People and Planes of Creve Coeur

In the department of flood recovery, Noah and his ark got nuthin’ on the folks at this little airport-except that many of the aircraft they saved are ones, not twos, of a kind.

The Question Mark is a 1932 Waco CTO ("T" for Taperwing). Phil Chastain is about to help Dan Mueller climb aboard. (Caroline Sheen)
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A.A. Bennett's nephew Ed Burnett, now in his 80s, was seven years old when he spent time with his uncle at the company in Idaho. Mullen found him while he was researching the airplane's history, and Burnett came to the airport to see the airplane he used to fly in as a kid. He told Peck that the maroon color was wrong. "He said this was much prettier than the original," Peck says. Burnett told Peck stories about the air transport business, including his memory of helping his uncle load a cow in the airplane's cabin. "He'd carry anything he could get through the door," says Peck, who restored the airplane based on nine black-and-white photos. "Mining equipment, groceries, tourists, supplies to the miners. And of course the cow."

Peck, who restores and maintains the aircraft in the airport's museum, has restored 16 airplanes since 1975. He is at work now on a de Havilland D.H. 4, the workhorse of early airmail service in the United States.

Don Parsons tells me I can't really appreciate Creve Coeur unless I see it from the air, and offers to take me with him to a Sunday pancake breakfast at nearby Shelbyville airport, just across the river in Illinois. Parsons, the very proud owner of a 1946 Fairchild 24R, a high-wing monoplane with a comfortable cabin, has become the unofficial-that is, volunteer-airport photographer. (Some of his photographs accompany this article; others can be found at "Al helped me buy my airplane," he says. As with several airplanes on the field, Stix is part owner of the Fairchild.

Under the Fairchild's wing, Creve Coeur looks particularly orderly on this beautiful calm morning. The hangars are arranged in eight neat rows along taxiways. Later, the doors will open and people will stroll from one hangar to the next or cruise on one of several bicycles propped at hangar doors to make the circuit among their friends.

Clouds reflect in the lake by the airport and in the ponds of surrounding farms. We fly over a tiny church, its parking lot full. To the south lie a ghost of a runway and abandoned hangars-what remains of Arrowhead airport, a warning that it takes a lot of hard work to keep little airports going.

After the shortest hour I've ever spent, we bounce down on Shelbyville's grass strip. Bob Howie shows us his collection of Wacos. Standing next to one 1927 beauty that has flown some 450 hours in almost 80 years, Parsons says, "Hear that?" I hear nothing but the skreeking of grasshoppers in the adjacent field. "That's all they heard when they were first flying these airplanes," he says. No noise from interstates, no noise from anything.

Back at Creve Coeur, Stix has the industrial-strength barbecue going, and I'm sitting at one of the picnic tables across from the two Connies and next to Greg Kuklinski, a Piper Tri-Pacer man, currently airplane-less. Kuklinski has been telling stories of what he calls "the Chastain dynasty" with occasional mirthful contributions from May Belle Chastain, who's at the next table. Kuklinski says that if you hang out at the airport enough you can get a ride or even borrow an airplane, but it helps if you're good-looking. At that moment Phil Chastain taxis by in a Yak 52 military trainer that he co-owns with Stix. Caroline Sheen, the magazine's picture editor, is waving to us from the back seat. "See what I mean?" Kuklinski cries out. "I've never gotten a ride in that airplane."

"Me either," says 81-year-old May Belle. "I can't get in. I can't climb that high."

Dan Mueller, having survived The Question Mark, has joined the group around the picnic tables, and people are talking about Les Heikkela, who has recently bought a P-51 Mustang. "He's flying the hell out of it too," says Kathie Ernst, a corporate pilot and engineer who's swinging on the porch swing. The chorus nods its approval. This is life as it should be, think the people of Creve Coeur. Work hard to buy the airplane of your dreams, then make the time to fly it as often as you can.

Haus, the airport dog, is lying motionless on the porch. He belonged to a family who lived next door. After they moved and took the big black Labrador with them, he ran away and made his way back to the airport. The family fetched him, but Haus came back again. Finally, the family gave up and left him to the care of airport manager Bob Cameron.

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