A Tale of Two Fly-Ins
by Rob Bach, originally published in Atlantic Flyer 2008
It is Cold.
The kind of cold that seeps into your mind and even the flannel-warm
bed can’t help you sleep. I leave my wife covered in cats, pull on my
heavy boots and take the trek outdoors to our studio: 32 steps into
The moon blasts a stainless steel shine on the snow. It is so cold you
can’t walk quietly. It’s like walking on Styrofoam: as if Hollywood
left this impossibly cold scene here and ran off to the Oscars before
striking the set.
Despite the freeze, the river runs black on white through the
woods. It doesn’t seem to mind the ice setting at its edges. I think
it too cold for water to run and for a second in the moonlight, it
looks like liquid obsidian.
The trees creak. They are black barked against the frost. It’s too
cold even for color to travel from the woods to my eyes.
But, I’ve braved the chill, left the comfortable bed behind and force
my fingers to type. Even the computer is cranky with the cold. There.s
a story in my head I have to get out and at midnight it’s only 32
steps back to the warm… a few more to flannel sheets and a wife that
heats the night like a coal stove.
I think of the story I promised, deadline passed. It’s about a summer
fly-in and may appear in some summer issue, the faces of tanned and
smiling pilots looking at us all from open cockpits gracing the cover.
I can’t even remember being warm enough to smile.
But that’s the magic of a story: it can take a reader any where, any
when it likes. So tonight, with wild mice scratching at the door to
get cozy for bit, we’ll go to a hot summer’s day amid tall Iowa corn
surrounded by the sound of round engines.
Since I was a boy, the smell of yesterday’s hay and Marvel Mystery
Oil, the exhaust of a freshly fired Wright J5 and old leather, of tall
rubber wheels and varnish and gas have soaked my skin. I can’t ever
seem to shake it and my wife has come to know the smell of the hangar
even though she rarely goes there.
Strong scent is tied to memory and walking through the annual
invitational fly-in at Blakesburg, Iowa is dizzying with the past.
This field I’ve walked many times: grass stained with heavy weight oil
here, depressions left by big wheels where a Bamboo Bomber once
parked, there the shadows of rows of Wacos, beyond that where I tied
my Travel Air down for a week. I know it by paces.
Every year I add another memory to the earliest: the first year I came
by air after we moved away. I was 11 years old and flew with Dick
Denkema in a glorious Stinson Gullwing. The next year I flew in with
John Bright in his Tiger Moth, the next all the way from Massachusetts
with Mom in her Tiger.
Planes were the reason I got interested, people are the reason I keep
When I was young they took me in: Jack Greiner let me solo his Cub
when I was a teen and in that act of kindness, he bestowed on me a
responsibility to pass that gift on. When I would “run away” from home
(with Mom’s permission), it was the Newhouse family that watched over
me. Bob Taylor, our host all these years kept me busy (and here I
thought I was volunteering). To know these folks and so many others
like them is the reason the other 50 weeks of the year are worth
To see them all one more time. To shake a hand cleaned of oil on a
pair of jeans just as you walk up. To sit in the shade of the hangar
and hear stories by someone who was a kid when you were a kid… now old
enough to have stories like our fathers before us.
No, this fly-in is not so much about the airplanes, at least for
me. If there were no fuel left to fly the airplanes here, the people
would come anyway, I suppose.
It’s one of those rare places where all the set pieces are in place
and we come as the cast with a loose script to follow. Even though
I’ll only see some of these folks for a few hours each year, they
number among my closest friends. It is the memory of them through the
years that keeps me coming back.
“Hi there, old friend, good to see you… what was your name again?”
When I describe the fly-in to prospective recruits they can’t seem to
figure out why I would spend my only vacation for the entire year in
IOWA. In AUGUST.
But I tell them about the lemonade in the shade of the main hangar
with a view unmatched anywhere else: 250 little old airplanes taxiing
by off for a sortie or just back from an ice cream down in
Keosaqua. Each plane has a person I know: either just met that morning
over coffee or someone that’s known me since I was underfoot trying to
look pitiful enough to get a ride up where it might be a little
I tell them about the new library, the old museum, the parts market. I
tell them about sleeping under the wing with the sound of crickets and
laughter coming from the pub across-field. I tell them about the
people who go, and the people who’ve long gone.
One in ten might understand, one in a hundred might go next time
around. Those that do always go back. Either way, I’ve done my job to
spread the Gospel.
It took me a while to fly in with an airplane of my own.nearly 25
years. I’ve been here with the Travel Air, the Interstate, the
Cruisemaster, and our latest rebuild: the Aeronca Sedan. Maybe next
year we bring the Pietenpol. I’ve been lucky.
Five days we spend there each year, going home on Labor Day
Monday. Tuesday is a day of rest… but we leave the plane
packed. Wednesday is off to Blakesburg’s northern twin: the Grass
Roots event in Brodhead, Wisconsin.
Hard to compare one to the other. The differences are historic,
geometric and culinary. The runway is longer and wider. I park in the
trees and camp under pine boughs instead of oaks. The food doesn’t
come close to Iowa cuisine: seems the farther you get from Ottumwa,
the worse the steamburgers get. Not their fault that my particular
favorite food item only tastes good in the county I grew up in.
Brodhead doesn’t have the history that Blakesburg has, but it has
fabulous old airplanes all resident to the field. Each hangar open
most of every day has a delight only to be out done by the next. If
you want to steep yourself in OX-5s, McClatchie Panthers, LeRhones,
Lamberts, and Szekelys then Brodhead is your teapot. Ever wonder what
it was like to spend a few minutes behind an engine slinging Castor
oil? Come and get it while the Chili is cookin’.
Brodhead is smaller than Blakesburg making it easier to see all the
attendees, but it still takes me an hour or so to cross the field (one
can’t just walk past an old friend without a chat, you see). 300
airplanes or so fly to each one regardless of the layout.
Camping, showers and poison ivy are available at either one. Hotels
are scarce around Brodhead, but there are lots of hangars to sleep in.
Both fly-ins are an opportunity to see rare airplanes where they
belong: taxiing around the grass and in the air in formation with
other rare birds. Both fly-ins are safe havens for the same
practitioners of this fine old art. An open cowling attracts crowds at
each airport, a good landing goes unnoticed but you will hear all
about your .exciting. ones around the fire each night. I get to hear
that a lot.
And curiously, by some arcane tradition, each fly-in has a
time-honored award bestowal ceremony which takes place in the dark of
night. “Teenager’s Choice” or “Two-Ply Grand Champion” winner is
evident by first light of the morning after.
There are lots of airplane swapping, buddy rides, hot dogs, dawn
patrols, sunset formation flights and idle chats under the wing in
between. A Heath will taxi by 12 times one day with six different
pilots at the controls. A Bird will fly rides all day stopping only to
fuel plane and pilot. And by sunset, you’ll have seen a formation of
OX-5 powered biplanes being chased hard by a fleet of 40hp flivvers.
If you had to choose only one of these wonderful events to go to,
consult an oracle or choose favorable winds. I won’t ever miss
either. Blakesburg has been the focus of my flying life since I was
old enough to point and make airplane sounds. Brodhead is a newcomer
comparatively.but it is within an hour by Pietenpol and how could
anyone resist a fly-in/fish boil/bonfire/campout-under-a-billion-stars
The West has Watsonville and Merced. The Northwest has Cottage Grove
and Spokane. Down Texas way there’s Denton and Kerrville. Try a week
of Sun and Fun in Florida or a slew of fine New England meets… but
we’re lucky that the two best fly-ins in the country are just 250
miles and a week apart.
Make your plans now.
Labor Day weekend and the days leading to it are (let me check)… 200
days off. Just about the time everything has thawed out here this
February night by the river 32 steps away.