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'PLEASE DON'T STALL OUT IN THE CORN!'
Sherwood Kohn
August 07, 1972
Every man, to some degree, is a victim of his childhood fantasies. For many who are now in their 40s and 50s the dreams had wings; wings and names like Waco and Monocoupe, Lindbergh and Earhart, Stinson and Aeronca, Doolittle and Rickenbacker. These were airplanes and aviators, and they radiated romance and adventure, the stuff of heroes, the kinds of goals that seemed as unattainable as real wings to those kids who built balsa-wood flying models and hung along the fence at the local airport, watching and hearing and smelling the stuttering rise of the air age.
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August 07, 1972

'please Don't Stall Out In The Corn!'

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Every man, to some degree, is a victim of his childhood fantasies. For many who are now in their 40s and 50s the dreams had wings; wings and names like Waco and Monocoupe, Lindbergh and Earhart, Stinson and Aeronca, Doolittle and Rickenbacker. These were airplanes and aviators, and they radiated romance and adventure, the stuff of heroes, the kinds of goals that seemed as unattainable as real wings to those kids who built balsa-wood flying models and hung along the fence at the local airport, watching and hearing and smelling the stuttering rise of the air age.

Today, a few members of the balsa-wood set have been able to make their childhood yearnings come true. And now that they are big kids, they like to get together and show off. On a fine summer week last year more than 300 representatives of the pre-World War II generation flew their realized dreams into a converted cow pasture in the middle of Iowa: 10 miles west of Ottumwa, opposite a cornfield near a farming town called Blakesburg, population 450.

Upon their arrival, the scene added up to $250,000 worth of sunbaked, ragweed-infested nostalgia. It was a 70-acre replica of a Bonnie and Clyde airfield complete with T-form grass runways, three corrugated metal hangars and aircraft parking bays where pilots shut down their cherished relics in rows beside the trees and often camped beneath the wings. The field had no control tower: the only concessions to the present were FAA and U.S. Weather Bureau operations offices set up to give the antiquers some notion of what else was in the air besides sentimentality.

The entire layout was the fantasy fulfillment of an Ottumwa native, Robert L. Taylor, a onetime aviation service owner and operator who founded the Antique Airplane Association in 1953, nursed it through numerous vicissitudes and finally moved it to the grounds of his 177-acre farm. He lends the farm rent-free to the AAA (not to be confused with the American Automobile Association), which currently has 5,500 paid-up members and is swelling at the rate of about 500 a year.

During the annual AAA-sponsored fly-in, billed as the largest of its kind in the country, the pilots spent the hours from dawn to dusk buzzing around the field in their magnificent machines, restored Howards and Stearmans and De Havilands and the like. The fly-in was nine days of wood-and-fabric, seat-of-the-pants flying in the grand old manner. Beech Staggerwings swept in low formation, tiny bright-sprayed Pitts Specials flashed up into the sky and one red, white and blue 1929 Davis fishtailed the full length of the north-south runway, its Kinner radial blaring out its unique tune. Competitions included formation flying, spot landings and short-field takeoffs. And, naturally, there was much bouncing about and breaking of landing gear. One ace ran out of runway and stuck the nose of his plane in the mud. A dentist from Naperville, Ill. broke his hand spinning the prop of his Stearman. But no serious mishaps occurred as the old Jimmy Cagney movie ritual of "switch off, switch on—contact!" was heard throughout the land.

In the evenings the enthusiasts drank beer, swapped stories and spent much of the time feeding their fantasies with movies: A Dash Through the Clouds, a 1912 comedy starring Mabel Normand; Wings Over Honolulu, a 1937 Universal release featuring Ray Milland; Air Hawks, a 1935 Columbia epic starring Ralph Bellamy. To complete the orgy they presented each other (plus the FAA officials and the mayor) with more than 130 winged awards, some of them as ornate and aeronautical as the Bendix and Thompson trophies. They passed out trophies for aerobatics and gave six awards to courtly, 62-year-old Agustin Guti�rrez Pelaez owner of the largest coffee-roasting plant in Mexico, who flew his parasol-winged Davis Dl-K all the way from Mexico City where, more than 30 years ago, he had earned the nickname El Gato (The Cat) for his stunt parachute jumping.

The AAA's grand-champion award, plus nine others for such feats as outstanding workmanship, producing the best restoration and owning the best antique, went to Red Lerille, who was Mr. America in 1960. He flew his yellow 1937 Monocoupe 90-A to the meet, then refused to risk damaging it in the dusty, bumpy, crowded traffic pattern and remained grounded, polishing the two-seater's exquisite finish until he flew it back to his health spa in Louisiana.

The general atmosphere of the event was that of pure escape, dominated by smug shoptalk about discovering old planes moldering in hangars or barns, picking them up for a song, saving them from time and decay at considerable expense (an average of about $5,000 to $10,000 per plane), and restoring them to flying, or even mint, condition.

On hand to prove that old heroes were not only human but bitten by the same bug as every other red-blooded Depression-era sky scout were Harold Neumann, the 1935 Thompson Trophy winner, now 65 and a retired TWA pilot; EI Gato, who used to parachute in tandem with a black cat and who once landed his plane in the middle of downtown Mexico City on a bet; Doug Rhinehart, a 48-year-old from Farmington, N. Mex. who picks up pocket money doing aerobatics at fly-ins with his 1936 Rose Parrakeet; and Mrs. Ann Pellegreno, an intense, petite blonde who in 1967 flew Amelia Earhart's route in a similar aircraft, a Lockheed Model 10 Electra.

Fittingly enough, nearly half the AAA membership consists of airline and military pilots and technicians, men who already have achieved their aerial dreams professionally only to find that flying today's planes is just another job. "It is like sitting behind a computer," said one TWA captain, "compared with getting the feeling of really flying."

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