Flying Farmers: Agriculture’s aviators gathered for social time, games
Casper — “I bought my first plane for $1,000,” recalls 88-year-old Cactus McCleary from his home on the family ranch southeast of Casper. “My first plane was a Veronica Super Chief. That’s what I learned to fly in. I ended up with a Cessna 180.”
Like many other ranchers who used planes in their ranching operations, McCleary was a member of a group called the Flying Farmers. The Wyoming Chapter of Flying Farmers has since been regionalized with Nebraska’s chapter and those from other nearby states. A few Wyoming “alumni” and stories, however, remain.
“I must have joined in about 1957 or 1958,” says Douglas rancher Gene Hardy, who maintains membership by belonging to the present-day International Flying Farmers. Hardy says he joined shortly after learning to fly at Natrona Air Service in Casper.
John Dilts of Douglas, who first got his pilot license in 1946, says he’s also maintained his membership in the Flying Farmers. “That was 63 years ago,” he says of the time he spent taking lessons at the Douglas airport. Flying has become a Dilts family tradition with John’s sons also utilizing both airplanes and helicopters in their ranching operations.
Fly-ins, gatherings arrived at via airplanes, were a mainstay for the group. “We picnicked, just gabbed,” recalls McCleary. “Fly-ins were held all over. Sometimes they were at the ranches of people who had a landing strip. We’d fly-in for a Saturday afternoon. One time I went to one in Calgary. There were 50 or so planes.” McCleary remembers the Wyoming events averaging about 20 planes carrying families and their picnic baskets.
Hardy remembers the Fourth of July fly-ins as some of the largest. “One year we had a get together at Lander and all went to the Lander rodeo on the Fourth of July,” he recalls. “We usually had one or two a year at Douglas when the old airport was still in use. It’s the racetrack today. We’d have fly-ins for breakfast. I remember flying into Gillette for a pancake breakfast. Most of them were one-day deals.”
Hardy also says he attended a fly-in at McCleary’s ranch. “Cactus flew in those days and had a strip up at the ranch. We had a big fly-in there and a meal.” Unique to that event, Hardy says he dropped a load of skydivers off and they floated down into the get together. “I loaded them at the airport,” he says, “flew out to Cactus’ ranch and then I landed at the strip.”
Skydivers weren’t the only items the Flying Farmers would drop. “We’d have flour sack bombings,” recalls Hardy. “You’d fly over targets on the runway at about 500 foot in elevation. You had a one-pound paper bag of powder, flour. The idea was that whoever could drop that the closest was the winner. You’d have two or three bombs and make several passes.”
Hardy also remembers cross-country races. “It was not a race of airplane against airplane,” he says. “It was a race of the pilot’s planning of how long it would take him to cover the race course, usually a three-legged race. We’d estimate time and fuel consumption and the one that estimated the best was the winner.”
Yet another of the contests — spot landing. “That was who could come the closest to the mark on the runway without using any power on the approach,” says Hardy. “It was making a landing without using power to compensate for your position. It was a skills contest.”
“We’d meet a lot of interesting people at different places,” recalls Dilts of the fly-ins. “I haven’t been to one in 20 or 30 years.”
“People quit when it got so expensive, when airplanes began costing $20,000 to $30,000,” says McCleary. “I flew for 15 years. I learned to fly in Casper at the airport in Evansville. I had a hangar and kept my plane here at the ranch.”
Gene says the last fly-in he attended was probably sometime in the late 1970s. “We had a convention every year,” he says. “We’d pick somewhere in the state and get together for a two- or three-day Flying Farmer convention.” Hardy says they’d honor an operator of the year and elect a queen. While most of the dues were used for recreational purposes, he says the national organization lobbied for those things beneficial to the aviators.
While not associated with the Flying Farmers, an event hosted by the town of Glendo is helping preserve the history. According to Glendo City Clerk Brenda Hagen, the event is held on a Sunday each August. This year’s dates haven’t yet been set.
“The event starts at 7 a.m. with a free breakfast,” says Hagen. It ends with a free BBQ. Throughout the day pilots compete in several events similar to those from the days of Wyoming’s Flying Farmers. However, Hagen mentions another contest called “balloon busting” where pilots try to bust helium filled balloons with the nose or wings of their airplanes.
Last year’s fly-in at Glendo drew 23 contestants and between 300 and 400 spectators. “Pilots generally come from Wheatland, Douglas, Chugwater and the surrounding area,” says Hagen. “Last year we did have a pilot from Phoenix, Az., but generally they’re from within 150 miles.” Hagen says cash prizes are awarded in the contests, but also for the oldest plane, the newest plane and the pilot who traveled the greatest distance to attend.
For those who don’t have a full-size airplane, Hagen says there are also contests for remote control airplanes and helicopters. “We offer prizes in the remote control area as well,” she says.
Do you have a Flying Farmer story or photograph to share? Call Jennifer Womack at 307-351-0730 or e-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.