IOLA – The runways were covered in snow and the wind made it feel like the temperature was below zero.
Four small private planes landed, although recent snows likely mean the only arrivals by air for the rest of the winter will require skis, like the hydraulic retractable skis on Don Kiel’s Cessna 170B tail dragger.
Kiel, 68, a retired commercial airline pilot, was among a gathering of about 45 people who shook off the cold to fly or drive this month to one of the most unique fly-ins in the country. For the last 11 years, the privately owned Central County Airport, four miles east of Iola, has hosted a fly-in lunch, only it’s not a one-time affair or limited to sunny summer days.
This fly-in, 135 miles northeast of Madison in Waupaca County, happens every Friday at 68C (the FAA’s identifier for the airport) regardless of weather, season, flying conditions or the depth of the snow on the grass runways.
“We bring them up so they don’t freeze to the snow,” Kiel said of his skis shortly after parking his plane and wrapping a blanket around the engine to keep it warm. “We call this grassroots aviation.”
Scores of grass airstrips dot the state, including 30 alone in Dane County. Some are public, meaning no permission is needed to land. Others are used by those who pay rent, own a hangar or are friends of the owner. There are also those that are rarely used, perhaps only by a single pilot or a few crop dusters.
The Central County Airport was established in 1946 on an old potato farm at an elevation of 876 feet. It has eight approaches and four runways, with the longest at just over 3,000 feet. The airport hosts 22 hangars, some with as many as three aircraft. In 2000, the owners, about 60 pilots known as the Central County Flyers Association, spent $100,000 of their own money to construct a clubhouse that was “Built for the Love of Aviation.”
The building looks like a hangar and even has a large hangar door that is opened in warmer months. However, the clubhouse, which is fully insulated, has never housed a plane. Instead, it’s filled with model airplanes suspended from the ceiling, a restaurant-grade kitchen, and photos and other aviation memorabilia. A stone fireplace in one corner has a set of four first-class seats salvaged from a commercial airliner positioned in front.
The menu for the noon-time meal can include Cornish game hens, prime rib or roasted turkey, but on this day it was country-style ribs, mashed potatoes, green beans and a table full of desserts. Camaraderie and a love for all things aviation, however, is what fill the souls here.
“I honestly believe it isn’t my cooking,” said Bill Kinsman, a pilot who founded the lunch in 2002. “I think I could get away with serving cardboard, at least for a couple of weeks.”
The lunch, a fundraiser for the airport, is open to anyone who pays for a one-time, $10 membership good for life and another $8 for each lunch. The club was created to get around restaurant licensing rules and now boasts 1,543 members who hail from all 50 states.
In the summer, dozens of planes can land and as many as 200 people can stand in line to fill their paper plates with Kinsman’s home cooking.
Kinsman, 81, was born in Green Bay, grew up in Clintonville and is a retired manufacturing executive who owned a Manawa company that made heated clothing for hunting. He’s now president of the Central County Flyers Association and has been flying out of the airport since the mid-1950s. The lunch started as a housewarming event to show off the new clubhouse to pilots and to the locals.
“After three Fridays, I thought someone else would step in and cook. That was a big mistake. That was almost 11 years ago, and I’ve been doing it ever since,” Kinsman said with a wry smile. “It’s very unique. We’re just a little sod field in the middle of nowhere and there are a lot of fields like this, but none of them do what we do here.”
When photographer Amber Arnold and I visited the lunch, we found a collection of personalities with varying backgrounds and hometowns but with a common thread of an interest in flying.
Bob Sigman, 77, an attorney from Appleton, drove to the lunch with a law partner and a judge but was happy to show off photos on his smartphone of his two-seat plane. Sigman has been flying for 46 years and attends the lunch 20 to 30 times a year and regularly meets people at the lunch who come from Illinois, Minnesota and Michigan.
“There’s no place like this on the globe,” Sigman said. “It’s unbelievable the variety of people you get.”
Lowell Stephani flew 45 miles from his farm north of Black Creek, which is west of Green Bay in Outagamie County, in his 1946 Aeronca 7AC. He’s been flying to the airport since the 1980s.
“It was smooth as silk,” he said of his flight, “but the snow is marginal here for skis or wheels.”
Tom Schewe, 67, arrived in a 1997 Aviat Husky. When he bought the aircraft in 2008, it had 100 hours of flying time. He has since put on another 650 hours. Schewe, who owns a small trucking company in Clintonville, started flying more than 50 years ago while in high school.
He now logs 250 to 300 hours of flight time a year and gets out three or four times a week, which includes regular stops at the fly-in lunch.
“It’s like a family gathering,” Schewe said. “I very much enjoy everything I fly. They really perform well in these cold temperatures.”
Kiel, the retired airline pilot and U.S. Air Force veteran, began flying in 1964 when he was 19 years old. He has crop-dusted, delivered airmail and also owns a C-45 Beech 18, a twin-prop warbird. On the day we met, Kiel started his trip from the Manitowoc County Airport, stopped at a private grass strip near De Pere to pick up a friend and then spent another 25 minutes in the air to get to Central County.
Kiel has logged more than 29,000 hours in the air but is far from the most veteran flyer who attends the lunch.
That honor goes to Paul Johns, who turned 100 in October.
Johns, who is in the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame, flew for 66 years before hanging it up when he was 85. Johns began flying in 1929 and in 1939 was hired by Pan American to establish an instrument training program for pilots ferrying aircraft to Europe via South America. In 1944, according to the Hall of Fame website, he transferred to Pan Am’s Pacific fleet and flew the amphibious Pan Am Clipper from San Francisco to Hawaii. Johns said the trip now takes about 4 hours but back then was a grueling 17-hour flight.
Johns, who now lives in Iola, logged 220 crossings of the Pacific Ocean, used an octant to navigate with the stars and later was a corporate pilot for JI Case and Walker Manufacturing in Racine. He now uses a walker but has a satchel that contains an iPod and an iPad mini. He looks forward to Fridays.
“This is about the only airport that reminds me of the old airports,” Johns said. “It’s a nice group of people.”