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Sun sets on biplane expoSun sets on biplane expo

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The curtain closed on the National Biplane Association’s twenty-third and last Biplane Expo on June 6 at Oklahoma’s Bartlesville Municipal Airport, better known locally as Frank Phillips Field. A total of 114 biplanes were on hand for the event’s finale, as well as 241 other aircraft, said Charlie Harris, the association’s chairman. He estimated that 4,100 to 4,600 people attended the event.

Harris said the Biplane Expo’s highest attendance was more than 130 biplanes, and it averaged 100 biplanes per year. Because of poor weather and the rising cost of operating aircraft, however, attendance fell dramatically in 2007 and 2008. “At the same time, we had an aging pilot population and an aging volunteer population,” he said. In late 2008, the association’s board made the emotionally difficult decision to discontinue its aviation activities. “If you’re a VFR pilot and you see weather ahead, are you going to continue into a condition that is marginal or high risk?” Harris asked.

Airplanes flew to Bartlesville from as far away as Oregon, California, and Michigan for the event, which attracted a mix of long-time and first-time visitors.

Robin Williams of Traverse City, Mich., has flown his blue-and-white Waco YMF-5 to 19 Biplane Expos. “The people keep me coming back,” he said. Williams said he’s not sure what he’ll do next year on the first weekend in June.

Kevin Fruehwirth drove in from Houston with his family to attend the event for the first time. “I figured it was the last one,” he said, after helping his ecstatic son, Jack, 5, climb down from a cockpit he’d been invited to visit.

“I started coming down in 1990,” said Steve Sorge of Palmyra, Wis. “I had a Pitts then. I wanted a Stearman but couldn’t afford one.” Sorge bought a former cropduster as a bag of parts and spent 15 years rebuilding it, in the process moving back the cockpit and squaring off the tail. “I call it a Speedmail Special.”

First-time visitor Rex Heminger of Colleyville, Texas, bought a Steen Skybolt last September. “It was a perfect excuse to bring the Skybolt to a biplane fly-in,” he said. “I’d heard it was going to be the last one—I said, ‘I’m qualified, so I’m going.’”

Joe Champagne of Miami, Okla., has been a regular at Biplane Expo, often bringing both his own Pitts Special and a modified Stearman belonging to country music legend Roy Clark of Tulsa. “I’ve been accustomed to coming here twice a year for some time now,” he said. “Now it’ll be just once a year.” A separate annual event, the Tulsa Regional Fly-In—held in Bartlesville each fall—will continue.

Dick Rutan, the former Air Force fighter pilot who flew the Voyager on its nonstop, unrefueled around-the-world flight, was the honored guest at the final Biplane Expo. “It’s airplanes and aviation, and people loving airplanes,” he said, adding that he has a fondness for the Stearman. “I took my second ride in a Stearman when I was just a little kid,” he recalled. Before the event was over, he had a chance to take another flight in the open-cockpit biplane.

Winners of the aircraft judging will be posted on the Biplane Expo’s Web site. A feature article on the event is scheduled for publication in a future issue of AOPA Pilot.

Mike Collins

Mike Collins

Technical Editor
Mike Collins has worked for AOPA’s media network since 1994. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating.

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