By: Bill Grimes
WATSON — Fly-ins have been a common activity of private pilots since the general aviation boom of the mid-20th century.
But some of the folks who flew Wednesday into Percival Springs Airport near Watson said those communal events may start getting more scarce.
“It’s definitely an old person’s sport,” said Steve Laribee of Charleston.
Laribee, a retired Eastern Illinois University accounting professor who flew his 1939 Aeronca into the airport to eat lunch with some of his flying buddies, said general aviation production peaked in the years immediately following World War II. But most of those people, he said, haveeither died or aged out of flying. And, he said, there’s not a corresponding influx of younger folks taking their place on American runways.
“You don’t see young people flying that much,” Laribee said, adding that some of the reason might be cost.
“It costs $6,000 to $10,000 just to get a license,” he said. “Airplanes rent for $150 per hour and gas costs $7 per gallon.
“If a 25-year-old has that kind of money, he might be more likely to buy a motorcycle or a jet ski,” he added. “We’re finding that we are all gray hairs.”
Some of those “gray hairs” have been flying for more than 50 years. Retired Eastern chemistry/physics professor Giles Henderson is one of those people who began flying in the 1950s. Henderson said his Piper Cub that has been modified for aerobatics can cruise a few-hundred feet off the ground at speeds between 85 and 115 miles per hour.
“On bad days, you might want to fly a little higher to get less turbulence and better radio communication,” Henderson said. “But on a nice day, I often just enjoy the summer scenery cruising just over the tree tops.”
Other pilots who made Wednesday’s trip were Mike Schwabauer, a crop duster from Cisco; Robert Bilyeu, a retired crop duster from Decatur; Tom Rippee, a Shell Oil retiree from Salem; and Tammy Ritz, a flight instructor from the Madison County community of Grant Fork.
Keith Walker of Charleston, a passenger Wednesday, said flying is something a person usually gets a yen for as a child.
“It’s all about freedom,” Walker said. “And, it’s something that was in me from the time I was a small child.
“I just love flying and I got to realize my childhood dream when I got my pilot’s license when I was 60.”
Several pilots at Wednesday’s gathering say flying is a great way to meet nice people.
“The folks you meet in aviation are pretty special,” Rippee said.
“When you go to an air show, you never see trash or litter,” Walker added. “People are well-mannered and interesting to talk to.”
“The aviation community is pretty small and tight-knit,” Henderson added. “A lot of us have known each other for 40 years.”
Percival Springs has one of the few grass runways remaining in central Illinois. Two other small airports in Atwood, in Douglas County, and Dudley, in Edgar County, are reportedly getting ready to close after the recent deaths of their respective owners.
But Percival Springs owner Sheila Percival said she would keep her airport open indefinitely, even though husband Mark died in late 2010. Percival added that her airport is one of the few privately-owned airports in Illinois.