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The Question Mark is a 1932 Waco CTO ("T" for Taperwing). Phil Chastain is about to help Dan Mueller climb aboard. (Caroline Sheen)

People and Planes of Creve Coeur

In the department of flood recovery, Noah and his ark got nuthin' on the folks at this little airport-except that many of the aircraft they saved are ones, not twos, of a kind.

"Dan's going to fly The Question Mark tomorrow," says Terry Chastain to a small group gathered near his hangar. Heads nod approvingly and a few words of encouragement are directed toward Dan Mueller, who seems slightly uncomfortable-either with the attention or with the thought of flying the airplane. The Question Mark has a 500-horsepower modified Wright R975 engine, a lot of engine for a Waco Taperwing. The airplane was built in 1932. The following year, it crashed during a race in Oklahoma City, and its pilot was killed.

From This Story

At Creve Coeur Airport, everybody knows the little red Waco with the big engine. Everybody knows its caretaker, Terry Chastain, its owner, John Cournoyer (who is also part owner of the airport), and Dan Mueller, the pilot about to be initiated. In small-town Creve Coeur, everybody knows everybody else and what they fly-and how often.

Creve Coeur Airport is on the outskirts of busy, sprawling St. Louis, Missouri, and it's a world away. To drop in for a weekend is to step back to a time when flying was not a way to cross continents but a pastime to enjoy with friends and a chance to raise a little hell. It's not just that the airplanes you see puttering around the airport are almost all classics from the period between the world wars (the airport hosts one of the largest collections of vintage aircraft in the country-more than 75 Monocoupes, Stearmans, Travel Airs, Stinsons, Fairchilds, and rarer types). And it's not just because the setting is so lovely, a checkerboard of fields and farms with two great rivers, the Mississippi and Missouri, converging nearby. Creve Coeur evokes nostalgia because it, like most of the small airports profiled in this series, has found a way to keep the noise of modern life away from the airport grounds-or at least a way to drown it out with the continual cough and hum of Continentals, Lycomings, and the rarer powerplants of an earlier time.

When I visited Creve Coeur last fall, everybody I talked to told me that the chief reason the airport has managed to hang on to its small town quality is Al Stix, who bought the airport with two partners, John Cournoyer and John Mullen, in 1983. The three created enough airplane energy to draw others in, but Stix, a St. Louis businessman, is the social director who keeps them coming. Every Sunday between 50 and 60 people show up at the airport for meals that Stix cooks on giant grills. Stix also hosts an annual Halloween costume party, a Christmas party, and several fly-in parties throughout the year.

The American Waco Club has come to Creve Coeur for its fly-in every year since 1993. "Why would we want to go anywhere else?" says club president Phil Coulson, who flies a Waco UPF-7, the last open-cockpit biplane the Waco Aircraft Company built. "Creve Coeur is a rare airport, one of the best-kept secrets in general aviation," he says. "And it's not just the museum they have. Every hangar has something special in it."

Wacos seem to fit Creve Coeur: They were built in the 1920s and '30s, and they are perfect for joyriding (most can accommodate two passengers and a pilot). Despite their almost endless variations, Wacos are simple, reliable, and "great fliers," according to Stix. The airport's Historic Aircraft Restoration Museum, which comprises three hangars packed with 50 airplanes, features several Wacos. There's also a 1916 Sopwith Pup with the original 80-horsepower Le Rhône rotary engine, a Taylor E-2, father of the Piper Cub, which cruises at 65 mph, and the only flying de Havilland Dragon Rapide in the country (see "Restoration: Delightfully de Havilland," Feb./Mar. 2002). All but a couple of the aircraft are flyable-"the two or three that no one has yet had the nerve to try," says Stix. He has written a clever catalogue (on sale in the admin building) with affectionate descriptions of the aircraft handling characteristics, but the occasional tours he leads through the hangars are gruffly unsentimental. "Of course, if these airplanes were any good, [airplanes would] still look like this," he says.

Cournoyer usually has several aircraft under restoration at once, and his energy as a collector thrills the airplane voyeurs around Creve Coeur. "How many do you own?" I ask him. "I don't even know," he says. (A quick Web search turned up 21 Wacos and a like number of other types that he owns or co-owns.)

Terry Chastain, a retired oil well troubleshooter, has restored many of Cournoyer's aircraft. "We finished five airplanes in three years," he says. "John does a lot of the work." Chastain, who got his pilot's license on his 16th birthday, owns the only 1933 Flagg F-13 ever built. Designed by Claude C. Flagg of the short-lived LaSalle Aircraft Company in nearby Joliet, Illinois, the aerobatic airplane is only 16 feet from spinner to tail and has a 145-hp Warner Super Scarab engine. Chastain spent 11 years restoring it from pieces to the jewel-like sportster it is today: "5,263 hours and 15 minutes," he says.

Perhaps his greatest work of art is in the hangar next door: a 1952 Rawdon T-1, which he and his brother Phil, today a corporate pilot, helped their dad, Jack, restore in the late 1970s. The Rawdon has won seven awards, including Reserve Grand Champion in the Classic category at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin fly-in three years running. The late Jack Chastain, who worked for Rawdon Brothers Aircraft Company in Wichita, Kansas, had demonstrated a similar tandem-seat trainer to potential customers, including the governments of Colombia and Ecuador in 1952. On that trip, his wife May Belle occupied the Rawdon's back seat. (Colombia bought three.)

As Chastain tells the story of the Rawdon, I'm watching him work on yet another Waco for Cournoyer, this one, Chastain says, for sale, "though John may have seller's remorse. He usually does. That's why we painted it yellow." Cournoyer isn't fond of yellow airplanes, explains Chastain, so it's easier for him to let them go; Stix loves yellow.

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