Event-goers looked to the skies and to the past Saturday at Grimes Field as the 2017 Mid-Eastern Regional Fly-In (MERFI) celebrated aviation’s “barnstorming” days.
More than 70 planes – some home-built, some warbirds, and many restored vintage aircraft – soared onto the scene. Kids built their own paper rockets and launched them into the sky with pumps. Young families also enjoyed entertainment with a bounce house and balloons from Lucky the Clown.
“Everything needs to be open to the community,” said Dewey Davenport, an organizer of this year’s MERFI and owner of Goodfolk & O’Tymes Biplane Rides.
The event was headlined by a Barnstorming Festival to complement its usual displays of experimental aircraft. The festival offered 15-minute biplane rides in a 1930 New Standard antique flown by Andrew King, who donned the puffy breeches, aviator jacket, boots and other period clothing of pilots in the early 1900s.
“The original barnstormers were theater troupes,” said King, adding that early pilots acquired the name “barnstormers” because they offered circus-like fun to crowds which had never seen powered flight.
Davenport owns the New Standard plane. His annual Barnstorming Carnival in Springfield has grown in popularity over the last four years, which mafe him a logical choice to spearhead the 50th installment of MERFI alongside Urbana Municipal Airport Manager Elton Cultice. Davenport offered patrons the option of paying $75 to fly more than 1,000 feet high at 75 miles per hour around the west end of Urbana and back.
“It’s hard to explain,” Davenport said of the barnstormers’ influence.
In the 1920s, barnstormers gave rides to hundreds of thousands of people to help introduce the world to flight. Davenport said he aims to give people that same thrill.
“I grew up flying antique airplanes,” he said. “It’s something I love. Being a barnstormer was a big deal. Having an old biplane and giving rides is a big deal … You just have to experience it really.”
Several hundred people walked among static displays, including a B-25 Mitchell made available for tours of the bomber’s cockpit. The skies cleared in the late morning to allow a steady stream of liftoffs from pilots wanting to showcase their planes in action.
Darlene Ford, an advisory council member of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), was on hand to volunteer and document the event. Ford shot photographs and manned the check-in booth. A professional pilot with NetJets in Columbus, she was quick to point out the unique aspects of the planes and their pilots.
“I help those at local (EAA) chapters,” she said. “I enjoy it.”
Terri Hull, an EAA member from Fort Recovery, flew her 1946 Cessna 140 to Grimes Field from Portland, Indiana.
“It’s great weather today for flying,” Hull said, adding it didn’t take long for her to make the trip from Indiana.
By the early afternoon, some 20 people had paid for rides on Davenport’s biplane, piloted by King. An experienced stunt pilot, King has been featured in the movie “Flyboys” and the PBS documentary “Barnstorming.” He has been working with Davenport at air shows since 2012.
“My dad was really into it,” King said of his own inspiration to fly. “He liked flying antique airplanes, biplanes.”
Honing his skills as a teenager in upstate New York, King progressed to more daring flights and eventually landed a job as a stuntman for the World War I era movie “Flyboys” starring James Franco.
“It was a great experience,” he said. “It was 3 months in England … We got to fly around trees and do a lot of stuff you’re not normally allowed to do. It was fun.”
Saturday’s festival rides included no such daring stunts, but passengers still enjoyed the thrill of soaring as much as 1,400 feet into the skies. Davenport and King said they are still awe-struck by the New Standard biplane they fly.
“They’re just as special today (as they were in the 1920s and 1930s),” Davenport said.
Davenport’s New Standard is a 1925 model that was built in 1930 with an alteration to allow more seating for barnstorming events. It was originally owned by Bob Johnson, the inventor of smoke-jumping techniques to battle wildfires. In the mid ’30s, it was featured in National Geographic on a visit to Idaho’s infamous “River of No Return,” said King. The plane became a crop duster in the 1950s and remained in use through the 1990s, contributing to its preservation.
In 1988, King helped to revamp the plane’s wooden wings, having no idea he would later fly it again in 2012.
The opportunity to ride the vintage biplane brought Cathy and Elvin Williams to the event from Rockford, an hour and a half commute. The two were celebrating their 45th wedding anniversary.
“It’s a great day to do it,” said Cathy. “It’s something my husband and I have been talking about doing for some time.”
The couple brought their daughter and son-in-law, Allison and Ty Gehle of Celina, for the experience. All four rode together on Davenport’s biplane. They were all smiles after landing back at Grimes Field, saying the ride was well worth the cost.
On the ground, a popular attraction was the tour of a B-25 Mitchell bomber, where event-goers were met by Rosie the Riveter impersonators Christine Detwiler and her daughters Jocellen and Adrienne. The three volunteered to host the tour and have become fixtures at Grimes Field.
“We just like being a part of something bigger than ourselves,” said Christine Detwiler, giving praise to the project manager Randy Kemp. “It takes a lot of people to make this happen.”
Detwiler said she homeschools her daughters and brings her daughters to Grimes Field as a unique learning opportunity.
“We’ll do anything from sweeping to mopping to riveting and drilling,” she said, adding the B-25 is such a popular attraction because of its association with the Doolittle Tokyo Raid.
Davenport concluded Saturday’s fly-in by giving awards in various categories. Bruce Brielmaire, of Hamilton, won Best Homebuilt for his Van’s Aircraft RV8. Troy Slack won Best Antique for his 1950s Great Lakes aircraft. Best Warbird went to Doug Sena, of Harrison, for his Aeronca L-16. The People’s Choice Award went to Paul Wokman for his Bellanca Cruisemaster, and George Willford won Best Classic for his 1953 Cessna 170.
Davenport said he hopes to be back next year to make MERFI “bigger and better.”
Craig Shirk is a regular contributor to this newspaper.