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 3 of 4)
Over the years, farmers have found all sorts of ways to merge aviation with farm life. When dairy farmer Curtis Phillips of Beaver Crossing, Nebraska, became a pilot at 45, he turned a 600-gallon stainless steel milk container into a tank for aviation fuel and used his Cessna Skyhawk “just like a pickup.” Lebanon, New Jersey dairyman Ryman Herr, 80, kept his Cessna 172 tied down in the open next to a 2,600-foot-long runway that gently rolls across the top of a hill on his 206-acre dairy farm. “When you’re in Humpty Dumpty terrain,” he says, “you have to make do with what you have.”
(Fortunately for farmers, sturdier landing gear struts are not required for single-engine aircraft touching down on unpaved runways, “Humpty Dumpty” or otherwise. Standard gear is fine for grass or paved surfaces, Cessna’s Bruce Keller says, with the exception of truly primitive landing sites, which require oversized wheels and tires. Nor does parking an airplane in the open automatically render it less airworthy, though Keller cringes when he sees airplanes parked outside and cautions that avionics can degrade more quickly when unsheltered.)
In New Jersey, truck farmers, dairy operators, poultry farmers, and cattlemen formed the first East Coast chapter of Flying Farmers in 1946. When West first met East at Flying Farmer conventions, George Conard of Flemington, New Jersey, recalls that prairie farmers would “look at us funny as if to say, ‘Well, are you real farmers?’ ”
The learning went both ways. Conard’s wife Judy enjoyed meeting people at conventions who had less “liberal” views than typical of the East Coast. “When you’re with people from the Midwest,” she says, “their whole attitude about life, about family, is totally different. It is really good to have that experience; it is very broadening. You learn you don’t have the answers for everything. Maybe you don’t have the answers for anything.”
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.