Autumn is Up in the Air

Piper Cub at Sackman Field

Autumn brings about many beautiful things, one of which, not all may associate with the season, is a gaggle of vintage aircraft gathered at a small airport.

Recently, on a gorgeous October morning full of sun and bright blue skies devoid of clouds, I attended the Columbia Aero Club open house at Sackman Field (H49) in Columbia, IL.

About 30 to 40 planes from around the St. Louis region attended the event, which also featured classic cars and motorcycles, a food truck, music and plenty of conversation. While there I ran into my certified flight instructor, Tammy and a few others from the airport in Greenville. I was able to reconnect with some passionate pilots I haven’t seen in a few months and that felt good.

Though, it was hard to gauge precisely how many people were there, it was easily 150 to 200. A good turnout as many local airports hold their annual fly-in this time of year. These are the type of general aviation events you find throughout the country bringing pilots and non-pilots, young and old together in a community for a fun gathering to share their love of flying.

I brought my young daughter along to expose her to the vintage airplanes collected and have a look around at one of the few airports in the St. Louis area that has stuck to the roots of general aviation. She has enjoyed our trips to local airports like KCPS (Cahokia) and KGRE (Greenville) before and I thought this would be another opportunity to expand her horizons on the world of aviation. She enjoyed looking at the different planes and picked out her favorites and we took pictures. Her curious mind asked several questions, many of which I was able to answer.

Sackman Field (H49) is operated by the Columbia Aero Club which maintains the natural grass strip, taxiway and tie-down areas. It’s a spartan affair with only one grass runway a few rows of pilot-owned hangars, gas tanks and a small pilot lounge. An EAA chapter also operates out of the airport. Both organizations collect dues from members to maintain the facilities and promote further activism.

The grass strip in Columbia has been active for over 50 years. As evidenced from the Illinois Airport Directory in 1968, the runway used to be oriented east-west, which included a 110′ foot Mississippi River bottom bluff at one end as an obstacle. Over the years not much has altered. The biggest change occurring about 15 to 20 years ago when the runway was moved from an East-West to a North-South orientation making the approach and departure much easier for airport traffic. In fact, the old runway serves as the taxiway to the current runway. As a teenager, I remember attending an open house held here in the early 1990s with my father before the runway was re-oriented. The airport retains the same feel it had then – a small community of pilots dedicated to general aviation in its basic form. It reminds me of the airport where I learned to fly – Lakeside.

Page from the Illinois Airport Directory circa 1968 featuring the airport in Columbia, IL

While at the fly-in one thing caught my eye more than any other. A flying club based at the field with a Cessna 120 was advertising a need for members to join their group. This was very intriguing and I wanted to learn more. I waited around the plane to find someone in the club to talk with about their group.

1947 Cessna 120 N1915N

After waiting for a bit, I found one of the members and started up a conversation about the plane, trying to pick his brain about what he knew. He eventually produced a sheet of paper with specifics on their club including costs. As we talked, I discussed my aviation experience and my goals.

This led to another member of the club coming over to talk. Eventually, I learned they were a club of 10 looking for two new members to round out their ranks. The nice thing I noticed was that each member I met was about my age, not 20 plus years my senior. They even joked that many people think they are a group of older pilots.

The costs, which I will not completely divulge here out of respect, are quite reasonable on a buy-in and monthly basis. In 2015, you can’t fly an airplane much cheaper.

Finally, I was able to talk to an important member of the club, Thad. He is a certified flight instructor in the club and teaches pilots to get their tailwheel certificate, if needed. This is the guy to know! The bonus is he can do biannual check rides and dual instruction for the insurance company requirements. He has a regular job and doesn’t fly or teach to get to the next level of aviation, but just for the joy. Therefore, he also doesn’t charge an exorbitant amount for his time. This is a guy that I completely relate to.

I discussed my goals and plans and he offered going for a flight sometime soon. So, I made sure to get his contact information before I left and plan to take him up on his generosity. Feels like I’ll be up in the air again soon.