If all goes well, the Recreational Aviation Foundation (RAF) and the city of Havana, Illinois, will roll out the welcome mat to showcase what promises to be a one-of-a-kind migratory bird fly-in and photo shoot March 11. Every year tens of thousands of birds flying north for the warmer months take a break on an elbow of the Illinois River an hour south of Chicago.
Taking a page from the movie Field of Dreams, which proclaimed, “If you build it he will come,” RAF aviators and city officials want to attract pilots and bird watchers to Havana Regional Airport’s 2,200-foot-long grass landing strip for a day of flying, bird watching, and photography.
City officials will help transport participants from the airfield to the nearby Emiquon National Wildlife Refuge, where thousands of Canada geese, trumpeter swans, pelicans, and ducks alight like clockwork every March.
Although “birds do as they please and go as they want,” Purpura said history proves there’s a good chance of viewing the feasting birds along their Midwestern flyway resting grounds. He explained that the birds congregate until frozen lakes farther north thaw, so “they feed and fuel up” along the Emiquon refuge.
When they were planning the event, Havana Mayor Brenda Stadsholt told Purpura she “never though too much about the airport at all.” Now the city is excited to bring visitors to the sleepy little town that was once known as a weekend getaway for Chicago gangster Al Capone.
Pilots will have time for lunch at restaurants near the east bank of the Illinois River, stroll along the Riverfront Park walkway, or visit shops on the cobblestone W. Main Street.
Stadsholt told AOPA that Grandpa’s Café on Main Street is a “wonderful” lunch choice and that the third-generation, family-run restaurant was expecting pilots. The chicken salad sandwich on wheat bread is one of the mayor’s favorites, and she advised aviators not to miss the homemade ice cream. Additional lunch choices include Babe’s, Trixie’s Primitive Café, and Toni’s Family Restaurant.
Purpura said there will be plenty of wings sharing the airspace, so he prepared an online safety briefing to remind pilots that “flocks of 100,000 or more” waterfowl may be nearby. He said the birds are generally more active before sunrise and around sunset, so the event is planned with that time period in mind.
“It just so happens the birds leave the refuge around pre-dawn because that’s when they get restless and forage, then they return to the Emiquon around sunset. Those two things are in our favor because we’ll be in at 8 a.m. in the morning, and out at 2 or 3 p.m. in the afternoon.”
The birds fly low, so pilots are advised to arrive at 3,500 feet or higher and descend closer to the airport than they normally would. Purpura said an avian study indicated “the most effective way to ward off birds is to turn on every light you have. They don’t want to be hit either, and that’ll get them out of the way.”
Although Purpura didn’t expect any difficulties, he advised pilots to promptly execute a go-around if there’s a flock on the airport grounds. Local aviators told him they’ve never had a problem with the flocks and their aircraft: “They just stay out of the way.”
He said there are several lessons to be learned from organizing the inaugural event. “Number one, cities can have an airport in their backyard and not know about it or have a reason for pilots to fly in. And number two, most pilots really want to be active, they just need a good reason to fly somewhere.”
Purpura said he hopes the migratory bird fly-in and photo shoot will wake up Havana and become an annual event. “This needs to be our Field of Dreams.”