Because many farm wives had been operating machinery alongside their husbands, sharing cockpit controls was a natural extension of the partnership. A pioneering early president of Flying Farmers, Forrest Watson, argued in a 1948 magazine editorial, “[I]n this association, women have their greatest chance to become an important segment of American aviation…. They need only make up their minds to become the equal of men in this game called flying.” While it would be another 50 years before a woman presided, female members familiar with agriculture and aviation issues were crowned queens and sent around the country to serve as ambassadors for the organization.
From the start, the organization focused on family. A “Landit” program encouraged both spouses to become familiar with cockpit controls in case the pilot was incapacitated. A teenage auxiliary formed. Scholarship programs enticed boys and girls to earn pilot licenses. No wonder airplane salesmen flocked to family farms.
In addition to addressing family issues, the organization energetically lobbied for cheaper airplane insurance, lower aviation fuel taxes, more local airports, better pilot training, and increased flying education. Today, public advocacy is only an incidental benefit Flying Farmer members get for their $70 annual dues.
George Conard, who served a one-year term as the organization’s president, cites the Experimental Aircraft Association, formed in 1953, as a smarter organization: “We let them take the ideas that we started,” Conard says of the EAA. That organization took up the causes of insurance, taxes, airports, and education, aggressively broadened its appeal beyond owners of homebuilt aircraft and never looked back. Today, EAA membership is 170,000.
Perhaps the most striking example of a pilot with memberships in both the EAA and Flying Farmers is Brian Strizki, who flies two distinctly different airplanes: an Aeronca Chief and a Van’s RV8, an experimental two-seat kitplane. Strizki is a New Jersey State Transportation Department engineer who first flew from a strip on his father’s tree farm. He eventually became New Jersey chapter president and then secretary of the international organization. But he resigned after his appeal for new vision went nowhere. He says he wanted to reinvigorate the organization without sacrificing Flying Farmers’ emphasis on family. “I think Flying Farmers needs stuff to attract more young people,” Striszki says. “More flying and less royalty.”
Such change is not apt to occur, Conard suggests: “The organization has come to the point that it accepts the decline as inevitable.”
In 1994, Flying Farmers finally changed its bylaws and began to admit non-farmers. The change has not slowed the membership decline.
“The romance of flying is gone,” says former Flying Farmers president Willis Wollmann. Wollmann still flies his Cessna Skylane to check the harvests on his farmland near Moundridge, Kansas, but he sees an era fading: “Most flying farmers no longer fly,” he says. “A lot of them have traded their airplane for a recreational vehicle.”
Back in Kansas, Jack Jenkinson—who this year is treasurer of International Flying Farmers—says he believes improvement in economic conditions is the key to the organization’s survival. He has seen too many struggling farmers sell their airplanes to pay off a bank note and never return to flying. Slouched in the driver’s seat of a 16-passenger bus he sometimes uses to shuttle pilots at fly-ins, Jenkinson sounded almost wistful. “I hope I don’t have to sell my airplane,” he said. “I told my wife I would rather sell the farm, but when it comes right down to it…”
He sat up straight to make a point. “Our biggest problem is that we don’t get the word out that we have so much fun!”