An Airplane in Every Barn

A once-thriving organization of rural pilots is struggling to survive.

An airplane-dependent Colorado ranch profiled in a 1952 Look magazine article. (Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division/Look Magazine Photograph Collection)
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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.

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.”

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