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 4 of 4)
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!”
Flying Farmers fun has included flights to Mexico, convention gatherings at locations across North America, tours of military installations and national parks, and, of course, fly-ins. Retired Kinsley, Kansas farmer Charles Schmitt and his wife Clara have loved every minute of it. “Those were the best years of our lives,” Schmitt said as the luncheon in Jenkinson’s hangar ended. “I said as a kid that if I could fly an airplane—or farm—I’d be happy, and I got to do both.”