Taking Wing: The Airfield That Time Forgot

** Stanton Airfield is a natural gathering place for
classic taildraggers and sailplanes, and for pilots
and airplane fans of every generation.**

Sunshine! It feels so foreign, so exotic, and so wonderful! I know that you are comfortably ensconced in the warm embrace of summer, but back here in late April, the upper Midwest is just now escaping the clutches of a memorably brutal winter. My home airport, Airlake, is bursting to life from its sleepy state of semihibernation. A few dirty, withering snow mounds linger between the hangars, but the happy denizens of the field pay them little attention as they throw open their bifold doors, sweep the cobwebs from their wings, and prepare to return to the air. It's not that you can't fly in the winter in Minnesota; it's just such an uncomfortable pain in the ass that many don't bother. Our club's 1946 Piper Cub here, for example, has a rather marginal heater and is a bear to get started (by hand, of course) below 20 degrees. There's a reason I'm the only one who's flown it since November, and only a few times at that. Now I'm preflighting it comfortably in short sleeves. We could almost even fly with the door open!

As I run my hand down the left fuselage, drumming it softly, my wife, Dawn, is busy in the cockpit connecting headsets and checking the radio battery. She's as eager for this flight as I am. Besides the splendid weather and the jovial atmosphere around the airport, we are headed to one of our favorite places around: Stanton Airfield. It's not that we dislike Airlake, mind you; it's a vibrant airport with an active EAA chapter, a busy FBO, a lively light-sport aircraft scene and several flying clubs. But it also has modern niceties like pavement, lighting and an ILS. Stanton, however, exists in a permanent time warp, in another age, as the Cub does. I've written before that this Cub is a time machine, and nowhere is that truer than at Stanton.

Dawn holds the brakes and the stick as I prime the engine, pull it through, turn on the mags, and give the prop a good heave. "Putt-putt-putt" goes the little tractor engine, awakening from its long slumber without hesitation. Minutes later we're clattering into the air and turning southeast. Pavement behind, the years roll backward; housing developments and highways fade into farmers' fields and gravel roads, and the transformation is complete. No GPS is needed or desired. We pass over a junkyard, then an acquaintance's home airstrip; Lake Byllesby comes into view and I bank slightly to steer just south of it. A few miles out, we spy the hangars on Stanton's south side, and then the perpendicular grass runways. The CTAF is busy today; I enter the left downwind for 36 behind a Super Cub. He spirals down in a tight pattern, I extend slightly, and he's well outside the yellow cones that demarcate the runway by the time I glide over the road that marks the threshold. I haven't three-pointed the Cub in a while, but the grass smothers what might have been an embarrassing bounce on pavement. We quickly slow and I rev the little Continental to keep moving as we swing around and taxi toward the grass parking area. I pull the mixture, kill the mags and roll to a halt alongside a gleaming Cessna 140 (or is it a 120? I can never tell!). We've arrived — though in what year, I couldn't say.

By the time we've unfolded ourselves from the Cub, a sleek Grob 103 glider has landed and is already being tugged back to the staging area by a golf cart. A half-dozen sailplanes sit askance with one wingtip resting on the grass, patiently awaiting their tow. The Super Cub that landed earlier is clipped to the lead glider; with a rudder waggle and a roar, it pulls the towrope taut and quickly accelerates the elegant craft down the grass and into the air. A delicious barbecue smell whiffs past and I see that a cookout is in progress next to the staging area. We saunter over to chat and are promptly handed burgers with all the fixings. In my experience, glider pilots are among the friendliest in aviation. Most gliders are single-place ships, but it takes a village to launch them and they often fly among each other in the search for elusive lift, making soaring a group-oriented activity. Families mill around the picnic tables, chatting and eating; children play on the nearby swing set. The lift isn't very good today, I'm told, and so none of the pilots seems too anxious for a tow, being perfectly content to mingle. Even a ham-fisted powered airplane pilot like me is welcomed as one of their own.

An SUV pulls up and more kids pile out; two mothers spread a blanket on the grass as the Super Cub returns, whirring over the road with towrope in trail. A few minutes later, a group of Harleys rumbles into the parking lot and the bikes' leather-clad riders dismount to watch airplanes and gliders come and go. There is no fence separating the public from the pilots, the airplanes or the runway. Stanton Airfield exists in an age before 9/11, before fear trumped common sense. Lest this statement provoke the wrath of the security ninnies, I will point out that Stanton poses little risk because it has a far more effective deterrent than mere fences: people around nearly all the time, friendly folks who don't hesitate to walk up to a stranger, engage him in conversation, and quickly ascertain if something is off.

Thanks to this welcoming nature, Stanton is the perfect place to introduce people to aviation. I flew my 11-year-old nephew Dylan there for a picnic lunch, and he's begging to go back. Dawn and I gave her cousin's daughter, Amelia, a Cub flight for Christmas, redeemable in springtime. She talked about it for months and, on the appointed day, showed up at Stanton in full Amelia Earhart costume, goggles and silk scarf included! We flew low down the Cannon River valley, Amelia giggling with delight every time she saw a miniature cow lolling in the grass. Back at Stanton, she talked her mother, Missie — no fan of small planes — into taking a ride. Afterward Missie admitted that it was pretty gosh-darn great. And then there's my friend Chris, an Airbus pilot for US Airways who hadn't flown small planes in years. Stanton's wide grass runways were the perfect place to introduce him to taildragger wrangling. He bounced and lurched and grinned all the way back to Airlake!

Dawn and I chat with the motorcyclists a bit and then walk to the pilot lounge and extricate a pair of root beers — in real glass bottles! — from the ancient vending machine. As we sip we look around at old photos and memorabilia from Stanton's long and storied history. It was originally built in 1942 by Carleton College to provide contract primary training to Army Air Force pilots; the lounge, squat control tower and Quonset hangar date from those years. Once the war was over, Malcolm and Margaret Manual bought the airport from the college and operated the FBO for the next 45 years. After their passing, a group of local pilots formed a ­cooperative to buy the airport and keep it open for recreational flying. Today, besides being the home of the Minnesota Soaring Club, Stanton is one of the relatively few places left where one can learn to fly in a classic taildragger, or even rent one for personal use.

Back outside, the Super Cub sits idle by the fuel pumps, the golf cart tugs gliders back to their hangars and trailers, and the cookout is winding down. The sun is just low enough to put a springtime nip back in the air. Time to head home. The Cessna pilot has the same idea, though he lingers to chat for a few minutes. "It's a 120 with metalized wings and aftermarket D-windows," he clarifies. "You can tell because it doesn't have flaps." Ah-ha! Dawn climbs in the Cub, I prop it to life, and we bounce over the grass to the runway. A few soaring families are still around the picnic tables; they wave as we taxi past. I push the throttle forward and within seconds we lift from the grass and climb over freshly plowed fields, leaving yesteryear behind.

Modernity has its place, and I'm enough of a geek to love playing with the new gadgets we never dreamed of in GA cockpits only 20 years ago. But when the modern world gets to be a bit much, I sure love being able to jump in the Cub and enjoy the simplicity of flight as experienced by our forefathers. Being able to fly back in time to an airport populated by kindred souls with a friendly sense of community so often missing in today's society ­— well, that's a rare gift indeed. I'm sure there are other airports around like Stanton, but I can't say I've been to many. If you have a Stanton Airfield of your own, treasure it dearly — and visit often!

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Sam Weigel has been an airplane nut since an early age, and when he's not flying the Boeing 737 for work, he enjoys going low and slow in vintage taildraggers. He and his wife live west of Seattle, where they are building an aviation homestead on a private 2,400-foot grass airstrip.

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