Robin Williams flew from Traverse City, Michigan, to Bartlesville, Oklahoma, in his blue-and-white Waco YMF-5 for the nineteenth time.
Joe Champagne of Miami, Oklahoma, brought two biplanes, as he often does—both his own Pitts Special and a modified Stearman belonging to country music legend Roy Clark of Tulsa.
Steve Sorge of Palmyra, Wisconsin, has been coming since 1990 and arrived in his highly modified Stearman.
Kevin Fruehwirth drove from Houston to Bartlesville for his first visit.
What brought them all to Bartlesville? They came for the final Biplane Expo, held June 4 through 6. The annual event was winding down after a 23-year run. But the atmosphere at Bartlesville Municipal Airport, better known locally as Frank Phillips Field, was not that of a funeral. Instead, it was festive, the aeronautical equivalent of an Irish wake.
This year’s flight to Bartlesville took Williams, days shy of his eighty-second birthday, and Deb Courtnay seven hours. “We had a tailwind the whole way,” he said.
A 700-nm cross-country flight in an open-cockpit biplane can be challenging, said Courtnay, also a pilot. “Opening a chart, even in the front cockpit where there’s some protection, is very difficult,” she said, adding that she has lost several. “Robin donated a nice pair of goggles to the trees.”
Champagne has been accustomed to visiting Bartlesville twice a year for some time. “Now it’ll be just once a year,” he said. A separate annual event, the Tulsa Regional Fly-In—held in Bartlesville each fall—will continue. The shiny black Stearman he brought has flown only 205 hours since it was restored in 1987. “It’s not on the fast track to being worn out,” Champagne acknowledged. “I asked [owner Roy Clark] what he’s going to do when he gets too old to fly it. He said, ‘I’m going to put it in the corner and look at it.’”
Sorge had a Pitts when he flew to his first Biplane Expo in 1990. “I wanted a Stearman but couldn’t afford one.” He eventually bought one—as a “bag of parts”—from Jim Miles, a former barnstormer who had used the airplane as a cropduster. Sorge spent 15 years rebuilding it, in the process moving the cockpit aft and squaring off the tail. “I built this as a tribute to Jim,” he said. “I call it a Speedmail Special.”
Fruehwirth drove from Houston with his family. “I figured it was the last one, so I’d better come,” he said, after helping his ecstatic son Jack, 5, climb down from a cockpit he’d been invited to visit.
The National Biplane Association announced in December 2008 that the twenty-third Biplane Expo would be its last. Charlie Harris, the association’s chairman and one of its founders, said the 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—which saw 58 and 31 biplanes, respectively, on the field. The cost of running the event was escalating. “At the same time, we had an aging pilot population, and an aging volunteer population,” he said.
The board’s decision to discontinue its aviation activities was emotionally difficult, he said, but it had to be done. “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.
Harris credits Bob Moore, a World War II B-17 pilot, Tulsa businessman, and Stearman owner, with the idea of an all-biplane fly-in. Harris had chaired another aviation event, the Tulsa Fly-In, since the mid-1970s and 10 years later, it was drawing 500 to 550 aircraft. The 1986 event, held in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, was particularly successful. Harris said he remarked, off the cuff, that “this 1986 Tulsa Fly-In has gone so beautifully, the only thing we could do as an encore would be to stage Bob Moore’s idea.”
He was sitting next to Mary Jones, a former Women’s Airforce Service Pilot. “She called me the next day and said, ‘Why don’t we start planning that?’”
That was September 1986. They began searching for the right airport and Bartlesville’s civic and business leadership embraced the idea. On the first weekend of June 1987, 92 biplanes arrived for the first Biplane Expo, “which staggered us.” Sadly, Moore had died, and wasn’t able to share in the event’s success.
People have shown up at the Biplane Expo unfamiliar with biplanes and returned the next year flying a biplane, Harris noted. “It’s their love for airplanes in general—and especially biplanes—that brings them together. The heart and soul of the whole thing is the biplanes. It’s been a great thing for the sport aviation community, the biplane community, Bartlesville, and northeast Oklahoma.
“We have absolutely stalwart people,” he added, describing the volunteers who have made the event happen. It takes about 300. “These people would run through a wall for you.”
Airplanes flew to Bartlesville from as far away as Oregon, California, and Michigan for the finale, which attracted a mix of long-time and first-time visitors. “This is kind of a bittersweet day for us,” Biplane Expo Chairman Virgil Gaede said as the event began. “The changes will only be in our minds, because the memories will be with us forever.”
First-timer Rex Heminger of Colleyville, Texas, bought a Steen Skybolt in September 2008. “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.’”
Dick Janitell wiped oil off the 1930 Waco RNF he’d just landed after flying more than six hours from Colorado Springs, Colorado. “Three fuel stops, five gallons of oil,” he laughed, as he continued to wipe. It was his first visit to the event as well, and he said he hoped to find a buyer for the Waco. “I’ve just got too many toys. This one’s surplus to my needs.”
Dick Rutan, the former Air Force fighter pilot who flew 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, Rutan had a chance to take another flight in the open-cockpit biplane. “That was wonderful,” he said after his flight with Paul Mackey. “This is beautiful country.”
On Saturday Sorge coordinated a dawn patrol fly-out of about 10 airplanes to the Beaumont Hotel in Beaumont, Kansas, about 60 nm northwest of Bartlesville. “We all got up around 4:30 a.m.,” he said. “The weather wasn’t very good—we had about a 25-knot wind.” More than half the participants had been to Beaumont before, he added. “We were all able to park right up by the hotel. They put on a great breakfast for us.”
At Bartlesville that afternoon, it was hot and still windy, Sorge said. “But everybody was still flying.”
The curtain closed June 6 on the final Biplane Expo with 114 biplanes on hand, as well as 241 other aircraft and an estimated 4,100 to 4,600 people, Harris said. Over its run, the event brought 2,500 biplanes, 7,500 non-biplane aircraft, and more than 80,000 people to Bartlesville. “It has been 23 years in a flash and it ended on a perfect high note,” he said.
And although the Biplane Expo wake was primarily a celebration of the event, there were a few melancholy feelings. “The people kept me coming back,” Robin Williams said. “I’m not sure what I’ll do next year on the first weekend in June.”
More information on the final Biplane Expo can be found on the organization’s Web site.
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