Herb Anderson parks his plane on the tarmac at the North Fork Valley Airport in Paonia. He’s one of a handful of pilots and aviation fans out for a Saturday-morning “fly-in, drive-in” breakfast. Like some of the others here today, his plane is “experimental,” which basically just means he built it himself.
Born and raised just west of Olathe, Herb started flying when he was a sophomore at Olathe High School, or as he tells it, when he wasn't there: he used to play hookie to take flying lessons.
Local pilot Larry Garrett helped organize this year’s fly-in breakfast, something he and airport manager Mike Clawson have put together for the past few years. He says it’s mainly an effort to let people know what a benefit the airport is for the area.
"A lot of people don't know, in Paonia or Hotchkiss, that this airport is a tremendous asset," says Garrett. He says businessmen often fly in and out of the airport, along with firefighters and search-and-rescue teams.
"We found a lost gentleman about three weeks ago," he says. "He probably couldn't have made the night, because he was 78 years old, he had mountain sickness, he was from San Antonio. It couldn't have been done any other way."
The North Fork Valley Airport was voted "Airport of the Year" for 2012 by the Colorado Airport Pilot's Association, and Dan Stucker says it's one of the best he knows.
"This is as good as it gets," Stucker says. "For a guy who has the flying virus, this is freedom."
Garrett’s omelets, the home-built planes and the purr of engines brought people from all over the state to the airport, and at least one pilot from New Mexico. Aimee Curtis flew in from Moriarty. She flies to the valley every year to visit friends, often for events like the Fourth of July.
Hotchkiss native Bob Turner takes off in his homemade helicopter. Sleek and simple, it’s small enough to land on a trailer platform no longer than thirty feet. His experimental chopper took him over four years to build. It only weighs about 500 pounds, and looks like an oversized bee when it’s in the air.
I ask him if the winds are ever a problem, if he’s ever been up and thought maybe he should’ve just stayed on the ground.
"Yea, yea," he chuckles, "one time coming back from Crawford. But now it's behind me and that's just more experience."
John Willet lets me crash land into the seat of his bright-green, ultralight plane. It looks like a go-cart with wings, and thankfully for my sake, it’s rugged and built to withstand clumsy reporters. Two years ago John and his wife Connie, Crawford residents, flew this tiny glider-like plane all the way to Oshkosh, Wisconsin. John says they had to stop about 16 times since the plane's fuel tank is so small. They added an extra tank for the trip, but whoever was in the passenger seat had to sit on top of it, which John describes as "not an enviable position."
Airport Manager Mike Sawicki has long ties to the airport. Sweat drips from his face as he runs back and forth across the tarmac fueling up planes. His father managed the airport for 32 years before he passed away in 2009, after which Mike took over the business.
He says the airport was founded in about 1947, when it was probably just a dirt strip. Since then the county has extended the runaway to where it can now accommodate small jets and some turboprop planes.
The Paonia Chamber of Commerce helped advertise this year's breakfast, which Garrett and Sawicki both say helped bring more people out than they’ve seen in years before. Like Garrett, Sawicki says these events are mainly just meant to let people know the airport’s here.
"No fundraiser, just a lot of pilots getting together and local people," says Sawicki. "Actually we had some folks today that had never been to the airport, so it was good. The community got a little knowledge of the airport and how things function, so we're glad to have everybody."