Tucked away in the southwest corner of Gardner is the city’s airport, where every Saturday afternoon for the last 30 years a group of men eat barbecue in a hangar. They chat about family and work — all while restoring some of the country’s oldest airplanes.
“On Christmas Eve, I had to take a photo for my wife because she didn’t think anyone would be there. There were 25 of us there,” laughed Cam Blazer. “We just have this camaraderie — a willingness to help each other (fix airplanes) and be there for one another.”
The men are members of the Flatland Flyers, a group of Kansas City area residents who restore and fly vintage aircraft. The chapter is a part of the Vintage Aircraft Association, which strives to preserve early 20th-century aircraft and their history.
Kansas City was once an innovation hub during the golden age of aviation, yet many Flatland Flyers members feel this history is being forgotten. They see the craft dying, as the Federal Aviation Administration isn’t teaching technicians how to work with the materials used in antique airplanes.
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Because of this, the chapter is in the midst of raising more than $100,000 to create a museum in a hangar at Gardner Municipal Airport dedicated to the history of aviation in Kansas City. This weekend, the chapter will host its biggest fundraiser of the year with its “fly-in,” an airplane equivalent to a car show.
“There’s a lot of history in Kansas City that is just being thrown by the wayside,” said Kevin Pratt, the chapter’s president. “And we’re making it our job to try and preserve it.”
The fly-in is Friday through Sunday at Gardner Municipal Airport. People are expected to travel from Montana and Florida, Pratt said. Vintage airplanes will be on display and flying throughout the event. Members will also be selling airplane parts. The goal is to raise about $3,000 from the event, he said.
Kansas City was very influential in aviation from the 1920s through the 1940s. Many airplane manufacturers were located in the area, and different types of aircraft — such as the American Eagle, the Butler Blackhawk and World War II bomber airplanes — were developed in the city. The corporate headquarters for Trans World Airlines was in Kansas City, where famous aviator Howard Hughes had an office. Charles Lindbergh, who made the first solo transatlantic airplane flight, also dedicated one of the first airports in Kansas City. At one time, there were about 70 to 85 small airports in the metro area.
And while there’s the National Airline History Museum at the Wheeler Downtown Airport that covers the glory days of air travel and airplane manufacturers, it doesn’t specifically focus on the city, Pratt said.
The three-phase campaign for the Gardner museum began around 2007. The first phase, completed in 2012, consisted of building a 48-by-60-foot hangar. The second phase includes expanding the hangar to 100-by-60 feet, and the final stage is installing the museum. The goal is to show how aviation was a “bragging point for Kansas City” by showing off important artifacts, documents and antique planes that originated in the city, said Jeff Sullens, a 25-year member of the chapter.
For many of the members, their interest in flying began when they were children during a time when aviation was still a new concept, he added. The 30 members are working on planes for different reasons, Sullens said. Some are restoring family airplanes, while others are working on “expensive toys.”
“It’s a group of nice guys who enjoy vintage aircraft and building old airplanes,” said Dale Rose, a board member for the Gardner airport. “There’s good camaraderie. It really helps getting younger blood into aviation.”
Sullens added that everyone loves the freedom and feeling of being in a blue sky.
“You get to escape the things that are bothering you on the ground, it gives you perspective,” Sullens said. “It’s a different perspective to see things from the sky, it makes you think about the things going on in your world.”
The Flatland Flyers Annual Fly-In
Where: 31905 W 175th St. Gardner, Kan.
When: June 26-28
Cost: $5 donation
For more information, visit www.vaa16.com/Fly-In.html.