An Airplane in Every Barn
A once-thriving organization of rural pilots is struggling to survive.
- By Giles Lambertson
- Air & Space magazine, August 2007
Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Look Magazine Photograph Collection
(Page 2 of 4)
Four years earlier, International Flying Farmer membership had reached its peak: 11,000. Today it is 1,400, and no members are in the growth sector of “corporate farming,” according to Kathy Marsh of the Flying Farmers headquarters in Wichita, Kansas. Some attribute the membership decline to the crisis in general aviation liability insurance that in the late 1980s forced Cessna to discontinue production of small aircraft for several years. Others blame the dwindling of the farm population. Simply put, farms today are fewer and bigger than they used to be, and they are more often run as industries than as family businesses. Flying Farmers was conceived in an era that was very different for both farmers and pilots.
The group began in 1944, on the campus of Oklahoma A&M University, as a state organization; it went national the next year. (The addition of Canadian chapters made the organization “International” in 1961.) A survey conducted in 1948 estimated that 20,000 U.S. farmers and ranchers were flying.
The headquarters building was erected in 1953, near the control tower at Wichita’s Mid-Continent Airport. A second story was added in 1969, when the organization was still expanding. But in the 20 years she has worked there, Marsh mostly has known cutbacks. Though a couple of aviation-related firms have offices in the building, Marsh is now the sole staff member in the Flying Farmers office suite.
Across adjacent taxiways from Marsh’s office is a maintenance facility for Cessna Citations; on the edge of the airport sits a Cessna manufacturing plant. Yingling Aviation sells Cessnas next door. The working relationship of Cessna and Flying Farmers is similarly close: Cessna regional sales manager Bruce Keller, an irrepressible booster of the organization, crowns the International Flying Farmers Queen each year in the name of company founder Clyde Cessna, “the first flying farmer.”
In the late 1920s, Wichita was already home to Cessna and 28 other young airplane companies. By the 1940s, the city had attracted such general aviation companies as Beech and Mooney and had begun to bill itself as the Air Capital of the World. These and other Kansas manufacturers—plus airplane-makers farther east, including Piper in Pennsylvania and Aeronca in Ohio—focused on the farm market. A Saturday Evening Post writer noted that in 1947, nearly three-quarters of the single-engine airplanes built that year had been snapped up by farmers.
In the 1940s and ’50s, the organization’s National Flying Farmer magazine had full-page advertisements by aircraft manufacturers touting the relationship of farming and flying. Luscombe called its Silvaire Sedan “the plane designed by farmers for farmers.” Stinson bragged that its Flying Station Wagon was “a personal plane specially built to meet the thousand-and-one needs of farmers and ranchers.” The Ryan Navion was introduced as “the plane you said you wanted.” Classified pages were stuffed with deals on Ercoupes and Fairchilds, Swifts and Taylorcrafts.
Airplanes rolled easily into farmers’ implement sheds. Chicago’s 1948 National Farm Show dedicated a full quarter of its floor space to a display of single-engine aircraft. In April 1949, Senator Elmer Thomas of Oklahoma noted in the Congressional Record that the farmer was accepting the airplane faster than he had the tractor “as a new farm implement necessary to his operations.”
In the early years of rural aviation, farmers used airplanes to hunt coyotes, disperse crows, spray sheep for pests, even keep air moving across orchards to fight off frost. They also developed uses for the airplane that are still valued today, such as the sort of look-down flights that favor high-wing aircraft—checking irrigation systems, photographing crops, and monitoring herds. Bill Valburg of South Dakota, for example, flies a Skylane around his 5,600-acre ranch to watch over his Black Angus cattle. He also short-hops his Piper Super Cub to the mailbox, four miles from his house.