The People and Planes of Anoka County

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

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)
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Anoka is also home to Greg Herrick’s Golden Wings collection, which comprises about 40 of aviation’s rarest craft. Herrick settled on the Golden Age of Aviation as a pilot and collector, but his interest goes far beyond owning and using a priceless work of flyable art. For example, he doesn’t see the Fleetwing Seabird as just a shining amphibian with a big radial engine atop its high wing. He sees a relic of an era when manufacturers were choosing a metal with which to cover aircraft. The Seabird is all stainless steel, built for imperviousness to rust, even in the sea.

The collector values the back stories of his airplanes as much as the machines themselves: the Arrow Sport designed for the 1930s Bureau of Air Commerce’s Everyman’s Airplane competition; the 1935 Waco Wind Harp, considered the Learjet of the 1930s, that ferried gamblers to Havana; the replica of Amelia Earhart’s Avro Avian biplane; the Kreutzer tri-motor retrieved from a mountain strip in Mexico. The only thing Herrick likes better than telling their stories appears to be flying them (see “The Magical History Tour,” Aug./Sept. 2003).

The unwritten rule at Anoka County-Blaine: If you see a car outside a hangar, you’re free to go in and visit, borrow a tool, seek some advice, and, if the hangar is Dan Neuman’s, have a cup of tea. On this day, Neuman hands a bulky case to the visiting Greg Herrick. Inside is a set of World War II-vintage Japanese naval binoculars. Herrick is clearly charmed by the gift, but protests. Neuman waves away the objections: “You’re always giving me stuff. Thought I’d reciprocate.”

At Anoka-Blaine, homebuilts constitute a large part of the mix. Gary Specketer, a noted crafter of homebuilts who is active in the EAA chapter and a principal in the Anoka County Airport Association (basically a hangar owner’s group), has built a Dragonfly and a GlaStar, finished a Van’s RV-4, and helped colleagues with GlaStars and Glasairs. He flies a Glasair III he built 16 years ago that looks as fresh as one of Herrick’s Golden Agers. “You build a homebuilt either to get performance you can’t buy, or an airplane you can afford,” he says. He says his rocketship gives him 295 mph cruise—southern Florida is five and a half hours away, he says, and five more to the Virgin Islands. But now he’s thinking about selling it and building a Van’s RV-10.

He also employs his expertise as a technical counselor for the EAA. “The big question when you haven’t built before is: What do I spend time on? The counselor gives shortcuts, warns of misdirection. There are 500 to 600 EAA counselors. The FAA won’t inspect a plane if you haven’t had a counselor inspection.”

Nancy Carter, current president of EAA Chapter 237, presides over the airport’s weekend pancake breakfasts, chatting with colleagues and accepting the occasional $20 dues from new members. “We’re very active,” she says. “We have about 50 builders in our group. Some are on their third plane. Most of them have at least a couple of airplanes.” At the EAA Christmas party, plaques are awarded to members who have completed projects. Most years there are three or four, some years as many as 13.

Carter joined the EAA in 1996. “I started to build a plane—a DR-109, two-seater aerobatic,” she says. “The airplane’s still in my basement.” The man responsible for her having an airplane in her basement, she says, was the late Mike Langer, a former Mohawk pilot in Vietnam. “He was the kind of person who encouraged dreams. I was living in an apartment. Then I ended up having the house built, a walkout with double doors because of the plane. Right now I have wings in the basement.”

Another thing Langer made happen was the American Wings Air Museum, at the north end of the flightline, next to the control tower. “Mike and I had worked together since the mid-1970s,” says museum director Len Burgers. “He happened to find the serial number of an A model Mohawk he’d flown a lot in Vietnam. Brought it back to a T hangar—then, in December ’85, began moving stuff here. In the meantime he’d been talking with Grumman and the Army. To restore it required more support from them. They said they’d be glad to help except we weren’t a museum. So we started doing the paperwork. Started acquiring Mohawks. We once had 14. We opened November 1997. Mike died April 1998.” Langer’s Vietnam Mohawk has been in storage since his death.

American Wings has lent floor space to the Minnesota Air & Space Museum, which has no home, to restore a 1911 Steco Aerohydroplane. The project feels more like archaeology than aircraft restoration.

The only airplane built by Stephens Engineering Company (hence “Steco”) was flown a few times off Lake Michigan, then packed away in crates and left in a Chicago garage. Three-quarters of a century later, Dennis Eggert, the president, recovery team captain, and chief mechanic of the Minnesota Air & Space Museum, came upon the remains and opted to restore the Steco.

About Carl A. Posey

Novelist and award-winning science writer Carl A. Posey was the author of seven published novels, a number of non-fiction books, and dozens of magazine articles. He was a licensed pilot and an Air & Space magazine contributor for more than 30 years, beginning with its second issue in 1986. Posey died on February 9, 2018.

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