Budget Buys

Little Strip, Extended Family

May 1, 2003

When a flying club feels like home

A covey of pilots in lawn chairs recline under leafy branches. Their view on this warm evening takes in a cornfield with foot-high stalks waving green, bunches of mint growing in the shade of a white hangar, and the pencil line of pavement that is Runway 15/33 at Nelson Field, home of Green Castle Aero Club, near Oxford, Iowa. Their flying is done for the day, so they sip mint juleps made from the local produce and talk in anticipation of the evening's festivities.

This is no ordinary private strip in the middle of nowhere. Tonight, the maintenance hangar will be transformed into a concert hall, and the lift will come not from Newton or Bernoulli, but from the duet of an electric piano and an antique Italian cello, crafted by a Stradivari apprentice, playing the works of Chopin, Schumann, and Paganini.

A place to grow

"Green Castle is a special place," says Pete Muir, an instrument-rated private pilot and editor of the club's newsletter. "During my primary training, I often flew early on Sunday mornings, in part because the plane was readily available as well as for the calm winds.  I liked nothing better than to arrive at the airport just as the sun was coming over the horizon. The quiet of the Iowa countryside was a perfect setting to focus my mind on the upcoming flight."

Something in that countryside spoke to Don and Jackie Nelson when they first purchased the land — 117 acres with a little grass strip — in July 1975. Jackie wrote about the time they first went to look at the property in her journal, part of which is excerpted on the club's Web site: "As we sat there that evening under those two big cottonwood trees in that night-cooled grass with the wind whistling through the trees and looking out over the fields, we knew that we had come home!" The couple christened the strip Green Castle Airport in reference to an 1800s-era trading post on the Iowa River near the property. In the spring of 1976, Don bought a red-and-white Cessna 150, gathered up a few students, and the business was born. Don continued his day job, adding to the 15,000 hours he'd accumulated flying for the Iowa State Patrol, and gave flying lessons on his days and evenings off. Another Cessna 150 was added as student solos took off, and a ground school course started late that summer with a class of 28.

The Nelsons brought in another instructor by the name of John Buck in 1977, and Keith Roof soon joined as their mechanic. They added a third airplane, a Cessna Skyhawk. A muddy spring in 1978 led the couple to hard surface the grass strip with a layer of rock and oil. Another hard winter passed, and some blacktop was added to the run-up areas, ramp, and taxiways. The Nelsons became Cessna dealers in 1980, and Green Castle served as a staging ground for the Air Care air ambulance from the University of Iowa Hospital in nearby Iowa City. The 2,400-by-30-foot strip was upgraded to asphalt in the 1980s and resurfaced in 2001; the turf extends for another 1,400 feet north of the asphalt.

Green Castle Airport thrived through the hard years of the mid-to-late 1980s, offering primary and tailwheel instruction. Don retired from the State Patrol in 1982 and was free to pour all his energy into the airport. When Don and Jackie decided to step back from running the operation full time in 1992, Roof took over and leased the FBO for a year.

In the summer of 1993, Roof expressed a desire to get out of the FBO business, bringing to light Don's "worst nightmare." He envisioned the field and its two rows of T-hangars degenerating into dusty storage for unused airplanes. Only the Taildragger Club, with its 15 members, and a few private owners would remain. The dream pursued by the Nelsons 20 years prior was slipping back into the summer night.

New beginnings

Pilots Dan Hall, Gary Lust, and select others got together with Don and formed the idea for resurrecting Green Castle as a club. The founders knew that the special combination of low overhead possible at the privately owned field and some community-style "pitching in" could keep flying costs down — and keep more local pilots flying. The first meeting was held on September 28, 1993.

From the outset, the club knew it wanted to involve entire families, not just lone pilots. To achieve this goal, the founders modeled it on clubs seen in Australia, where social events mixed with flying events to create a friendly atmosphere. Some ideas included cross-country trips, barbecues, glider flying, athletic matches with other clubs, monthly flying competitions, and spot landing contests — all good ways for "low buck" pilots to stay current.

Club founders felt the need to be honest with new pilots and teach them that flying recreationally was mostly for fun, not necessarily for travel. Therefore, the club charged itself with doing whatever it would take to make flying fun. Club membership started with about 50 pilots, and now more than 200 fill the register.

The price for membership? Initially $100 — now $150 — for an entire family, with low monthly dues ($60 every six months at press time) waived for those renting hangars. One way to keep costs down? The club runs the airport and relies heavily on volunteer effort.

For example, an old airway beacon — number 23 on the Chicago-to-Des Moines route — was located in a field south of Iowa City. The field's owner and the appropriate governmental entities allowed the club to have the beacon for the effort of dismantling it and moving it to Green Castle. Members help maintain the beacon, which, along with runway lights as dim as distant stars, makes the airport a little easier to locate at night.

The club maintains six aircraft for rental, including two Cessna 150s, a Cessna 172, a Cessna 172RG, a Piper Cherokee 180, and an American Champion 7ECA Citabria. Rates vary from $40 an hour for the 150s to $70 an hour for the 172RG, wet. Club fuel prices are easy on the wallet as well: $2.25 a gallon for 100LL, and $1.90 for mogas at press time, subject to change. For all its down-home feel, this club is firmly in the twenty-first century, using an online scheduling system to keep track of instructors and aircraft.

The Beacon, the bimonthly club newsletter posted online, keeps all members in the loop. Last summer, The Beacon posted a special essay, written by a young woman in her senior year of high school with dreams of flying as a professional pilot.

Her essay talks about the inspiration she draws from the Blue Angels naval demonstration team, but Jessica Koss is learning to fly at the grassroots of aviation. She was the recipient of the 2002 Bill Kimble Scholarship, sponsored by the patrons of Green Castle Aero Club, and is the beneficiary of proceeds from an annual hangar concert at the airport. Koss' mother has her private certificate, and the family attended the concert with a keen eye to ensuring the aero club was the right place for their daughter to take flight.

All instincts tell them they've found the right place. By offering the scholarship, the aero club adds to the steady stream of young people it needs to build for the future.

The scholarship was founded in 1997 to honor one of the aero club's founding members. Monies raised each year provide the winner, a local high school student, with the means to obtain a private pilot certificate. The concert began as a way to support the scholarship and bring the community to the field. Performers at the 2002 concert included Charles Wendt, former principal cellist of the Santa Fe, Atlanta, and Pittsburgh Opera symphonies and a club member (and owner of the notable cello mentioned previously); Josh Russell, a masters student in piano performance at the University of Iowa and a flight instructor for the club; and Radislav Lorkovic, a well-known local jazz pianist and accomplished accordion player. The concert raised $2,100 for the scholarship, to bring funding levels for this year to $3,400.

Green Castle volunteers Larry Swanson and Mike Brotherton provided air transportation to Lorkovic, who was thrilled by the first-class service from Decorah, 80 nm to the north, to Nelson Field in Swanson's Piper Turbo Arrow and back in Brotherton's Bellanca Super Viking. Other members produced beer and brats for sale, and packages of cookies to snack on. Oh, and the mint juleps brought in another round of funding.

Wendt offered his considerable talents when the idea for the first concert germinated in early 2001. "I said, 'Hey, I'll give a concert,' and the idea just sort of snowballed," recalls Wendt. As for his pedigreed cello: "Someone has to play it," he says modestly.

The 2003 Bill Kimble Scholarship concert will be held on June 7. For more information, contact Green Castle Aero Club at 319/545-2101.

Russell finds many parallels between teaching music and flight instructing. "The material is different, but the concepts of learning are very similar." Russell is a relatively new instructor, following in the footsteps of the club's instructor emeritus, Don. As he's found, the tight confines of the field brew students with the ability to land precisely. "Honestly, I take them somewhere else first [to land]," says Russell. "They're worried about the trees."

Nelson's grandson, Bill, concurs. He learned to fly during the summer of 1988 from Don after washing aircraft and saving up for lessons. "If you can land here, you can land anywhere," he says, adding after a thoughtful moment, "If you can't land here, maybe you shouldn't be flying."

There's a fine blade of skill to be honed at such a place, and the hours spent by students in Don's tutelage bear witness to the mastery obtained. But the lessons learned can't be duplicated in textbooks or DVDs or online courses. Recalls Muir, "'Just hold it off' is the phrase uttered by Don to every primary student as he teaches the all-important flare to a successful landing. His calm demeanor is a sharp counterpoint to the nervous student; his body language and voice reassure that he has seen it all before and that this too will be mastered if we just relax."

For another pilot who learned to fly at Green Castle, the truth of being looked after like a treasured friend rings clear. Katherine Lemos, a research psychologist studying aviation human factors at the University of Iowa, began lessons in July 2001 with her husband, Carlos, and recently received her commercial and flight instructor certificates. She took her first lessons in Southern California, and the difference was striking. At Green Castle, "you basically learn how to fly rather than learning how to deal with air traffic control — which waits until after you learn to control the airplane." Then, with the nearby presence of The Eastern Iowa Airport in Cedar Rapids, you can learn those critical radio communications skills too. Lemos refers to the instructors and the comfortable environment as key features of Green Castle Aero Club. "The benefit to the club is the casual atmosphere: going in, hanging out, saying hello — and the fact that Don Nelson is always there. You're among friends."

When Jackie died in May 2001 after a struggle with Alzheimer's, the support that Don had given to his students and fellow pilots was returned. Don and Jackie's daughter, Rosemary, sum it up: "Every place has a purpose, and at Green Castle, it's to bring family and flying together."

The same dream shared by the Nelsons lives on.

E-mail the author at [email protected].