Grass Roots Flying

They have no traffic control tower, no terminal filled with passengers and no paved runway, but they do have pilots who pine for a wilder age of aviation.

They’re all over the country, especially in the Midwest: small runways of mowed grass, with a few hangars nearby where local pilots store their flying machines. These pilots fly mostly for the fun of it.

Designated “uncontrolled airfields” by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they have no towers to direct traffic, no terminals with waiting passengers. But they are considered the backbone of civil aviation, places where wannabe pilots can earn their wings.

The planes are all prop-driven, often painstakingly restored relics from bygone eras, and many are older than their owners. They include biplanes covered in canvas, open cockpits where the wind in the wires sings out their colorful past.

Pecatonica Airport once stood at this site.

Pecatonica Airport
Gone since the late 1970s, the airport in Pecatonica, Ill., was for decades a 2,300-foot grass landing strip at the corner of Blair and Pecatonica roads just north of town. It began in the 1940s when William “Neely” Harris, his cousin Roy Neely, and Leroy Berkebile started to establish a flight school, airplane rentals and repairs, and eventually a thriving crop-dusting service for local and regional farmers. Over the years, they also built several hangars and a restaurant.

Local newspaper articles from the time chronicle events and persons at the airport. They talk about female mechanic Ruth Kottman, one of only about a dozen in the country; airport damage related to a fire and tornado in 1943; crashes from various crop-dusters; and a parachutist who was electrocuted when his shrouds tangled with nearby power lines in 1967.

Richard Bach at Pecatonica in 1973.

Best-selling author Richard Bach, who wrote “Jonathan Livingstone Seagull,” among other books, has been a pilot since he turned 17 in 1953. In the early ’60s he flew jet fighters while he was in the Air National Guard, but in 1964 he made a return to his “roots” and acquired a biplane, a 1929 Parks P-2A.

A few years later, Bach gathered a small group of like-minded pilots and tried to resurrect barnstorming – a popular entertainment in the ’20s and ’30s – as a viable occupation. For several months, his Great American Flying Circus (GAFC) toured the upper Midwest, landing in farm fields or grass airstrips and selling rides to nearby townspeople for $3 a ride. One of his stops was in Pecatonica.

Bach wrote a book about his experiences that summer called “Nothing By Chance: A Gypsy Pilot’s Adventures in Modern America,” published in 1969. Four years later, Bach, five pilots and a parachutist returned to the same area to create a documentary film based on the book. Hugh Downs was a co-producer of the film.

Friends and members of the Pecatonica Historical Society (PHS) met recently to share their memories of that gone-but-not-forgotten airstrip and its most famous visitors.

“My dad, Harold Naber, and his brother had flown in biplanes when they were younger,” says Jill Stites, collections coordinator for PHS, “so they had a definite interest in seeing those planes. My dad was quoted in Bach’s book, when he handed Stu Macpherson [one of the original pilots] a $10 bill, and said, ‘Can you give me this much a ride?’”

Michael Eaton, President of the Pecatonica Historical Society, and Jill Stites, collections coordinator.

Bach goes on to write, “We flew 20 minutes over the countryside [a typical $3 ride lasted less than 10 minutes], and [Naber] still didn’t tire of looking down.”

Bill Moth and his friend Glen Moist flew with Bach during his second visit to Pecatonica.

“Glen gave the pilot a thrill when he accidentally stepped on the throttle while getting into the plane,” he remembers. “The plane jumped about 3 feet forward.”

Tom Harris

Tom Harris, son of airport co-owner Neely Harris, rode in the Red Baron biplane during the filming of the documentary.

“The pilot indicated he wanted to do a ‘maneuver,’” says Harris. “I turned and shook my head. I wasn’t ready for that.”

Chuck Traum recalls that Jack Brown, another GAFC pilot, asked him to repair the tail wheel of his airplane, which had been damaged during a rough landing. When he returned the item, the show announcer said a cross-wind had developed and there would not be any more rides that day.

“Someone hollered at me, ‘Jack wants to give you a ride anyway, for fixing his tire,’” recalls Traum. “We took off, he tipped one wing, and we went around three times. He turned that airplane inside out. It was quite a ride.”

Brodhead Airport and Kelch Museum, the large building at the top of the road.

Brodhead Airport
Brodhead Airport began in 1946 when Bill Earlywine, a B-24 bomber pilot, returned to Wisconsin from World War II after surviving 35 missions over Germany. He rented a field from a local farmer, Wheeler Searles, mowed a hay field for a runway and named it Bill’s Air Park. Soon, he offered flying lessons, sightseeing flights, and aircraft sales with Taylorcraft and Ercoupe dealerships.

In July 1947, Bill and his brother Derald were killed when, returning from the Wisconsin State Air Fair, their Taylorcraft crashed while landing at the Park.

Pat Weeden, Executive Director, Kelch Aviation Museum

“The tragic irony of surviving 35 combat missions in World War II, only to perish performing a fundamental flying maneuver in a simple taildragger, is almost unfathomable,” says Pat Weeden, executive director of the Kelch Aviation Museum at Brodhead Airport.

Of the three Taylorcraft airplanes that Earlywine managed to sell before his death, one is still flying at Brodhead after 77 years.

Except for a couple of Cole Brothers’ air shows, not much took place at the Air Park during the ’50s and ’60s, and the property was eventually renamed the Brodhead Airport. In 1972, the farm owner died and the property containing the airfield was put up for sale. A group of 20-plus pilots, members of a local chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), formed Hawk-Aire Inc. and purchased the airport land in order to save it.

“That precipitated a period of rapid expansion,” says Weeden. “In 1974, there were only three hangars on the field, all of which were run-down, dilapidated, missing doors and with dirt floors. By the early ’90s we had more than 50 new hangars.”

During this time, Weeden’s father started an aircraft maintenance shop, and some others established an aircraft restoration business. A tradition of annual events, meant to publicize the facilities to townspeople, began with corn boils, aerobatic performances and parachute jumps.
In the 1970s, some young men (and one woman) from Brodhead started a club at the airport for collectors and owners of Pietenpol Air Campers, a simple airplane invented by a Minneapolis designer in 1928.

“It was easy to build, with nice flying characteristics,” says Weeden. “It was a high wing monoplane design that could carry two people. But the revolutionary idea was that it used a 40 horsepower Ford Model-A engine, a component that most people could afford. Airplane engines were just too expensive.”

In the spring of 1930, an article in Modern Mechanics Magazine (now Popular Mechanics) publicized the design and said plans for its construction could be obtained for $7. Hundreds were built in the next few years.

The Pietenpol Air Camper in the Kelch Aviation Museum, Brodhead, Wis.

“Pietenpol is now considered to be the grandfather of the home-built airplane movement,” says Weeden. “Since 1976, Brodhead airport has hosted the National Pietenpol Club’s annual convention. Sometimes we get 30 to 40 Pietenpol pilots and their planes here from all over the country.”

In the early ’80s, another group of like-minded airplane enthusiasts, this one about aircraft restoration, also chose Brodhead for their annual meeting. The Midwest Antique Airplane Club not only restores antique airplanes but also makes them flyable. Brodhead’s grass runways provide much-needed safety for operating these rare and precious birds.

“By the mid-’90s, their convention had become a three-day fly-in event, attended by almost 300 airplanes and pilots from all over the world,” says Weeden. “Today, Brodhead is famous worldwide in the antique airplane community.”

Kelch Aviation Museum
Al Kelch was an engineer and inventor from Milwaukee who perfected a method of plastic injection molding to produce those ubiquitous orange traffic cones. He was also a fervent fan of aviation, and he did much to promote the preservation movement among the owners of older airplanes. During his lifetime, he collected and restored nearly two dozen aircraft and was a pioneer in establishing the Vintage Division as defined by the EAA.

As the reputation of antique airplane restorers at Brodhead grew, Kelch became increasingly dependent on their expertise when working on his own collection. By the mid-’90s, he had moved his entire assemblage to hangars on the field. Kelch died in 2004 and his wife followed in 2009. By then, a trust had been established to maintain and preserve his aircraft.

“The trustees incorporated as a nonprofit in 2012, and I was hired in 2014 as executive director,” says Weeden. “We purchased 2 acres adjoining the airfield and began a fundraising campaign to build a museum to house the collection.”

It took five years to raise enough money to start construction, which was planned in three phases. Phase I was a 12,000-square-foot hangar which presently houses the collection of 22 airplanes.

Phase II was the 6,000-square-foot, climate-controlled building which contains the offices, a 10,000-volume aviation library and more than 20,000 medium-format B&W negatives of planes, taken around Wisconsin from the 1940s to the 1960s. Phase III, currently under construction, is a structure connecting the other two, which will display suspended aircraft and provide banquet hall space that can be rented.

“We have been fully supported by donations since 2020,” says Weeden. “We intentionally charge no admission fees, since to do so would probably eliminate half the people we are trying to reach, to get involved in aviation.”

The collection exemplifies the Golden Age of aviation, from the 1920s to the 1940s.

“They represent the era in which the basic technology of flight was invented and perfected,” says Weeden. “The high wing monoplane, enclosed cabins, engine in front, ailerons and elevators – all that got settled in the ’20s and ’30s.”

The collection includes a 1929 Kinner Bird purchased by Charles Lindbergh to teach his wife, Ann Morrow, how to fly; a 1928 Pietenpol Air Camper, one of the few actually constructed by Pietenpol himself; and the only flying Butler Blackhawk biplane in the world.

Charles Lindbergh bought this 1929 Kinner Bird to teach his wife, Ann Morrow, how to fly.

“At least two or three planes are made airworthy and flown each year, since they can’t sit indefinitely without some deterioration,” explains Weeden. “The museum welcomed over 8,000 visitors last year.”

As for fans … “There’s a 94-year-old woman from Brodhead who got her pilot’s license in Rockford when she was 17,” he says. “She claims to be the first woman pilot to land in Brodhead. She comes out to the airfield regularly, parks her Lincoln Town Car next to the runway, and watches the clouds and airplanes pass overhead.”

What memories she must have!

Dacy Airport in Harvard, Ill.

Dacy Airport & Dacy Airshows
Located just southwest of Harvard, Ill., Dacy Airport began as a mowed strip of grass on the family farm. Family patriarch John Dacy developed a lifelong interest in aviation, which he passed on to his five children.

“Dad was kind of a motorhead and had an interest in anything mechanical that moved,” says Dave Dacy. “Especially airplanes. He bought his third airplane, a Piper Cub, just before the U.S. entered World War II.”

Dave Dacy; his partner, Bill Wheeler, works on an engine behind him.

Excessive wartime security restrictions forced John to sell his plane back to its original owner, Fred Machesney. During the war, Dacy became chief mechanic for B-24 bombers flying over Italy. When he returned to Harvard after the war, he repurchased the Cub from Machesney, who had put an additional 4,500 hours on the airplane while training civilian pilots.

Son Dave Dacy got his first airplane ride in that Cub and soloed in an Aeronca Champ in 1966 at the age of 16. The previous year, he got his first ride in a biplane when he flew with Richard Bach during the author’s original barnstorming tour. By then, Dave was already a part of the family business, restoring and repairing airplanes and running the airport.

“Flying straight and level was not adventurous for me,” says Dave. “I wanted to see what the airplanes could do.”

Dave Dacy’s Super Stearman at rest in the hangar.

Dacy began his career in airshows as a solo performer in the early ’70s and by 1978 was a star in his red-and-white 220 horsepower Stearman biplane. He later transitioned to a 300 horsepower Stearman, then a German-designed Bucker Jungmeister, and finally a 450-horsepower Super Stearman.

Dacy added wing-walking to his aerial performances in the early 1990s when Johnny Kazian, a Hollywood stunt man, joined the team. Kazian had a crooked right arm caused by an airplane crash during the Korean War, but it never seemed to hinder his spectacular performances.

Never riding in the open cockpit, Kazian would cling to the javelin, a horizontal rod held by overlapping guy wires between the biplane’s wings, during takeoffs and landings. He never used cables, wires, or a parachute as he moved all over the airplane during its high-speed maneuvers.

Johnny Kasian stands on the Super Stearman while in flight, piloted by Dave Dacy.

Kazian did aerial stunt work for many Hollywood films, including “The Great Waldo Pepper,” in which he transferred from one plane to another while in flight. He retired from airshows in 1997 at the age of 65. His son, Tony, took over his role and performed in the Dave Dacy Airshows until both he and Dave retired in 2017.

The airfield thrived as one of the largest Cessna dealerships in the 1970s, as publicity from Dave’s performances brought many potential customers to the airport. Since 1990, Dave and partner Bill Wheeler have been restoring airplanes in hangars at the airstrip.

Dave’s sister Susan, a retired captain for American Airlines, now flies the red-and-white striped Super Stearman called “Big Red” in airshows all over the country, keeping the name Dacy in front of cheering crowds. Dave and Bill restored “Big Red” two years ago.

Susan Dacy flies the Super Stearman “Big Red” over Poplar Grove Airport in September 2021.

“My brother, Bill, has become one of the most popular airshow announcers in the business,” he says.
Dacy Airport has settled into a quieter, traditional role as a friendly, back-to-basics grass strip field where people can learn to fly, away from the stress of more crowded suburban airfields.

“We have three grass runways – the longest is 3,700 feet – and about 40 to 50 planes are based here,” says Dacy. “The oldest plane is a 1930 C3R Stearman, which has the same engine – a J-5 Wright Whirlwind – that flew Charles Lindbergh solo across the Atlantic in 1927.”

Dacy has flown in Hollywood films and TV commercials and was featured in a PBS documentary about 12 years ago.

“We all grew up on this airfield,” he says. “This was our summer vacation.”

Ogle County Airport, in Mt. Morris, Ill.

Ogle County Airport
The Ogle County Airport is a small grass strip located on 42 acres of former farm land 2 miles southeast of Mt. Morris, Ill. Gerry Hough is president of Ogle County Pilots Inc., the corporation which owns the airfield. His business card describes him as an “old and cranky flight instructor,” and his business as a place “where old age and wisdom beat out youthful exuberance.”

“This field was started in the’70s by some airline pilots and local aviation enthusiasts,” says Hough.

“Many of them were airline captains who commuted to work at O’Hare in Chicago. They lived nearby and stored their private planes in hangars on the field. Can’t make that commute anymore – heavy air traffic and expensive landing fees prohibit it.”

Gerry Hough, President of Ogle County Pilots Inc

Hough is a retired well inspector for the Ogle County Health Department. He obtained his flying license in 1991 at the age of 40.

“It’s my ‘head drug,’” he explains. “I use it to maintain my sanity. I can find solace out here.”
Hough is a licensed light sport flight instructor, the only one on the airport. His students attend classes at Cottonwood Airport in Rockford for the ground school portion of their training.

“In 2000, the land owner decided to sell 100 acres, including the airfield,” recalls Hough. “A bunch of us pilots quickly formed a corporation, Ogle County Pilots Inc., and found a farmer to buy 60 acres. We bought the rest, so we own the airport.”

The new owners raised operating funds by hosting fly-in pancake breakfasts and air shows, selling fuel, and leasing land to plane owners on which to build their own hangars.

“We found we made more money on the breakfasts than we did on the airshows, so we discontinued them,” says Hough. “Also, people would cause traffic problems by parking along the highway in front. We hold only one breakfast now, each Fourth of July. This year we served over 1,000 people, and they brought in almost 300 airplanes.”

A local flying club, the Rock River Flyers (RRF), is based at the field. They have about 20 members and they collectively own a 1946 Aeronca Champ, a single engine “taildragger,” a plane with a tail wheel or skid instead of tricycle landing gear with a nose wheel.

Rock River Flyers’ 1946 Aeronca Champ.

“That’s the plane I use for flying lessons,” says Hough. “It’s probably the oldest plane on the field.”
Hough bought his first airplane last October, a 1964 Cessna 172; he bought it from the RRF, since insurance rates for the club plane had become prohibitively expensive.

“They were being charged almost $3,500 a year, while I pay only $1,000 to insure the same plane,” he says.

In 2007, the Ogle County Airport was named Private Airport of the Year by the Illinois Department of Transportation’s Division of Aeronautics. The field includes a 2,640-foot grass runway, 20 hangars and as many planes, a clubhouse for meetings and storage, a wind sock and a tower beacon. The tower came from the former Machesney field in Loves Park, Ill., and the beacon from Camp Grant by way of Rochelle’s airport. Hough says there is plenty of room for expansion.

“We are a private airport open to the public for grassroots general aviation,” says Hough. “We don’t get a dime from the government, and we pay our own way. The hard work done by our volunteers is the main reason for our success.”

Hough has four adult children, but only one, his daughter in Charlotte, N.C., has shown an interest in flying.

“She’s my little daredevil,” he admits.

As an instructor, one of Hough’s pet peeves is youngsters who think they know how to fly an airplane because they played video games that simulate flying.

“I had a young boy on a ride-along once who complained about the turbulence when I let him take the controls,” he remembers. “When I told him to loosen his grip, things smoothed out by themselves.”

One of Hough’s pilot friends, a 96-year-old gentleman, is currently quarreling with his insurance company. They insist he needs to pass a check-ride in each of his two airplanes once a year to stay current, and one of them is a twin-engine aircraft.

“I hope that I have the same problem when I’m his age,” says Hough.

Yours truly, (Jon McGinty) flying as a passenger in a 1930 Waco Taperwing over Brodhead, Wis., piloted by owner Josh Brownell.
“This Super 8 film was shot at Pecatonica Airport in 1973 during Richard Bach’s filming of “Nothing By Chance,” a documentary recalling his barnstorming tour in the late ’60s. My son, Michael, and daughter, Joanna, are strapped by my side under the safety belts. They were 8 and 4 at the time.” –Jon McGinty