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Poplar Grove Airport: Where Flying is Fun

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From its beginning as the first airport in Boone County, to being named the 2015 Best Private Airport in Illinois, Poplar Grove Airport has earned a unique reputation among aviators.

Pilot Ken Starzyk flies his 1930 biplane over the grass landing strip at Poplar Grove Airport, to the delight of admiring fans. (Jon McGinty photo).

Pilot Ken Starzyk flies his 1930 biplane over the grass landing strip at Poplar Grove Airport, to the delight of admiring fans. (Jon McGinty photo).

Located on Illinois Rt. 76, a few miles north of Belvidere, Poplar Grove Airport doesn’t look like what we’ve come to expect at a modern airport. There are no cyclone fences topped with barbed wire surrounding the field, no air traffic control towers, no terminal, no armed guards, no commercial jets or corporate airplanes roaring off into the blue.

Instead, what you see are lots of hangars, several with a vintage look, and lots of small planes landing and taking off on the grass, some with two wings strung with wires, all propeller-driven; many are older than their pilots. Depending on the timing of your visit, you might see families with kids sitting in the grass watching the airplanes, or lined up to get a ride – many for the first time – into the beckoning sky. Welcome to the way flying used to be…aviation for the pure fun of it!

The Airport

Poplar Grove airport occupies 240 acres of what was once a dairy farm. Dick Thomas and partner John Strom started a small grass landing strip on this field in 1972, which became the first public airport in Boone County, and was named Belvidere Airport. Dick, a dairy farmer, and his son, Steve, had earlier been introduced to flying by a visitor to their farm, and were “bit by the flying bug.” Airplanes and aviation became a passion for them both. “It wasn’t hard for me to give up milking cows and shoveling manure for flying,” recalls Steve Thomas, 63. “My career goal soon became wanting to be an airline pilot.”

Steve attended Rock Valley College and Northern Illinois University, where he met Tina, his future wife and current co-owner of Poplar Grove Automotive, the business that runs the airport today. He took Tina aloft for the first time in 1975.

“I was in nursing school when we met,” says Tina, 61. “I had never been up in a plane before, and, although fascinated, I was kind of nervous.” She knew, however, if she was to make a life with Steve, she “needed to make sense of it.” Today, Tina has all her pilot ratings and manages the flight school at the airport, among many other tasks. The Thomases were married in 1978, and have three grown children.

Early on, Steve and Tina became interested in restoring old airplanes, and have transformed many “basket cases” into flying aircraft over the years. Tina learned the lost art of rib-stitching – sewing fabric onto airplanes – from her father-in-law, Dick. Together, the Thomases have restored and currently fly a 1952 Twin Beech-18 and several WACO biplanes. They’re working on a 1944 Beechcraft Staggerwing and a 1930 Corbin Super Ace monoplane, among others.

“A lot of us feel we are caretakers of history,” says Tina. “We don’t want to see anything turn into dust, so we fix ‘em up, restore them, and hope somebody will enjoy flying them. It’s an honor to restore old airplanes, and it’s a wonderful opportunity to fly these historic aircraft typically found in museums.”

Airport Development and the Air Park

The Belvidere Airport was intended to provide Dick Thomas’s retirement income when he quit farming, but his health became a problem. When Steve’s dream of being an airline pilot failed to materialize, he bought the property from his parents in 1994, when his dad died. At that point, the airfield contained a few hangars, a 4000-foot asphalt runway, two grass landing strips and 45 based aircraft.

“We looked at our options for the future of the enterprise, and decided not to compete with Rockford’s nearby airport for corporate and commercial business,” says Steve. “Instead, we decided to cater to the general aviation owner/pilot, and create a ‘lifestyle’ airport for people who fly for fun. We studied the demographics and learned there were 20,000 pilots who lived within an 80-mile radius of us, and about 6,000 were commercial pilots based at O’Hare. As they retired, more pilots would probably move here to take their place.”

Thomas drew up plans for the construction of a flying community subdivision – an air park – adjacent to the airport, in which homes could include a hangar and have taxiway access to the airfield. He estimated there were about 400 such facilities nationwide at the time, but few in Illinois and none in this area.

“We’re located in Boone County, so I went to the county board with a request for residential zoning for 170 acres next to the airfield,” says Thomas, “including 100 lots with airport access and 40 without.”

A vocal minority of nearby property owners strenuously objected to the plan, and tried to convince board members to deny his request. After months of cantankerous debate, which was widely reported in the local press, Thomas approached the village of nearby Poplar Grove with the suggestion that it annex the airport and grant the zone change. Within months, farmers between the village and the airport annexed their land to the village to make it contiguous, and the zoning was approved.

“I was so proud of that village board, who could see the difference between good and bad growth,” says Thomas. “So we changed the name to the Poplar Grove Airport in 1996. Bel Air Estates, the airpark, was sold out in four years. People moved here from all over the country.”

One of the first couples to buy a lot was Ken and Lorraine Morris, who moved to Bel Air Estates in 1998. Ken, 61, retired from Republic/Northwest/Delta five years ago as captain, after 27 years of service. Lorraine, 53, still flies as co-pilot for United, mainly on international flights.

“We originally picked a lot back in the weeds, away from the runways,” says Ken. “But after visiting friends at another air park near Marengo, we realized we wanted to be near the action. So, here we are, right next to the asphalt runway.”

Like the Thomases, Ken and Lorraine love to restore older airplanes. They own a 1954 Twin Beech-18 similar to the Thomas airplane, a V-tail Bonanza – they call it the “company jet to get in and go somewhere” – a 1950 Cessna 140A “taildragger” and a 1931 Curtis Jr.

Lorraine also restores aircraft interiors, as a side business. Both pilots enjoy living in the airport community, and compare it to a boater/fisherman who lives on a lake, or an avid golfer residing on a golf course.

“If you like airplanes, this is what you want to do and where you want to be,” says Ken.

“One of the nicest advantages to living here is that you’re not limited to flying only on weekends, like people who must commute to their airplane,” says Lorraine. “If the weather is nice and you’re home, you can fly anytime. And if you forget something in the plane, it’s right there in the hangar.”

The Morrises are qualified to fly the Experimental Aircraft Association’s World War II B-17 bomber, “Aluminum Overcast,” the only husband/wife team so rated. They have been a part of the EAA crew for the past three years, and spend 80 to 100 days a year flying demonstration and paid-for flights for the general public all over the country.

“It’s a physically demanding airplane to fly, but with no scary habits,” says Ken. “I compare it to driving a cement truck without power steering.”

In addition to the flying community next door, Poplar Grove Airport has other unique features that attract and retain pilots and their families. Instead of renting his hangars, Thomas sells them with a 99-year lease. This means pilots are owners of their hangar/work areas, can finish them as they see fit, and when the time comes to move on, there’s a ready market for them.

“There are more than 400 aircraft based here, which makes our airport one of the biggest in Illinois,” says Steve. “Where publicly owned airports cost taxpayers to maintain and support them, we now have a critical mass of people and planes, so the airport can support itself without any tax subsidies or federal bureaucracy. It’s thriving.

“We also have a world-wide reputation for the quality of work done in our engine overhaul shop and airframe shop,” he adds. “We work on airplanes from all over the country and the world. In 2010, Aviation Consumer Magazine rated our engine shop No. 2 in the country. And this past May, the IDOT Division of Aeronautics awarded us the 2015 Illinois Private Airport of the Year award. In addition, a 2012 IDOT Division of Aeronautics economic impact study showed the Poplar Grove Airport contributes $18.3 million to the local economy.”

Rock Valley College has supplied mechanics-in-training to Poplar Grove for years, and Thomas expects the expanded training facilities at Rockford’s airport will do the same in the future.

Tina Thomas manages the flight school at Poplar Grove, which includes five full- and part-time certified instructors, and a well-maintained fleet of eight rental aircraft, including a vintage Piper J-3 Cub and a Cessna 140 for those who prefer to learn in a “taildragger,” a plane with a tail wheel.

“We still teach basic stick-and-rudder flying techniques,” says Tina, “and we don’t permit our students to depend on fancy electronic devices, like autopilots and computers, until they get their license. All that technology can fail, and you need to know how to fly without it if it does.”

The flight school is also a way of attracting new customers, since every new pilot may someday want to own or rent an airplane, hangar or a home in Bel Air Estates, and become part of the aviation community.

The Museum

Another institution at Poplar Grove Airport is the Vintage Wings and Wheels Museum, the public face of the Poplar Grove Aviation Education Association. The museum began to acquire buildings in 1997, which are now located north of the runways on 12 acres donated by the Thomases. The museum is at the junction of two runways, so visitors can easily see just about every take-off and landing during visits.

“We wanted to create a unique museum,” says past president and co-founder Paul Wallem, 82. “Our collection of buildings, vehicles and artifacts covers the period between 1903 and 1938. 1903 was the year the Wright brothers first flew, the Ford Motor Company started, and Harley-Davidson began operations. We also avoided World War II, since that era is covered so thoroughly elsewhere.”

The campus includes several historic and restored buildings, including a 1931 hangar from Capitol Airport in Springfield, Ill.; a 1927 hangar from Mitchell Field in Milwaukee, where Tom Hamilton began building airplane propellers (think Hamilton/Sundstrand); an all-metal 1926 Sunoco gas station, obtained from the Illinois Railway Museum in Union; and a 1927 auto dealership called “Slim’s Garage” from Green Lake, Wis.

The primary acquisition, which now houses the collection of aviation and automotive artifacts, is a 1938 hangar from Waukesha Airport in Wisconsin. It was disassembled, trucked to the museum campus and reassembled in 1999, including the intricate Lannon stone exterior. The federal Works Progress Administration built it during the Great Depression.

“Our collection tries to show the public how the aviation and automotive industries grew up together and how they changed the ways people worked and played,” says general manager Judi Zangs, 60.

Currently on display is a depiction of the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop, a restored 1937 John Deere farm tractor, a hot-air balloon, and the first truck ever sold in Boone County, donated by Wolf Chevrolet in Belvidere. Several restored airplanes complete the exhibit, including a 1931 American Eaglet once owned by Ken Morris’s father, Gene, in which Ken first soloed.

“It’s still a flyable airplane,” says Zangs, “and we plan to take it off the blocks next year, obtain an airworthy inspection, then have Ken fly it around for us as a demonstration.”

In 2012, the museum association collaborated with the local EAA chapter to raise funds for the construction of a multi-use hangar for restoration projects.

“We’re two totally separate organizations, but by working together we were able to create a building we can both use,” explains Wallem.

Wallem has had a hangar on the Poplar Grove field for 43 years, flying mostly 1941 PT-19s, a low-wing monoplane with an open cockpit used as a primary trainer during World War II. Two years ago when he turned 79, Wallem decided the time had come to stop flying and sold his last airplane.

About 12 years ago, the museum association started a program for teenagers who were seriously considering a career in aviation. Called Youth Exploring Aviation (YEA), they meet every Thursday evening in the new hangar, where they’re restoring a 1941 Aeronca Chief. The association also fundraises and sponsors scholarships for students aspiring to aviation careers.

In 2013, Belvidere residents Jack and Peggy Wolf donated a 16-foot bronze statue of early aviation pioneer Elrey Jeppeson, which now stands at the entrance to the museum campus. Jeppeson was one of the first flyers to produce valuable navigation charts for pilots. Subscribers still use modern versions of them to stay found as they fly cross-country.

Curators Joanna Dowling and Mike Fredrickson have recently begun an oral history project at the museum, titled Community Through Stories. Their intention is to record with video or audio the personal recollections of people who lived in Boone County, to be used for research, education or future exhibits. They are also collaborating with the Ida Public Library in Belvidere to collect and store the stories.

The EAA

Ed Myers is president of EAA Chapter 1414, which meets on the second Tuesday of each month in the joint EAA/Wings & Wheels hangar on the museum campus.

“Our membership is open to anyone who wants to learn about airplanes, become a better pilot, build or restore or maintain an airplane, or just enjoy the company of people with similar interests,” says Myers.

The chapter began in 2005, and has 114 members, many of whom live in Bel Air Estates. There are several sub-groups within the EAA who have special interests in specific kinds of aircraft, including homebuilts (self-constructed from plans or kits); vintage (restored airplanes from before 1971); warbirds (military aircraft from World War I and II, Korea and Vietnam eras); and ultralights (powered gliders, parachutes and parasails). Each meeting at Poplar Grove begins with a meal/social hour, followed by a presentation on some aviation topic, and/or a show-and-tell by a member with his or her airplane.

From May through October, the chapter sponsors a pancake breakfast fundraiser on the second Sunday of each month in its hangar.

The Young Eagles program, begun nationally in the 1990s, provides youth between 8 and 17 an easy and fun introduction to flying. The program begins with an introductory flight with an EAA volunteer pilot, and includes a student membership in EAA and a free private pilot online ground school course. If students pass a test midway through the course, the EAA sends them certificates redeemable for a free flying lesson with a certified flight instructor. If they pass the final test, they become eligible for scholarships to aviation education institutions.

“Since its start, we’ve introduced nearly 2 million young people to aviation nationwide,” says Myers. “We also have an Eagles Flight program for adults, which is a more one-on-one experience.”

Myers lives in Crystal Lake, but flies a restored 1954 Piper Pacer and recently acquired a 1974 Bellanca SuperViking, both of which he stores at Poplar Grove. He is also kit-building a Pitts Model 12, a high-performance sport biplane, which he has been working on for the past five years in his garage. When asked when he plans to finish its construction, he replies, “It’ll be done Thursday. I don’t know which Thursday, but as long as I don’t put a date on it, I don’t have to feel guilty when I don’t make it.”

The Builders

In one of the Poplar Grove hangars at the end of a row, father and son Bryan and Adam Cotton are working together on the construction of a kit airplane called the Waiex. Bryan, 49, is an aeronautical engineer who used to work for Sikorsky Aircraft in Connecticut and New York. He and his family moved to Bel Air Estates about three years ago, and started the construction project soon afterward.

“I’ve been around airplanes since I was 23, building, restoring or flying them,” says Bryan Cotton. “And I’ve put tools in my kids’ hands since they were five or so.”

Adam, 14, is a freshman at Belvidere North High School, and has put more than 160 hours into the airplane project so far. His younger brother, Matthew, 12, has helped, too.

“The plan is for us to finish the Waiex by next year,” says Adam. “Then I can start flying lessons in it, solo, and eventually get my private pilot’s license.”

The Waiex is a two-seat, side-by-side, low-wing monoplane with a fixed landing gear and a tailwheel. It’s powered by an 80 hp VW-type engine that will fly it at about 130 miles per hour for four hours on one tank of gas. The kit is mostly sheet metal construction, but with some molded fiberglass parts.

“A kit plane is easier and faster to build than one from scratch,” says Bryan. “The pre-drilled holes and pre-formed parts keep the project moving forward, and that keeps Adam interested. The two-seat arrangement means he’ll be able to fly with me when it’s completed, but before he has his own license. And the lower horsepower engine will require more finesse and ensure that he learns to ‘do it right.’”

Father and son enjoy working together on the airplane project, and many family friends have commented on the value of such an experience for them both.

“When Adam is here, we can make twice as much progress,” says Bryan. “I’m proud to see the work he can do.”

Because Poplar Grove Airport is privately owned, but open to the public, it’s not subjected to all the regulations and security requirements a publicly owned or municipal airport must meet to protect airline and corporate passengers. That’s why you don’t see all the fencing and security procedures in play – things that say “keep out” instead of “welcome and come in.”

“This is a positive place,” says Steve Thomas, at the end of another busy day. “It’s a place where people can get away from the day-to-day grind, experience the freedom of flight, and be around airplane people. We like it here.”

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