’t, then I should do whatever I want with it and move onto a boat in the Caribbean. That’s another reason I loved the old guy so much; we thought just alike. Unfortunately for the boat dealer, I would prefer to keep Lee Bottom an airport. I would also prefer that everyone came along for the ride.
What I’m about to tell you, you’ll never hear anywhere else. Therefore, I hope you read it, take some time to digest it, and then join in the effort. Here goes.
Aviation as we have known it is dead and it is not coming back. Sport Pilot qualified aircraft are not going to bring it back. Young Eagles is not nor will it ever bring it back. Likewise, EAA and AOPA are not going to bring it back. And, unless each and every aviation enthusiast makes it their mission to save the sport of aviation, we might as well go ahead and send flowers in the name of “We sat by and watched” to the funeral home. It really is that simple.
Am I saying we should abandon aviation? No. Am I saying that a lot of people are abandoning aviation? Yes. And because of that, we must be willing to consider new ideas and we must stop the loss.
What can you do? Well, let me say that sending emails to your friends about all the evil things government is doing to aviation is not the solution. Ultimately, you are the government and you must become active. Aviation has always been one of America’s greatest symbols of freedom and if you want your freedom preserved, you must preserve it. If you want something saved you must save it. Yet, in a time when pilots worry “what is the government going to do to my airport next” owners of airports like ours, airports that offer a way around the razor wire, fencing, and SIDA badges, sit here looking for ways to secure a future. Unfortunately, reality dictates that some fields will disappear.
With ever expanding development and encroachment on airports, some airports will have to go despite how we feel about them. Try as we may, the contraction and consolidation of aviation will thin them out. Fortunately, every change offers opportunities. Lee Bottom is one of them.
Located within an eight hour drive of over 80% of the population of the United States and yet on the last undeveloped section of the Ohio River, the area offers the perfect chance for aviation to come together to save one old fashioned airport for future generations to enjoy. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity. Yet I feel I must once again point out that opportunity must be met with action; otherwise Lee Bottom too will be a thing of the past.
Is it worth preserving? Should it be preserved? Will it be here in twenty years? We have a plan that would work, but we can’t do it alone.
During the past year, I have personally spoken with some of aviation’s best known movers and shakers about the future of Lee Bottom Flying Field. As usual our ambitions are big and in speaking with these people the goal was to get a feel for how our idea played to a larger market. Thankfully, everyone I have spoken with is supportive and even open to helping. Yet, without your support, we just don’t see the purpose. Here’s why.
Lee Bottom is as much an idea as it is an airport. It is that place you think of when you haven’t flown in weeks; it’s the place you know you will be welcomed even before you arrive; it’s that place from your childhood where you took your first airplane ride. Lee Bottom is what aviation is supposed to be and it is the people who want that to survive who will determine its future.
With that out in the open, let’s discuss the first action item on the list. If we are to move forward with our long term plans for the airport, we feel it is important to first understand the demand, and amount of support, that actually exists for our annual fall event called The Wood, Fabric, & Tailwheels Fly-In. Although this event brought us to where we are today, it continues to cause us induced heartburn and some things must be sorted out for it to continue. Let me explain.
In the past, whenever we have attempted to discuss this subject, the number one response has been something along the lines of “have a cookout and let them pee in the woods”. Although it may seem simple and harmless, to us it says so much more to us. Let me spell it out. If someone thinks the size of the fly-in is the problem, then they do not understand why we are doing this. And, if someone thinks making the fly-in simpler would solve our problems then they too do not know why we are doing this. Here’s where the problem is coming from. ARE YOU READY??? Take a deep breath; let it out; now read: We are not doing this for ourselves.
Yes, we understand that some people likely believe they are just supporting our hobby when they support the fly-in but that just isn’t the case. When you support these events, you are supporting the aviation community by giving it substance; something more than just you and your airplane. You are giving it a sense of community. And if aviation doesn’t want that, then we certainly aren’t going to waste our time grilling hamburgers for 13 people who want free food and entertainment. It is time for people to understand that they aren’t helping us, they are helping themselves. If people are just coming to support us, then they need to stop because they are causing us to continue our efforts to support aviation when the demand doesn’t really exist. Does that make sense? We hope so. It is critical to the future of Lee Bottom.
So, here’s where we are with this project. This Tuesday, we are having a meeting to determine how much interest there really is in the fly-in. If there turns out to be enough people on hand willing to commit to it, really commit to it, people who understand it takes money, time, and effort to host such an event, then we will continue to have it. If there is not enough support, last year will have been the last and we will move on to the next item on the list. If you are thinking this was really short notice, that’s not the case. We invited a core group of people to this event a month ago. The reason we are now telling the larger group about it is because soon there will be several more opportunities for you to become involved in the future of Lee Bottom. It is our hope that you will take this time to consider what it is that you could contribute to the effort so that when the next items come around, you’ll be ready to act. And if you are interested in, truly interested in helping with the fly-in, email us and we’ll get you the information for the meeting.
As I said earlier, Lee Bottom Flying Field has the best supporters in the world. Thanks to them, Lee Bottom has thrived when other fields suffered. Yet if we are to insure a long life for the airport, if we are to protect it from development and the march of time, we must take this opportunity to do so. The realities of aviation are upon us and we must face them head on, early, and strong.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Did You Know?

Did you know that not every NORDO News blog post makes it to the newsletter? Yes that’s right; some posts are only received by those who have signed up to follow the blog or one of our social media sites. Therefore, if you’re not signed up, you’ve been missing a lot of inside information and editorials that can’t be found anywhere else.

To get the most recent NORDO News posts and dare to read editorials, sign up now. Here’s how:
Under the header NORDO News, at the top of this page and to the right of the photo slide-show, you will see a box that says “Follow our blog via email”. Below that title is a box where you type your email and then click “submit”. You are now signed up to receive every NORDO News posts.

If you want even more, look us up on social media. The Lee Bottom Flying Field facebook page routinely has photos from around the field that are not included anywhere else. These posts often come from people who have visited the airport and you are welcome to add some of your own.

The Calendars Have Left the Building

It’s that time of year again. The limited edition Lee Bottom Flying Field calendars are on the way to their new owners. Printed every year since 1987, these old fashioned items are now a quarter of a century old tradition. If you receive one, we hope you have someplace special to hang it and put it to good use.

Hanging in offices, hangars, and homes around the world, the Lee Bottom Flying Field calendars have become somewhat of a secret handshake for true aviators. Therefore, if you love the good old-fashioned sport of aviation, and you see one of these hanging on a stranger’s wall, without a word spoken you can almost guarantee you are among friends.

As always, we hope you enjoy them.

Disclaimer: If you are not a true aviator,  you have received this calendar in error; please give it to someone who is. This will save everyone some time and heartache. Any attempts to pass yourself off as a true aviator in order to keep the calendar will be discovered and you will be appropriately punished. Approved courses of punishment include tours of the local FSDO, one day as a volunteer stand-in for TSA cavity search training, three hours of listening to Michael Bolton, and the installation of radios in your favorite antique. You have been warned.

Friday, February 10, 2012

A Story to Tell

Looking back through the first three rows.
"Three type ratings, an airline job, one airport, well over a hundred different airplanes, countless fly-ins, and a marriage have all come into my life since I last stood on these grounds."  My mind raced with disbelief. "Could I have actually lost grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, acquaintances, and my father, in that period?"  A scan of my memory confirmed the details, all of them points on a timeline. Yet somehow, time at Galesburg had stood still.

Earlier in the day, lifting up and away from the sweet smell of grass, my free hand reached for a chart. Lodged firmly between the combing and windscreen, a GPS plotted a future that I ignored. Having never trusted electronics, the chart was my choice and I worked to flip it open. Excited cannot explain how I felt.

Since the last snowflakes of Winter my trip had been planned. Seven months later, it was all coming together. Up front the “mail pit” was filled with bags. At capacity, the aft compartment bulged with degreaser and towels. Down in the cockpit, a pilot was going home.

Home has many definitions but they all have one thing in common; you can never go there again. I’ve found this true is so many places that, after all the planning I almost didn’t take off. Let downs are tough when you’ve been expecting great things. Yet, at the last minute, I knew if I did not go I would regret it. And so, on a September Wednesday, I pulled ten blades and away I went to the National Stearman Fly-In. After all, I had a story to tell.

Stearman C3B with a classic car at Galesburg
Smooth, clear, and fast was the trip. Inside, the airspeed read one hundred. Outside, section lines said otherwise. Cross a border, look at the watch, cross the other side, mark time. Grabbing the GPS to verify my math, I could see I was doing about one-fifty. It would be a beautiful but uncharacteristically short flight and I would have to work hard to not to miss my landmarks.

Regulars to Galesburg can get anywhere by the railroad tracks. For me, the iron compass was critical. Leading into town, a bend in the line would mark the arrival. From there I would set up for the grass and slip quietly to Earth. I’ll never forget my first time.

The year was 1997 and Old Bess’ engine was still pinking from heat when I first saw the vision of beauty. Having just arrived at our first Stearman Fly-In, sensory overload was approaching when all else vanished. There in the grass, seemingly by herself, sat a silver and red square tail. She was amazing. Walking toward her, I drifted by others that paled in comparison. She was even prettier up close; A thing of vintage beauty; A Varga Girl in a Hooters Calendar. My oh my was I in love.

Tom Lowe's C3R
Walking around, crouching down, and going up on the tips of my toes occupied the ten minutes that passed before the owner said hello. He had been there all along but my eyes saw only the plane. Tom Lowe was that man.

Anyone who has ever met Tom likes him, period. Placed firmly on most short-lists of nicest people they’ve ever met, he simply is best described as being “a great guy”. And, that’s exactly how I found him to be. He didn’t laugh at me for drooling on his plane, every stupid question was answered politely without condescension, and he even offered to let me look inside.

Then he excused himself, leaving me there to enjoy.

A peek inside the cockpit of "The R".
Later, I would tell my friends about the encounter with the airplane and the owner. “Oh you met Tom” they said, and from the tone in their voices, I could tell he was one of the fixtures of the event. “Tom was one of the guys that started Galesburg.” Yep, I was right, Tom was certainly a man of significance when it came to Galesburg and now I was embarrassed. “Great, I must have looked like an idiot out there” I said to my friends. “Nah, you look like an idiot all the time”. “Good point” was my response and the conversation moved on.

Rows upon rows of Stearman Aircraft
Back then, my life was vastly different. Owning little but ambition, I hopped rides in my Stearman wherever I could. This Illinois town was one of those places.

The world’s largest gathering of Stearmans is a great market for scenic biplane rides and for several squares on the calendar I flew into the last light of day. Because of this, by the time I was done, the evening’s festivities would be well under way and I would be alone on the flight line. Tying the last rope and securing the covers one evening, I strolled carelessly through the planes like night security at the mall. Only the music from the hangar could be heard among the airframes secured to their wires. Daylight was fading and once again I found myself with the “square tail” Stearman C3R. Alone with the plane, I pondered its history and context, when once again the owner said hello.

There's no shortage of cool Stearman Aircraft at Galesburg

Envy is not something I do. Coveting another man’s airplane? Now that is something all-together different. When Tom walked up, I was therefore extremely embarrassed. One rule of manhood is to never let another see you want something they have. Not only can it cost you dearly in dollars should a deal ever happen, it removes large portions of one’s self-respect. Oh well, I was had. Fortunately, Mr. Lowe was every bit the good guy my friends believed.

“Are you going to be out here early tomorrow?” he said. “Yes sir”, I replied. To which he responded, “Then I think you need a ride in this thing.” He was right.

The next morning I rode with Tom out over the corn fields to a point where he let me take the controls. I’ll never forget that flight as he led me through maneuvers to show me the plane, how airspeed would bleed off in turns, how it behaved in level and slow flight, and what if felt like to fly such history, I sat grinning ear to ear. It had just experienced my first true antique and I would never be the same.

Upon landing, I thanked Tom profusely and, to insure I wasn’t a nuisance, I walked away. Fourteen years later, I returned.

I was taxiing into a parking spot when I first saw her. There, a few rows back, was the silver and red beauty from all those years ago. My ride tied down and the area in order, I set out to see her.

My friends would have to wait, or so I thought.

Walking toward the C3R, a group of guys huddled nearby. Laughing and conversing, it was my friends and Tom Lowe. In an effort to not interrupt, I signaled hello to a buddy.  As usual though, he insisted on pulling me in and, to those I did not know, I was promptly introduced. When things settled down and proper greetings were all in order, I took the opportunity to share the story I had come to tell.

Notice a lot of people are out flying their Stearmans.
“Tom, I know you don’t remember me but fourteen years ago I met you by this plane. I was here to hop rides but when I saw your plane just I had to come look it over. When you saw me drooling on it, you were very kind and offered me a ride. I know you don’t remember it, but I will never forget it. We flew out over the cornfields and once we were in the air you let me fly.  You explained to me her aerodynamics, how she loses speed in a turn and how she feels when slow. The day of that flight was the last time I was at Galesburg. Now, fourteen years later, I want to thank you for that flight and tell you first hand the best part.  When I finally made it back, I brought one myself,” and I turned to show him the C3B on the front line.

Tom knew the plane I was flying and was genuinely pleased with my story. He was, after all, largely responsible for me coming back and doing so in a “square tail”. Later that day I ran into him again and we talked about friends and other Stearmans we had flown. He too had been at the controls of the Stearman Cloud Boy owned by Ron Alexander (also owner of the C3B I was flying) and the mutual extremely rare experience left us both wishing there were more antiques left to fly. Unfortunately, I had nothing new for Tom to fly.  But, being the guy he is, Tom had something for me. “Would you like to fly the R?” he said.

That's me taxiing the C3R back in after flying it around the Galesburg corn-fields.
The next day, fourteen years after my flight with Tom, on the same field, at the same event, I took to the air in “The R”, only this time I was alone. Roaring over the cornfields, I worked hard to take it all in. The most exciting years of my life were now defined, book-ended by this machine. The first true antique in which I ever flew was now the most recent model on a long list of those I had flown, and I wondered, “Where do I go from here”?
That's Tom on the right posing with me for a photo by "The R".


If you ever have a chance to go to the National Stearman Fly-In at Galesburg, you should do it.  It is a great gathering of wonderful aircraft and people.  Everything about the event is warm and inviting and the planes are always flying.  To give you an idea what it's like, below I am including a few of my favorite photos from the event.

They say the key to being a good photographer is never letting people see anything but your best photos.  Well, quite frankly, I don't have time right now to run these through photo shop and pick only photos I would submit for revue.  Therefore, you will just have to suffer through this fragment of the photos I took.  I hope you enjoy them.

Marilyn and Pat; daughter and grandson of Lloyd Stearman.  She was three when this plane was built.