In the Groove

Charting the course of a recreational airport

September 1, 1999

From the air, it's the earthmoving machines that catch your eye: bright yellow Tonka toys moving dark Illinois earth, a benign scene until you notice the paved runway alongside. The proximity of the earthmovers to that runway sends a chill up the spine, for we've seen this sight before - and it usually signifies the death of yet another general aviation airport.

But this time, at this place, it's different. The machines scouring the earth at Poplar Grove Airport (C77), 50 miles northwest of Chicago O'Hare International, aren't burying re-mains; they're breathing new life. This GA airport is growing - but not in the usual way. No government bailout here, no matching funds from the feds, no "extend the runway, make the airport more attractive to business" master plan. No, there's something different happening here - perhaps not unique, but certainly rare.

This airport began in the same way that many small airports did: with a local pilot who had a vision. Twenty-five years ago, Dick Thomas of Belvidere, Illinois, discovered that Boone County was the only one in Illinois that didn't have an airport - and he didn't like that. Not that he'd done any studies or hired any consultants to see if there was a need for an airport - he just thought that airports were good things and that Boone County should have one. So, with the aid of two business partners, Thomas put together a plan that he proposed to local officials: He would turn one of his farm fields into a privately owned but public-use airport.

Permission was eventually granted and a grass strip was rolled out in the farm field, located halfway between the towns of Belvidere and Poplar Grove. Two existing cattle sheds were pressed into service as hangars, and presto, Boone County had an airport. Since Belvidere, with a population of 15,000, was by far the larger of the nearby towns, the new field was christened Belvidere Airport. Despite its initial reaction, the surrounding community seemed to accept the airport, and many actually embraced it. A few more hangars were built and just two years after opening, the owners decided not only to put in a second runway, but also to pave it. Another sod crosswind runway completed the basic configuration that is still in use today.

Growing at the same time as the airport were the Thomas children, Steve, Bill, and Lynda. When dad owns an airport, total immersion in all things aviation is inevitable, and the Thomas kids embraced flying with a passion.

Of the three Thomas children, Bill was the wild one, and clippings in the airport scrapbook show that he was the lucky one as well, surviving more than one accident. Later, he landed a job with a major contractor on the Alaska pipeline and moved north. Lynda and Steve attended a local college and continued to work and fly at Belvidere Airport. One of the pictures in the clubhouse shows a 19-year-old Lynda tying down a Cessna at the county fair, having landed it on the horse-racing track in preparation for display.

While working in Alaska, Bill asked for an appropriate airplane to use in the frozen north. A Piper Super Cub was purchased, and Lynda and a college girlfriend began preparations to ferry it to Alaska. In the late 1970s, that such a journey would be undertaken by a pair of 21-year-old female pilots was a major event; Sports Illustrated even prepared a story on the upcoming trip. But tragedy prevented the story from ever seeing print - while preparing for the flight, both girls died in the crash of the Super Cub, just northwest of the airport. Dick Thomas' only daughter is memorialized in a way that only a pilot can truly appreciate - the final approach fix on the VOR-A approach to C77 is LYNDA.

Now there was only one of the Thomas children left to help dad run the airport. Steve had worked at the airport in one capacity or another for most of his life, and when he met his future wife Tina while in college, she promptly became addicted to flying. Although her training and experience were as a registered nurse, Tina's heart was at the airport, and she eventually gave up nursing to devote her time to aviation, earning commercial and instructor certificates. Their three children are the second generation to have been all but raised at the airport, as she and Steve assumed ever-increasing responsibility for day-to-day operations.

Nineteen ninety-four was a bad year at Belvidere. In April, a defueling operation created a static spark, and the resulting fire destroyed the airport's maintenance hangar, as well as the five airplanes inside - among them Steve and Tina's freshly restored 1929 Waco Taperwing. Then, in September, Dick Thomas died. After his funeral, friends gathered at the airport to celebrate his life and instead found themselves immersed in yet another tragedy - a transient pilot overflying the airport experienced an in-flight emergency, followed by a stall/spin accident as he tried to make the runway. Those attending the wake for Dick Thomas were unsuccessful in their attempts to revive the solo pilot.

If Steve and Tina had decided to pack it in right there, no one would have blamed them. But the lure of aviation is a strong one, and if new airport owners Steve and Tina Thomas were discouraged, they didn't show it. Instead, they stepped back and cast a critical eye at what the family had built. While the airport had been a sleepy success under the stewardship of Dick Thomas, it was clear that times had changed, and the airport would have to change with them.

So, they made a decision: theirs would be, always and forevermore, a recreational airport. More than that, it would be an aviation life-style airport - a place where flying is the focus of everything; where the level of involvement in aviation didn't matter; where retired airline pilots and first-time fliers would feel equally at home. But they wanted their airport to be a success into the next millennium. And they knew that developing such a place would take not only fresh ideas and hard work, but also some creativ-ity - particularly when it came to finding ways to deal with the bureaucracy that had so frustrated the elder Thomas in years gone by.

In the last years before his death, Dick had been battling the county zoning board in an effort to rezone from commercial to residential a piece of property that he owned adjacent to the airport. The idea was to develop Bel-Air Estates, an airport-attached subdivision where an aircraft owner could build a home, keep an airplane in the backyard, and enjoy all the amenities of the small airport. The concept of a residential airpark wasn't new, of course, but most airport residential communities are used solely by the residence owners - they aren't also home to dozens of based aircraft owned by nonresidents or by active flight schools (or offer a full-service FBO complete with an engine rebuild shop, for that matter). Bel-Air Estates would be only one facet of their lifestyle airport, but it was an important one.

Dick's efforts to get the necessary rezoning had been unsuccessful, but Steve decided the time was right to try again. Using modern market research techniques, he found that there were 20,000 certificated pilots living within an 80-mile radius of the airport. O'Hare's proximity meant there was a base of 6,000 airline pilots who were, at least on paper, domiciled in the vicinity. Moreover, many of those airline pilots were approaching retirement age, and some of them would be looking to establish retirement homes where their relationship with airplanes would be for play, not work - and those retiring pilots would be replaced with younger pilots, who also needed a place to live within commuting distance of O'Hare. Steve had no doubt that there was a substantial market for a residential airport community.

But there was still the county to contend with, and the nimbys - chanting "not in my backyard" - were even more vociferous since a new subdivision had sprung up adjacent to the airport. Ominous predictions of noise, traffic, and even airplanes crashing into homes were staples of the public hearings. Steve went so far as to provide demonstration flyovers to the powers-that-be, showing the low noise levels of typical GA craft.

Steve's efforts to enlist the aid of city fathers from the town of Belvidere met with little enthusiasm, despite his projections of property taxes to be paid by homeowners into local coffers. The county board voted to deny the needed exemption to the master plan, and Bel-Air Estates was once again dead in the water.

Or so it seemed, until Steve happened to run into another "bureaucrat" - Roger Day, who had been delivering mail to the airport for more than 20 years. In addition to being a postman, Day was also the mayor of tiny Poplar Grove, population 800. Still stinging from the defeat at the county board meeting, Steve wryly asked if Poplar Grove would like to adopt an airport; Day good-naturedly replied sure, it would love to. A short silence ensued as both men realized that, if Poplar Grove were to annex the airport into the village, the county would have no say on zoning - in Illinois, municipalities retain sole control over such matters. Suddenly, neither of them was kidding anymore.

At first, some of the problems seemed insurmountable - the Poplar Grove village limits were three miles away, and state annexation rules required that the village be contiguous with the airport. Many years earlier, city fathers in Chicago had faced a similar dilemma and had arrived at an ingenious solution: annex a tiny thread of property along a highway right-of-way. That move enabled them to annex into the city limits a somewhat larger piece of property, which we all know now as Chicago O'Hare International Airport. State legislators hadn't been pleased by such creativity, however, and had since closed the loophole with a provision that required a significant common boundary between the municipality and the property it wished to annex. To meet that requirement, Poplar Grove would not only have to annex the airport, but all the property that stood between the village limits and the airport boundary - and that would require the acquiescence of every property owner involved.

A look at area maps showed that these were large tracts of property, one of them a good-sized nursery. None of the property owners had opposed the airport expansion plan during the losing fight with the county, and most were local businessmen that Steve had dealt with amicably for years. Steve met with the property owners, explained his plan, and pitched the benefits that his development would provide to the local area. With surprising ease, the owners agreed to apply for annexation to the Village of Poplar Grove.

With that stumbling block overcome, Steve began to formulate a plan that would satisfy any opposition from members of the Poplar Grove community - opposition that he knew, from past experience, would be inevitable. What could he do to sway any recalcitrance in Poplar Grove?

The answer, it turned out, was rather basic: sewage. Or rather, a place to treat sewage. It seems that the Poplar Grove sewage treatment plant was 26 years old and in dire need of repair, at a cost that would stretch the resources of the tiny village to the limit. Steve proposed that he build, at his expense, a $2 million state-of-the-art sewage treatment plant - on property he would provide. It would replace the ailing village facility and serve Bel-Air Estates.

The people of Poplar Grove loved the idea. With little opposition, the an-nexation plan was approved and thesize of the Village of Poplar Grove doubled overnight. In appreciation, Steve unveiled a new sign for the airport, announcing that it would henceforth be called Poplar Grove Airport.

Bel-Air Estates is a reality now. Some 123 of the 140 lots have been sold; many homes are complete; and many more are under construction. As part of the deed to his property, each homeowner receives an easement in perpetuity to a legally defined area that encompasses the paved runway. Steve believes that the easement provides the best possible guarantee that homeowners will always have a runway to use - they don't own it and aren't liable for anything that happens there, but they are guaranteed access forever. The Thomases still hold all the liability, a situation they may not like but have learned to live with.

In addition to the single-family home sites, an area of condominiums is planned, and many hangars have been sold to their occupants. Many of the hangars are being used for more than just aircraft storage: They're equipped with heat, lavatory facilities, kitchens, and living areas. Their owners escape the daily grind by fleeing to their airport hideaway, where they spend their leisure time with others drawn there by the sheer love of aviation.

Aircraft owners who aren't prepared to buy can rent. When Steve heard that several old, decrepit hangars at the Greater Rockford Airport were scheduled to be demolished, he got creative again: While salvage companies were submitting bids for thousands of dollars to destroy the old hangars, he offered to haul them away for nothing. Naturally, the City of Rockford quickly accepted his offer. He moved the hangars to Poplar Grove and rehabilitated them with new siding and doors. He figures he spent only half as much as new hangars would have cost. Those savings are passed on to renters - hangar rental at Poplar Grove costs about the same as outside tiedown space at many Chicago-area airports.

But Steve and Tina Thomas haven't stopped there. The master plan for their facility includes about 160 more residential lots, a golf course, a restaurant, and a Wings and Wheels museum. Why wheels? Because more people are interested in cars and motorcycles than airplanes - but once they're in the door, they'll be exposed to aviation. Fund- raising for the museum has a healthy start, and several display airplane donations have already been pledged.

While all this is going on, the daily business of the airport is thriving. Tina Thomas is the chief flight instructor, presiding over a full-time staff of five CFIs. But like everything else about Poplar Grove Airport, the flight school offers a little something out of the ordinary: a wider variety of training aircraft than you'll find at schools several times the size. Among the 17 airplanes available for training are a Piper Cub, a Cessna 140, and a Waco UPF-7. The Cub doesn't have a starter, so hand-propping is part of the curriculum.

The Thomases have achieved a degree of success that's all too rare among today's airport operators. For one thing, they've managed to convince most of their nonaviation neighbors that the roar of a big radial engine isn't noise - it's music. The airport's annual pancake breakfast has become a highly anticipated community event, and the recent unannounced arrival of the Fuji blimp for an overnight stay brought crowds to the airport that rivaled those found at the county fair.

The group of airplane watchers sitting on the grass on any sunny afternoon isn't just the usual assortment of local pilots, but also includes entire families from the surrounding community. Many are drawn to the airport by the sight of the Waco, boldly emblazoned with Airplane Rides on the underside of the wing. They may have come for an airplane ride, but they stay for the atmosphere, for this is what a general aviation airport should be: not a country club for the privileged few, but a family park, dedicated to all things aviation. We've all dreamed of the "ideal" GA airport - but the Thomas family stopped dreaming and built one.

Links to additional information on residential airparks may be found on AOPA Online ( Denny Cunningham holds a commercial pilot certificate; he recently retired from his job as an air traffic controller at Chicago O'Hare International Airport.