I Landed at an Erie Place
By Dennis Dyer, EAA 617304
No, not “eerie”—Erie Airpark (3H5) in Erie, Illinois. A lot of people get them confused, so I’ll attempt to straighten them out. Erie Airpark started out as Earl Airpark, named after founder Jerry Earl around 1972. Not a lot of activity there for a few years as the ultralight movement was just in the hang glider era. Jerry was a commercial pilot, but an eye injury changed his line of work. Not his love of flying, though. The airpark featured mostly general aviation until flying lawn chairs came along and Jerry jumped right in. He got one and built his first hangar. Challenger Aircraft began in 1983, and Jerry became the local dealer; life at the airport changed overnight. In 1989 I made my first trip to the airpark after Jerry’s brother, whom I worked with, told me about a day that you could get a ride in an ultralight for 25 bucks. “Wow” was all I could think, and I took the hang glider off the top of my pickup and drove out. By then there were hangars for ten planes and more going up, and the Earls were great people to know. I ran into a fellow worker there that had a Quicksilver, and I talked to him for an hour. We flew and my life was changed the second the wheels left the ground. I took some literature home, and it was like a Sears Wish Book that I read till I almost had it memorized.
I worked with Jim Robinson since 1977, and at work during lunch we would talk flying. I would try to get him to go jump off a hill with my hang glider, but he always declined and would say, “Isn’t there a way to put a motor on it?” Jim was the first to buy a single-place Challenger, and he took lessons from Jerry. Jim lived an hour away and it was quite an effort for him to get his training complete. But he was dedicated and finished his training. Shortly after, he had his solo flight. Jerry had ultralight events at the airpark, and they would fly from as far away as Chicago and Rockford to attend. Climb-out contests, spot landings, bomb drops, torpedo runs, and poker runs were on the list.
View of Erie Airpark on final approach for runway 18 during the Challenger 25th Anniversary Fly-in
There was a small group of flyers who would meet in Jerry’s home in the basement, and Jim recommended that they form a club. They agreed it would be a great idea, and the Illowa Sport Flyers Club 188 was created. “Illowa” is short for Illinois and Iowa, which raised a few questions from pilots.
After a few years, Jerry had an untimely death, and the airpark was up for sale. Jim and his wife Sue made an offer. In a nutshell, they packed up and moved in. I had bought the chattel from the estate and got Jerry’s two-place Challenger, which worked out really well; Jim didn’t have a plane at the time because he sold his single place, and Jim needed a trainer. Some friends of Jim had won a flight training package at EAA Oshkosh, but since they weren’t going to use it they gave it to him. After Jim went to Oshkosh, he quit his day job and the airpark was renamed Erie Airpark.
Having a small room for a clubhouse was our first endeavor, so we asked for donations of time and money from club members, which had grown to over 50 flyers. Their money totally paid for the building. As the building grew, so did our membership. We passed 85 members. As the membership grew, so did our activities, which were many. Jim started a USO theme party that was held in the fall around Halloween.
Erie Airpark owner Jim Robinson ready for duty.
We developed a point sheet of activities to build up our flying skills and club support. A point award could be attempted three times in that year. When the total was calculated, we had Top Gun, Ace, and Eagle Flying Awards. Additionally, nonflyers could use the nonflying sheet for Crew Chief or Ground Support Awards. We developed the Jerry Earl Award for outstanding achievement in the club, the Safety Director Award for piloting skills in a dangerous situation, and attendance awards for those who helped foster growth in aviation. We began a Dawn Patrol so that we could get more people flying and had a certificate for participants. The point sheets have been honed yearly to find a good mix to encourage participation. They can be seen at www.IllowaSportFlyers.com and can be modified for any club’s use.
A few years ago we began having a Memorial Day rose petal drop at the Erie Cemetery. This can be very tricky especially since it is around 11 a.m., and winds have usually started up. You have to determine wind speed and guess how far a rose petal will drift from 200 feet in the air before landing on a grave. And as we found out on the first drop, not all petals go down. They swirl around. With no doors on, they can come in and go home with you. Jim found rose petals for weeks all over the cockpit. The city was thrilled that Jim and us would hold this event, which created good relations with the community.
And speaking of good relations, Jim agreed to get a group of 10 pilots together on the Fourth of July and do a flyby at a nearby town. After the first pass, Jim told everyone to circle again and then one more time before heading home. After the events of the day, the town would also have a fireworks display. Jim and Sue drove over to watch the fireworks after landing; Jim was still wearing his flight suit. An elderly gentleman asked Jim if he was one of those pilots that flew by earlier, and Jim said he was. “There must have been 30 planes fly by,” the gentleman stated. Almost at a loss for words, Jim asked if he enjoyed the flyby and got an enthusiastic yes.
Summer weekends also spurred on our end of runway bonfires and campouts. We built a pavilion and use a generator that we place in the cornfield for lighting. And when the gas runs out, it’s just the stars, lots of stars. Jim would bring his guitar to play and sing a few songs; we would all tell jokes and talk about the events we had attended. Club member Dan Budde would bring his portable keyboard, and we would be entertained for hours. This carried over into the Challenger Days that are held yearly at Erie Airpark.
Bonfire and musical entertainment at the 2008 Challenger Fly-in
The Dawn Patrols that Jim began had a simple plan. Take a thermos of coffee and a box of donuts and tell everyone to go to a specific airport; we would all fly in from different airports. We would have donuts and coffee and share stories for an hour or so, then head out for home or points unknown. Tri-County Airport had 17 planes from three states show up. Some headed home and some headed back to Erie to meet up with the late sleepers as they were taking off. On the cool mornings, you could see the fog forming as the wind blew across rivers and ponds, and the morning colors as the shadows were long across the fields.
Organized flying groups are only a small part of Erie Airpark. With work schedules and weather considerations, flying has to fit in whenever you can make the time.
Typical group photo from an Erie Airpark Dawn Patrol
As the Dawn Patrols grew, we began having sponsors. They would have food waiting for us, so we had new places to fly and new people to meet. We flew into Kewanee Airport one morning, and the place had this beautiful building. Inside one of the rooms was a computer with radar and a great communications center. Someone clicked the short range radar to the long range, and we stood there transfixed as a huge storm front was moving from the south straight at us. After a few seconds of thought, we headed quickly to the planes. Technology saved the day for us, and we all made it back and got the planes in the hangars safely. Calls were made to find out why this wasn’t mentioned earlier, but all we got was “unexpected storm pattern,” whatever that means.
One of the great things about Erie is that the hangars run parallel to the runway. On the weekends you could open the doors to set up some chairs outside and watch people flying, along with visiting your neighbor. Someone always seems to be working on a new project, and people will congregate around his hangar, giving advice and helping out whenever they could. Pilots passing through would head over to the pilots lounge and have one of the complimentary hot dogs and a soda. People driving by will park behind the hangars and walk down the flight line looking at the planes and starting up conversations to ask about flying. With Jim living on-site, there have been plenty of visits by those curious as to what light-sport flying is all about.
Every year, Jim and Sue have a caravan that leaves for Oshkosh, and everyone with a camper or tent will show up early and head north. It’s quite a sight seeing a camper convoy heading down the interstate. One time, an unidentified individual had put a bumper sticker on Steve and Darlene’s camper that read, “Member Blue Moon Nudist Colony.” We never found out who it was, but they claimed a lot of people stared as they passed. Jim was a prime suspect but claimed innocent of the deed. Arriving together we all camped in the same area so we could visit after a long hot day of walking. Cold drinks around a small fire in the evening and Jim’s Cletus jokes kept everyone entertained. And speaking of nudist colonies, Jim had the pleasure of taking his youngest daughter for her first ride in his Challenger a few years back; there is a nudist colony just southeast of the airpark. Jim flew west, turned, and followed the Rock River as it snaked back east, flying low to wave at the campers and fishermen along the way. As he turned to head home, he dropped down to 200 feet. When he passed over the camp volleyball court, he started playing with the controls on the dash. His daughter said, “Dad, there’s...” and Jim cut her off and said, “Wait a second as I make a few adjustments.” “But Dad...” “Hold on,” said Jim. By then they were past, and she said, “There are naked people down there, Dad.” “Yeah, sure there are, dear.” “Dad, turn around.”
Jim laughed till tears ran down his cheeks.
The memories are too numerous to mention, too life changing to explain, but memories to cherish for a lifetime. Yet, new memories are just waiting to happen as we plan our next event with the hope that we can share them with new friends. Visit us soon so you can land at an Erie place, too.
Dennis Dyer is web editor of the Illowa Sport Flyers Club 188, affiliated with EAA and USUA (United States Ultralight Association) and based at Erie Airpark. Visit the club website to see more pictures and read newsletters about their many activities. See also the web page for Erie Airpark.