ARLINGTON — It was something of a protest.
A protest where pilots camped under the wings of airplanes, shared a spaghetti dinner and swapped stories at the Arlington Municipal Airport.
Half a century ago, the rules at the Canadian border tightened for people coming in with experimental aircraft. That frustrated groups of Washington pilots who had been crossing the border for years to attend the Abbotsford International Airshow.
So when they landed in August 1969 at the Arlington Airport, normally a stopover on their way to Canada, they decided to hang out there instead.
It was the start of what would become an annual event, now in its 50th year, that draws thousands of visitors. Among them are hundreds of pilots from around the country.
“The Arlington Fly-In really started as a protest to Abbotsford,” director Barbara Tolbert said. “It was very casual. Fly in one day, spaghetti feed, fly out the next.”
The pilots wanted to continue the new get-together, even after they were able to return to Abbotsford. They made plans to meet the weekend after July 4.
The yearly reunion grew into a larger public event. Volunteers created a nonprofit focused on aviation education.
Tolbert has been director since 1994. Her parents helped lead the Fly-In before her. She’s also the mayor of Arlington, first elected in 2011.
She’s part of a crew of hundreds of volunteers, many of whom have been part of the event for decades.
Wayne Tinkle and Ralph Frazier have helped for more than 20 years. Tinkle took one year off for his son’s wedding.
“Ralph and I, we’ve got generations,” Tinkle said.
One summer, Frazier was among three generations of his family all camping together at the Fly-In.
Older volunteers swap stories of grown children and growing grandchildren. Younger volunteers — some from those families — have stepped up, as well. Tolbert wishes she’d kept a log of how many letters of recommendation she’s written over the years for young people who worked on the event.
In recent weeks, volunteers have been painting lines for campsites, flagging the route for the fence and putting together the custom-built red barn that is a centerpiece of a historic aircraft exhibit.
“This whole thing comes together with people who have no other agenda than to help,” Frazier said.
Photos from the early years of the Fly-In show a few dozen airplanes parked at the airport. Guests camped in coveted spots near the evergreen trees, in an area now built up with businesses.
Today, the Fly-In draws hundreds of pilots from all over. There were more than 800 aircraft last year.
Organizers say the 50th year is something special. The event has grown and adapted over the decades.
Favorite features are back, including airshows, warbird fly-bys and a parade of antique military vehicles. There’s Camp Adams, where visitors can see 100-plus vehicles, weapons and displays from World War II, Korea, Vietnam and other conflicts.
The Historic Flight Foundation and the Flying Heritage and Combat Armor Museum are in the line-up. Spectators can expect aerobatics during shows Friday and Saturday.
There’s a new layout this year to add space for drones. People can learn to operate a drone or bring their own to fly.
Many pilots discovered a love for airplanes when they built balsa wood models as children, Tolbert said.
“In today’s youth, that passion is fueled through electronics,” she said.
A highlight of the Fly-In is Saturday night’s balloon glow and drone light show. It starts with seven hot air balloons inflating, including one shaped like a “Happy 50th” birthday cake.
After the balloons, a drone swarm light show, believed to be the first official production in Washington state, will have 60 drones in a choreographed display. Tolbert has invited folks from other communities to see the “digital fireworks,” she said. She could see drone shows catching on locally.
There’s a $20 carload price starting at 6 p.m. Saturday.
“We’ve spent a lot of time in the past and the current, but we’re moving into the future with technology changes,” volunteer Pat Connelly said. “This is a good arena to see how the changes play out in the aviation field.”
Connelly started helping at the Fly-In when he was living in Smokey Point and driving an early bus route to Boeing. He had to be to bed by 6 p.m. to get up at 2 a.m., and he recalls an incessant buzzing when he tried to sleep. It turned out to be the hum of a plane while one of the pilots was practicing for the airshow.
“I thought, ‘I gotta go meet these folks,’” Connelly said. “I figured, if you can’t hit that plane like a gnat, might as well join them.”
Now, though Connelly lives on the other side of the state, he returns to Arlington each summer for the event. After about 15 years, Connelly jokes that he’s “still a probie.” He was recently “promoted” to helping clean the line-painting equipment for the camp sites.
More volunteers are welcome.
“Here’s a place where families can bring their children to show what it’s like to put some sweat equity in for their communities,” Tolbert said.
In its 50 years, there was one summer when the Fly-In was not at the Arlington Airport.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, that area of the airport started to develop, and it wasn’t practical to close businesses or halt construction. In 1983, they held the Fly-In at the Skagit Regional Airport.
By that point, Tolbert’s parents had moved from Bellevue to Arlington. Her dad, Jim Scott, designed and built ultralight aircraft. He started a business at the airport, opposite from the new development. He was willing to close for the Fly-In, which returned to Arlington in 1984.
Tolbert’s mom, Betty Scott, still volunteers. The mayor learned from her parents.
“Seeing how a group of people could turn a grass field into a small city for a weekend really gave me a vision and direction that probably brought me to where I am today,” Tolbert said.
For about nine years, the Fly-In was run by a board of representatives from experimental aviation associations in Washington. As it drew pilots from farther afield and greater public interest, it became a year-round effort. The organization was restructured to be run by an elected board.
Planning starts in November: coordinating flight patterns, air traffic control and no-fly zones during the shows; mapping out campsites, vendor booths, restrooms and parking; scheduling performances and marketing.
The Fly-In is the central effort of the nonprofit. The goal is to teach people about aviation, including history and safety.
It’s a balance between having a reunion for pilots and an event that appeals to a broader audience, Tolbert said.
“As much as we want to honor the history and culture of the event, we also want to look to the future,” she said.
Frazier wants people to understand that aviation isn’t restricted to those with money. There’s a way in for just about anyone who wants to learn. The Fly-In is one such opportunity.
What started with a group of pilots on their way to Canada has grown into an event that brings in crowds by plane and car. At its core, the Fly-In remains true to its beginnings, Tolbert said.
“It just started with camaraderie and fellowship among pilots,” Tolbert said. “As pilots, we’re always looking for a place to fly together.”
Kari Bray: 425-339-3439; firstname.lastname@example.org.
50th Arlington Fly-In
Arlington Municipal Airport
Admission: $15 before, $17 at the gate, $10 by plane, free for kids 15 or younger.
Full schedule of events at www.arlingtonflyin.org