You’ve Got Mailplanes
Square-tail Stearmans, straight-wing Wacos, and Hisso Jennies top the roster of antique airplanes at a captivating grass strip in Iowa.
- By John Fleischman
- Air & Space magazine, January 2009
(Page 2 of 4)
Our air armada was carrying commemorative “covers,” blank envelopes with colorful pictures and imprints made by a rubber “cachet” to mark the occasion, making them suitable for collectors. The covers were also suitable for real letters, as we discovered in Iowa City, where postmaster Doug Curtiss and two clerks had set up an office at the airport. Their job was to “back stamp” the covers: mark them as officially received so we could fly them back to Blakesburg. But Curtiss had his own supply of 90th anniversary airmail covers for sale, plus first-class postage at 42 cents. There were no airmail stamps—there has not been a domestic airmail class since 1977, when the Postal Service said that most first-class mail was flying, airmail stamp or not. Today, the USPS flies 316 million pieces of first-class mail a day, mostly on the aircraft of Federal Express, the postal service’s biggest air contractor. Personal letters, or what the postal service calls household-to-household correspondence, make up less than one percent of first-class mail.
I meant to write a letter, honest. But our time in Iowa City was limited, and I calculated the Tri-motor would need an hour for the return flight. The Ford 4-AT-B is authentic right down to the 1927 toilet with authentic direct-to-the-outside discharge. The Iowa City airport offered less daunting facilities.
If I had written, I would have told you that it was exhilarating to fly at 1,500 feet over Iowa’s golden ocean of corn, watching the Tri-motor’s big shadow skim the green waves below. I would have filled you in about Blakesburg, which is short for the annual meeting of the Antique Aircraft Association and its associated Air Power Museum. Bob Taylor started the association in August 1953 with a $12 classified ad in an aviation magazine. “I got 12 members at a dollar apiece, so I broke even,” Taylor recalls. “It’s been about the same ever since.”
The first fly-in, held in 1954 at the Ottumwa airport where Taylor was the operator, attracted five aircraft. The fly-in has been at Blakesburg since 1971, after Taylor bought a 147-acre farm, filled in a ravine to create a 2,200-foot grass strip, and threw up a row of hangars. The 2008 gathering drew more than 325 aircraft and about 1,600 members.
The Blakesburg fly-in is not an airshow. Blakesburg is a meeting for AAA/APM members only, Taylor says, because airshows are a pain in the neck. They draw people who know nothing about airplane safety or etiquette, people who walk into off-limits areas and into spinning props.
Blakesburg is the Un-Oshkosh. (As airplane fans know, Oshkosh is short for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual Wisconsin fly-in, which last summer drew 540,000 attendees and 10,000 aircraft.) Blakesburg is low-key and intimate. If you don’t know most of the Blakesburg crowd by the end of the weekend, they’ll probably know you, at least by sight. In fact, Blakesburg is not open to the public. To attend, you’ll need to pay $35 to join AAA/AMP as an associate member.
Local caterers serve home-cooked food in industrial quantities. A lively aerial flea market offers ancient altimeters, retro aviator shades, and conversational scraps like “I wanted to give him my propeller, but no, he went out and spent two grand on a new one.” Ride offers came at me from every side, including from one gentleman who, after explaining, panel by panel, how he’d assembled his retro acrobatic kitplane, offered me the keys to take it up solo. (Unlicensed, I declined.) At night, old aviation movies aired in the museum hangar. Saturday night was 1932’s Air Mail, with Pat O’Brien and Ralph Bellamy.
The U.S. Air Mail Service was the orphan child of technology, politics, and patronage. Otto Praeger was the Washington correspondent for the Dallas Morning News in 1914 when Postmaster General Albert Burleson, an old friend, Texas hunting buddy, and fellow Democrat, named him postmaster of Washington, D.C. The next year, Burleson named Praeger his Second Assistant and mandated the newsman to modernize all post office transport. Even consider airplanes, Burleson said.