Wilke is a born and raised Wisconsinite: He bleeds Packer green and gold, designates 1903 a fantastic year for both the birth of powered flight and the founding of Harley-Davidson, and considers an Old Fashioned made with any spirit besides brandy illegitimate. He’s owned the Husky for about six years, and so far on our short flight has proven himself a solid stick-and-rudder pilot.
As we descend out of 500 feet agl, I’m still not sure where we’re headed: It’s been a while since I’ve flown off-pavement and my unpracticed eye can’t discern the grass field we’re looking for in the emerald tapestry of only grass fields.
It’s the Wednesday before EAA AirVenture 2019, and less than an hour ago, the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s Kurt Sensenbrenner and I arrived at Wilke’s hangar at Middleton Municipal-Morey Field (C29) to follow the last few days of Wilke’s journey to his first short takeoff and landing (STOL) demonstration. For Sensenbrenner, this trip is a type of homecoming—he’s originally from Ripon, Wisconsin, a town that will ring a bell for those familiar with the Fisk VFR arrival into Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh. This Sunday, Wilke plans to fly in Steve Johnson’s annual Supercub.org STOL demo at New Holstein (8D1). What’s arguably more interesting than the demo, though, is the way Wilke is preparing for it. He practices practically, by flying to local fields that demand a solid STOL technique, and that’s why we’re out flying the “side country” today.
On short final, I manage to crane my neck around Wilke’s shoulder and the strip reveals itself. The cornfields surrounding the clearing ripple in the light wind, golden tassels waving hello from atop stalks a green deeper than the uniform, golf course-like turf ahead of us. The approach end of this 900-foot north/south strip is marked with a set of tall trees. Today we’ll approach over them, which will shorten the usable length considerably.
We’re heavy, it’s oppressively hot, and we’re well below 1.3 times VS0—as you must be in a true STOL environment like this. Wilke has given me no cause for alarm, but I’m having a hard time reminding myself that I’m not acting as a flight instructor right now—we’re so close to the edge that if Wilke doesn’t know what he’s doing, we could be in an unrecoverable situation quickly. I tuck my elbows in and put my hands down to resist the temptation to hover over the controls.
But even if I had been acting as a CFI, there wouldn’t have been anything for me to do. Wilke makes the touchdown look easy. We’re down and stopped with hundreds of feet to spare. The distinct aroma of America’s Dairyland wafts into the cockpit, and the corn around the field looks as high as the airplane’s wings. I imagine having a seven-foot-tall fence directly surrounding my own home field; I don’t think I would like it. We reverse course with the intention to back-taxi and take off, but as it turns out, the strip’s owner, Mike Kindschi, is there. “Oh, we gotta stop,” says Wilke. Since we’re in Kindschi’s backyard, I agree.
The art of getting out of the backseat of a tandem taildragger on 31-inch tundra tires is one I have yet to perfect, and I clumsily stumble out of the Husky to greet Kindschi. He flies ultralights, and seems genuinely excited to see the strip in use by an airplane. Kindschi’s shepherd mix, Roscoe, runs over and insists with plaintive eyes and enthusiastic tail wagging that Wilke play fetch with him. Roscoe’s wish is granted.
Sensenbrenner and I are here to attend a STOL demo, but I think the side country might end up being the highlight after all. It’s clear that it isn’t just the flying that makes this place special. “Part of it is coming out here to stop in and say hi,” says Wilke. “Everybody in aviation is good people, ya know?” As Roscoe bounds through the field, I’m inclined to think he’s right.
Side country life
We get back to Morey Field and after some solo practice, Wilke joins Sensenbrenner and me to talk risk management. With the demo just a few days away, he’s aiming to achieve a level of proficiency that will allow him to operate as safely as possible while also flying competitively. “There are definitely risks involved,” Wilke says. “You’re flying close to the edge, you’re flying close to the ground, you’re at a low speed, you’re dirty, and you don’t have time to recover if something goes south, for the most part.” Because of that smaller margin for error, Wilke mitigates risk through constant practice coupled with intimate knowledge of his airplane and the airplane’s performance. He’s been preparing for the demo all summer, and has noticed the improvement that regular flying has brought to his landings.
By the time Friday rolls around, nearly every pilot invited to participate in AirVenture 2019’s Twilight Flight Fest has converged on C29. Well-known airplanes line the grass and ramp. Vlogging abounds. That night there’ll be a party—Rock the Ramp, hosted by local flight school Capital Flight and one of its founders, Matt Hofeldt.
“The side country is something that is easily accessible, but it’s not necessarily something for your average low-time pilot. It’s not out in the middle of nowhere, it’s not remote. It may be right in front of your face—sometimes right off the side of the road—but it’s definitely not your on-the-map airport.” —Ross Wilke
Wilke plans to get one more flight in before the evening’s festivities, especially since tomorrow’s forecast calls for severe thunderstorms. He isn’t the only one with that idea, and soon a flight of four heads out to the side country. Wilke and Jim Stevenson, who flies a Cessna 170B, are the local guides, and Stevenson leads Riley Kennedy and Bo Ellis in their 180s to a handful of locals-only spots. Sensenbrenner and I are both lucky enough to grab a seat to ride along—he’s with Stevenson and I’m with Wilke.
For Stevenson and Wilke, this is a standard flying day. They’re part of a tight-knit airport community that regularly flies together. Wilke credits this airport and its pilots in particular as reasons why he’s pushed himself to the level he’s at now: “Flying with people that are that good—it elevates you.”
Wisconsin from the air is stunning. Departing Morey Field, we can see Lake Mendota and glimpse the state capital, Madison. Summer rain has left the surface world vivid, and as we turn away from the city, a Pantone-approved array of green fields unfurls beneath us, divided only by sparkling lakes and rivers, meandering country roads, and the odd cherry-red barn. I like our chances in the event of an engine failure. I expected Wisconsin to have a Florida-like flatness, but there’s a surprising variety of terrain. Farm after farm leads to softly rolling hills and the occasional sharp bluff, and tucked into all this natural splendor are airfields waiting for us, like treasure buried in plain sight.
After a couple stops at farmers’ fields, Stevenson leads us to one more place. Wisconsin has long had notable ties to aviation, and they all seem to be converging on this trip. The next airstrip, the Orchard, is in Baraboo, where the brothers Klapmeier began Cirrus Aircraft out of a barn. We’re also relatively close to the home of American Champion, the makers of Citabrias and Scouts. Charles Lindbergh briefly attended the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which neighbors Middleton. And, of course, this is the home of Experimental Aircraft Association and the world’s greatest aviation celebration.
The approach to the Orchard is memorable—the wind has picked up since departure, and it takes some dancing on the rudders and careful energy management for Wilke to get us down safely. All four airplanes land successfully and taxi to the top of the sloping, 1,300-foot one-way strip. Even as the day begins to end, the air is thick with moisture and once the prop stops the heat is almost unbearable. We head back to Morey Field and find the party started without us, but we’re more than happy to be late.
What makes the end of any great flying day better? Talking about it with other pilots over the finest New Glarus brews, of course. Back at C29, the soft summer light diffuses over an electrified crowd that’s excited for the week ahead. Thick crimson clouds dripping in gold part to let the last light of the day fall over the supersaturated green of Morey Field, and as the world turns to night, lightning from the strong storms to the north illuminates the sky.
Those storms stick around and head our way, and Saturday’s a wash because of the weather. We spend most of the day on the ground, agreeing to meet early Sunday morning to fly up to New Holstein.
The overnight convection cleared the air of its typical oppressive humidity, and Sunday morning brings perfect flying conditions. Our flight of three—Wilke and I in the Husky, and Stevenson and Kennedy in their respective airplanes—departs for New Holstein shortly after dawn over a world still waking. We head up in loose formation, avoiding Madison’s airspace and remaining clear of Fond du Lac on our way to the eastern side of Lake Winnebago. New Holstein’s almost directly across the lake from Oshkosh, although farther from the shore, and we hear the chatter of pilots heading to AirVenture on the CTAF.
Golden-hour light illuminates the 30 or so airplanes already parked on the field, some of which camped through last night’s storms. We touch down and find a couple of prime parking spots near the ramp. The morning passes with no small amount of nerves from Wilke, who only manages to drink a single cup of coffee while Kennedy and I feast on a pancake breakfast hosted by the local Lion’s Club. The demo won’t start for a couple of hours, and the rest of the morning is spent lounging in the shade of their high-winged airplanes and enjoying the constant flow of Young Eagles traffic.
It’s nearly lunchtime when the pilot briefing rolls around and the STOL demo gets started as scheduled. Locals have set up their seats near the judging line, and those who missed breakfast dine on burgers, brats, and cheese curds, which I am shocked to learn are not always served deep fried. I have little right to feel any nerves myself, yet as the competitors taxi out, I find myself hoping that at a minimum Wilke doesn’t nose it over today.
And of course, he doesn’t. The crowd oohs, ahs, and gasps at all the right times. Of the three attempts, his third landing is by far the best at 212 feet. Perhaps more important, every attempt counted, and he didn’t scratch once. Not bad for a first timer, I think from the sidelines, where no one is judging my landings.
Sensenbrenner and I wander back to meet up with Wilke after he returns to parking, and we find him talking to a spectator he’s especially glad to see—his dad, Jerry, who’s also a pilot. They debrief the demo flight and landings, and discuss what he’d do differently next time. Later, Wilke says, “It was a special day to share with him.…To see that he was excited for me…and proud to see me out flying—that was a really big deal.”
We watch the final STOL heats and chat for a while, but even with the long summer days of Wisconsin, we’re racing against daylight and all of us have places to go. Sensenbrenner drives off to his family home in Ripon, footage in hand, and Jerry Wilke heads to AirVenture. Kennedy and Stevenson depart New Holstein after fueling up—they’re also headed to Oshkosh, but they’re flying in to participate in the Twilight Flight Fest. And just like that, the demo’s over, and Wilke and I hop into the Husky to return to Middleton.
The landings we made along the way
The trip was lightning in a bottle. In the unpredictable world of general aviation, everything fell into place. The weather was perfect when it needed to be, the airplane was healthy, and the pilot did well. And throughout all of it was a strong feeling that this is how aviation is supposed to be. I’d never flown in Wisconsin before, but every flight—taking taildraggers from grass strip to grass strip with friends for the joy of it—felt familiar, more like remembering than experiencing for the first time. I understand now why aviators from around the world go out of their way to make a summer trip to Wisconsin—the state’s unique airfields, stunning landscape, and welcoming grassroots community remind us of why we learned to fly at all.
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