It’s not easy keeping secrets in a small town.
So when Robert Bunke, who had once been the only pilot in Rushford, Minnesota, picked up the paper and read that city officials had voted to give the airport a name, the news came as a bit of a shock.
Did he have an inkling that the naming was in the works?
“Absolutely not,” said Bunke, 90, in a telephone interview. “In smaller town like ours it’s hard to keep secrets. They sure kept that one a secret. It’s still kind of hard to believe.”
Believing it may be getting easier for Bunke following a July 15 fly-in breakfast and naming ceremony that brought 90 aircraft to Rushford's airport, and featured the presentation of a Presidential Citation to Bunke by AOPA President Mark Baker, a Minnesota native, who honored Bunke’s “relentless leadership and contributions to general aviation.”
Many community airports have that special person without whom the place just wouldn’t be the same. In Rushford, Bunke is the special person without whom the airport simply wouldn’t be.
A Marine Corps veteran and general aviation pilot who soloed at age 17 on July 1, 1945, Bunke trained in a variety of taildraggers of the period (for about $7 an hour, he recalled), having been drawn to aviation in the prior decade, when flying was still new and the barnstorming era hadn’t quite ended.
Taking on business challenges to merge small rural telephone systems into a regional cooperative, and creating a management and engineering services firm, CENCOM, based in Tomah, Wisconsin, brought aviation into his professional life—and eventually, to Rushford, which in those days did not have an airport.
Running the business required travel well suited to GA aircraft, so Bunke would often launch on trips to see customers from airports in Winona, Minnesota, or La Crosse, Wisconsin.
He wanted to move the engineering company to Rushford, “but we needed an airport,” he said. “That was the driving force behind it.”
Local newspaper accounts describe a 10-year period in the 1960s and 1970s from the time Bunke first broached the airport idea to city officials to the airport’s opening in 1977, an event reported under the headline “Long hard battle won: Rushford has its airport.”
Part of that long hard battle involved finding an acceptable site for the facility. Before Bunke spotted the airport’s ultimate location on a ridge west of town, he had eyed another site to the north—a plan which, according to one contemporary news account, touched off reaction “much in the same manner as New York City residents are opposing the idea of the Concorde flights to Kennedy Airport.”
With the airport established in its preferred location, about 120 pilots from three states showed up for the 1977 dedication of the airport that featured a novelty: Minnesota’s first wooden hangar.
Soon Bunke was being credited with creating a facility that his hometown could be proud of—and with creating 18 jobs for local people by bringing CENCOM to Rushford.
A Beechcraft Bonanza and a Piper Arrow were among several airplanes Bunke owned and flew for an estimated 3,000 hours, always taking pleasure in introducing people to aviation and supporting local efforts to promote flying.
His son, Jim Bunke, who soloed at age 16, is a Gulfstream Aerospace executive who also owns a Beechcraft A36 Bonanza. A scholarship awarded by the University of North Dakota is named for Jim Bunke. Several of Jim’s childhood friends got their first airplane rides from Rushford Airport with Robert Bunke, and “some of them picked up on it,” Robert Bunke said.
“You need the leadership,” he added, expounding on his belief that nurturing the aviation ambitions of young people means taking an active role: promoting flying clubs—a priority for AOPA as one of the programs of the association’s You Can Fly initiatives—and by making introductory flights available and finding other ways to make aviation accessible.
“It only takes one ride, sometimes,” he said.
Bunke, a 1995 inductee of the U.S. Telephone Hall of Fame, now resides in Rochester, Minnesota, about 50 miles from Rushford, and winters in Arizona. He returns to Rushford “quite often,” keeping ties to his hometown strong.
“It’s still a pretty important part of me,” he said.