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A Piper L-4 Grasshopper demonstrates the Brodie System, in which an aircraft snagged a trolley that ran along a cable in order to land on a short strip or a ship. (Caroline Sheen)

The People and Planes of Anoka County

Denizens of a small Minnesota airport: bombers, ones-of-a-kind, T-6s, Cubs, a 1938 Stinson SR10 once owned by the governor of Pennsylvania, and a veritable hive of homebuilders.

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Although just half an hour north of central Minneapolis, Anoka County-Blaine Airport looks less like a suburban airport than a remote Scandinavian village: a bit severe, clean as a whistle, cheerfully bland. The setting is not unlike the Minnesotan scenes in Garrison Keillor’s imaginary Lake Wobegon, with its community of distinctive characters. It is not immediately obvious, for example, that the residents of this little city of pastel hangars are extraordinarily single-minded about aviation, or that, while most of them have other lives, they seem to think the life at Anoka County-Blaine is the one that really matters.

From This Story

The airport stays open year-round—airplanes like the Minnesota winter’s dense, stable air—but it quiets down in the cold months. One resident pilot notes that the runways are kept clear and you can fly all winter—but you can freeze to death prepping your airplane.

The arrival of reasonably warm weather is celebrated with Discover Aviation Days, held the penultimate weekend in May. Warbirds, vintage civil aircraft, and homebuilts arrive for aerobatic displays, helicopter and open-cockpit rides, and tri-motor sorties. Hundreds of hangars decant their eclectic collections—a squadron of Russian jet trainers and a fighter, another of North American B-25 Mitchell bombers, yet another of T-6 trainers, a flock of slow-flying military liaison aircraft of yore, interspersed with ghosts from the Golden Age of Aviation and tiny, swift homebuilts.

DAD, as the fete is called, evolved from a pancake breakfast established two decades ago by Anoka’s Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 237. In recent years, the crowds have topped 25,000. DAD proved such a success that in 2003, the event was incorporated. The following year, the army of volunteers marshalled for the event expected 40,000 visitors.

Last May, however, the Minnesota weather ambushed DAD, thinning crowds with cold wind and rain. No warbirds flew in; now and then one could be heard above the overcast, approaching, then giving up, the growl receding. Candy-striped tents and kiosks set up along the flightline offered hamburgers, corn dogs, foot-longs, and caramel corn. There were tents for Pilots for Christ International, for the EAA, for the Air National Guard, with its cutaway C-130 Hercules cockpit, and for the usual vendors of aviation memorabilia.

A trio of pristine warbirds—two B-25s and a Convair L-13A—were trundled out for display. When the ceiling rose slightly, the L-13 began shooting stately touch and go’s, joined by a tundra-wheel Super Cub, then a minuscule buzzing homebuilt, then a yellow and blue Stearman PT-13. Three Russian jets—a couple of L-29s and an L-39—were towed across the field and tied down next to a pair of T-6s. In a nearby ring, the Piston Poppers’ tethered models swarmed like bees.

Saturday night’s Divine Swine pig roast didn’t attract many takers. But by the time the Fourth Annual Hangar Dance rolled around, 500 or so celebrants, dressed like extras in a 1940s film, had braved the elements to gather around tables with small American flags. Then, lulled by Dave Andrew’s Big Band, they settled happily into a past not all of them were old enough to remember.

Anoka County-Blaine Airport is also known as Janes Field, after the late Phillip Janes, a former Navy pilot who directed the Federal Aviation Administration’s General Aviation District Office and later worked with the Metropolitan Airport Commission for many years. The airport identifier is ANE—Janes with the J and S removed—but on the radio it’s just “Anoka Tower” and “Anoka Ground”—unless you’re an out-of-towner. According to airport manager Joe Harris, the number of Minnesota-registered aircraft calling Anoka home is 544, but some residents believe the airport hosts a thousand airplanes (though not all are airworthy).

The first tenant was Daniel F. Neuman, who in 1953 bought a hangar on the southwest side of the field. After 37 years of flying for Northwest Airlines, seven of them as a Boeing 747 captain and instructor, Neuman retired in 1978. Now, at 86, “I still pass my physical, still fly, I’m still doing what I love to do.”

Neuman does what he loves in an old hangar filled with neatly filed books and blueprints. Occupying much of the space is a 1929 Waco 10 fuselage frame, freshly sheathed in Irish linen. “It’s the third one I’m rebuilding,” Neuman says. “I’ve rebuilt a number of planes. Usually when I get through I sell them.” At the moment, he flies a 1980 Beechcraft F33A, a Buhl Bull Pup, and a 1938 Stinson SR10 Reliant.

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