The Second Life of Yoder Airpark

Two pilots are continuing the vision for a grass strip fly-in community near Wichita, Kansas.

Just a few of the airplanes that came to Yoder Airpark (SN61) for the annual Fourth of July fly-in in 2023. [Credit: Yoder Airpark]

Yoder Airpark (SN61) in Garden Plain, Kansas, is the magnum opus of its namesake founders, Don and Janet Yoder. The Yoder’s vision for a first-class fly-in community was achieved during the two decades under their tutelage. In this time period, more than a dozen fellow aviation enthusiasts formally bought into the couple’s dream of a place where everyone loves flying. 

To date, 19 homes have been constructed, with the first being built in 1997. Gordon Doherty was the community’s second resident. 

“An important consideration for me was Yoder Airpark’s connection to major highways and paved roads,” Doherty said. “It is a 15- to 30-minute drive to the amenities of a big city (restaurants, sports, and arts). Another consideration was the quality of the local schools. I wanted an airpark that had [a] good, old grassroots flying atmosphere.”

Largely, it is identical to the airpark of yesteryear. Its central feature, the 4,200-foot-long grass airstrip, has withstood the test of time.

A view of the airpark land before any dirt work began on this section. [Credit: Yoder Airpark]

“We have talked about paving the runway over the years,” Doherty said. “If you have a thunderstorm, you have to wait for it to dry out, which is usually four hours for less than an inch of rain. A paved strip is expensive to build and maintain for a private airport. Pretty much everyone has decided that ‘You know what? We like it just the way it is,’” 

In 2021, Don Yoder “flew west” at age 87. As a result of his death, the 135 acres to the south of the airport was held by his estate. Just like any other airport property in transition, there was uncertainty. 

Of highest concern was who would pick up the land and what would they do with it? As a point of reference, the population of the Wichita metro area has in recent years begun a brisk march westward, leaving much of the nearby land in the sights of developers.  

Zack Steffen and Aaron Young, both pilots and lifelong residents of the area, explained that a primary desiret of theirs was that the land be used for aviation purposes. So, the two former collegiate track teammates decided to run together with the grand airpark vision laid out before them.  

“The dream and the vision started on the north section of the airport,” said Steffen, a resident since 2017. “Then in 2001, Don purchased some land on the south side. At that time, he put the tunnel in under the runway, where the [Pawnee Prairie Park] Trail goes through. It’s a part of the Rails-to-Trails program, where they pulled up the railroad tracks and put gravel in. Now, it’s a nice running and biking path that goes all the way from Garden Plain into Wichita—just over 15 miles.” 

The Pawnee Prairie Park Trail goes under the runway, roughly at its midpoint. [Credit: Yoder Airpark]

Both Steffen and Young’s goal is to bring more pilots into the fold at Yoder Airpark. In support of that, they subdivided the large property they purchased from Yoder’s estate. After working with the local jurisdiction, they settled on forming 14 lots, which average about 5 acres each. The first lots from this parcel were offered at the beginning of this year. 

“We purchased the property from Don’s estate and worked with his family to make the airpark dream a reality,” Young said. “We gave them our word that we would maintain his vision, so every single one of our lots has runway access. A part of our future work is actually extending the runway, so each has taxiway access to the runway. The south 1,800 feet of the runway has pilot-controlled lighting, so we have night operations, which is pretty unique for a grass strip. Once the runway is extended to 5,000 feet, nearly a mile long, that will be closer to 2,600 feet of lighted area.”

The duo said they had already sold half of the lots before officially unveiling the development to the public. 

“People so far have learned about us through word of mouth, basically, to date,” Young said. “People have bought lots then have told their friends about the airport. But we have pushed out some Facebook posts in some aviation groups, a few local and grass-flying oriented ones. Even though anyone can buy a lot here, we would love for there to be more pilots, people flying, and aviation activities. It’s always exciting when you see a neighbor taking off, even if it’s not you. It’s nice to have planes flying here.”

There is a diverse background of both aviators and aircraft at the airpark.

“I think the breadth of aviation enthusiasts we have at the airpark is amazing,” Steffen said, “going from the power paragliding enthusiasm to a neighbor that performs in air shows to private pilots like Aaron and myself to professional aviators. You have people here that range from tens of hours of flight time to tens of thousands of hours. To be able to talk to each other is great, and the community is really good about giving advice.” 

A panoramic view of 2023’s Fourth of July fly-in visitors. [Credit: Yoder Airpark]

Yoder is one of roughly half a dozen airparks within a 20 nm radius of one another. And a key selling feature for the community is its proximity to the region’s largest public-use airport, Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower National Airport (KICT).

Like many other fly-in communities, an open hangar door is an invitation to stop by and chat. Yoder Airpark is no different, with residents taking great care to routinely check up on neighbors. The comingling includes these informal pop-in visits, as well as planned events, mixers, and fly-outs.

“We have hangar dinners here all the time, where somebody will volunteer to host at their house,” Steffen said. “There is also a social committee that plans different events and get-togethers for people in the HOA. One of the fun things we are planning is a progressive dinner, where each house has a different appetizer, drink, main course, or dessert. A couple of households will go together for that, which will be a lot of fun.”

This year, the group is planning to host several fly-ins, including the community’s largest annual celebration.

“We have the Fourth of July fly-in that happens each year, which has always been a tradition,” he said. “It is always the same day as the Garden Plain parade, so we have a pancake feed with a couple hundred people attending. We’ve had up to 40 planes come to that, and we do a flyover during the parade right as the national anthem plays. This event gets bigger every year, and we all look forward to it around here.”

Grant Boyd is a private pilot with eight years of experience in aviation business, including marketing, writing, customer service, and sales. Boyd holds a Bachelor's and a Master's of Business Administration degree, both from Wichita State University, and a Doctor of Education degree from Oklahoma State University. He was chosen as a NBAA Business Aviation "Top 40 Under 40" award recipient in 2020.

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