Poplar Grove Airport in Illinois recently held its Mid-Summer Wheels Festival. Rob Edgcumbe headed along for GAR to see what a local airport could do to entertain the local community.
Plenty of smaller airports are scattered across the United States but not all of them are so willing to act as a hub for local community activities. Poplar Grove Airport is a field that has a very community based focus and its Mid-Summer Wheels Festival is a great example of what can be done.
Poplar Grove is about an hour’s drive northwest of Chicago, close to Rockford. The airport is owned and run by Steve and Tina Thomas and it is much more than just an airport. The field is a community in itself with residential development on the site. Many of the houses have hangars and taxiway access and many more are owned by people who hangar their aircraft on the airport. Over 400 aircraft are based at Poplar Grove.
As well as the residents, the airport is also home to a very active chapter of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) and the Wings and Wheels Museum is located on the north side of the field.
The area by the museum provides a large space for events to take place. Over the years, a variety of events have been held involving aircraft, cars and tractors and these have now been combined into a single larger event, the Mid-Summer Wheels Festival. Run over the course of a weekend in mid-July, this includes the chance for local aircraft owners to show off their planes, for nearby pilots to bring in their aircraft, vintage car owners to show off their restorations and tractor enthusiasts to bring their vintage machines to show and compete.
The first day included a parade of the car restorations and a concert in the evening. There was also a plan to have an evening of balloon flying but, sadly, the winds were a little too high to allow the balloons to inflate, let alone fly. Sunday brought great conditions and a full day of entertainment. A flying display was not part of the entertainment. However, as an active airport, there was still a lot of movement on the field and many of the pilots took the opportunity to fly anyway to show off their aircraft, even if they were not carrying out display routines.
A group of vintage Stearman aircraft had gathered and they took off on a number of occasions to carry out some formation work across the field. A number of other visiting aircraft also flew by either before landing or just as a passing show of support. One particularly nice visitor was the EAA owned Boeing B-17 Flying Fortress, Aluminum Overcast. As part of an ongoing tour, the aircraft was undertaking flights from the nearby Rockford International Airport. One of the pilots on the tour lives at Poplar Grove and so the B-17 made over flights as it undertook its local trips.
Steve and Tina Thomas are keen restorers of vintage aircraft themselves and some of their aircraft were included in the line up. Their beautiful Beech 18 was parked alongside their Cabin WACO and their recently restored WACO. This flew earlier in the year for the first time after a restoration undertaken at Poplar Grove over a number of years.
Aircraft continued to arrive and depart throughout the day. While some of the larger aircraft preferred to operate from the hard runway which runs northwest-southeast, the east-west grass strip directly beside the main visitor area provided a great opportunity for the visitors to see the aircraft up close. The parking area was open to all visitors and many owners of the aircraft were on hand to discuss their planes. With the taxiway directly behind the parking, it was possible to watch the pilots crew the aircraft, start up, taxi out and take off. The personal nature of things meant many people were able to feel very involved in the flying.
For those not interested in the planes or who were willing to sample everything on offer, a tractor pull was underway. The competitors were taking part with some of the vintage tractors on display. These tractors varied widely in age but all showed a great level of care in their restoration and maintenance. For those that have not seen a tractor pull before, the tractors compete in weight classes. They are attached to a trailer that has a skid supporting a sloped ramp on which a weight is mounted. The back of the trailer is on wheels that drive a mechanism to move the weight up the ramp. As the tractor pulls the trailer, the wheels move the weight forward moving the load further onto the skid. This progressively increases the resistance. The driver of the tractor pulls as far as they can before the wheels lose grip and the distance travelled is measured. Longest wins!
Between the tractors and the aircraft parking, the vintage cars were on display outside the main museum building. Food vendors were on site and a band was playing throughout the day to entertain those having something to eat or just taking a break and enjoying a rest on a delightfully sunny day. With over 2,000 people visiting over the two days, there were plenty stopping by to enjoy the music.
The Mid-Summer Wheels Festival proved to be a great success. The variety of entertainment meant there was something for everyone who chose to visit and it provided a great example of what an airfield can do to demonstrate its position at the heart of a local community. Congratulations to all involved.
Thanks are owed to Steve and Tina Thomas for their hospitality and warmth in helping to prepare this feature.