arrival, only this time they have to walk a block and a half from the school yard. The balloons fly again Sunday morning, followed by Stearmans and skydivers, but by mid-afternoon most of the aviators are on their way home to roost.
The park, school yard, Robert’s house, and downtown are a 6 block stroll from the airport. There are three restaurants even closer, and two motels, which are always full with regular participants. There is a lovely free campground with showers next to the airport, and many people sleep under their wings. The June weather is usually perfect for the fly-in. Although northwestern Kansas can have thunderstorms, it is a dry area and they are rare. As Robert’s brother Richard said while we were watching red clouds form to the west on the weather radar display, “Don’t worry – they always go around us. It never rains here.” (They did.) But this year there had been spring rains, giving the grasslands a welcome patina of green. Despite the low annual rainfall, St. Francis is a small oasis. It lies on the Republican River, under the shelter of trees rooted in rich prairie soil, and its neat homes have lovely green lawns. The surrounding land is a mix of well-tended dryland farms and rough-hewn lowgrass prairie, cut through with the scars of some ancient geological process and held down by bonsai prickly pear and small yucca, which is at its peak of bloom in early June.
The Fly-In was started in 1982 by Dr. Curt Kimball of Sterling, CO. After service as an Army surgeon in Viet Nam and Japan, he got his pilot’s license in 1968. He finished his surgical residency in Phoenix, moved to Sterling and made do with a Mooney 201. In 1981 he bought his PT-13D and flew it to Galesburg, where it won best military restoration for the second straight year. He met Harry Blount of Colorado Springs there, who suggested they organize a regional Stearman fly-in. Dr. Kimball thought the little airport at St. Francis would be perfect for such an event, and mentioned it to John Grace, Robert’s father, also a Stearman owner, whose crop spraying operation was based on the field. John said it sounded like a great idea, but said he was no good at putting things together. Dr. Kimball obviously was, because he got it going and it has been a great success.
John Grace’s story tells a lot about the airport and the community surrounding the fly-in. He grew up just southeast of St. Francis, in Seldon, Kansas and became a pilot in World War II, training in Stearmans and then flying P-38 Lightnings in the Aleutians. After the war he came home and worked as a flight instructor, then in 1949 bought a Stearman and set up a crop dusting operation in St. Francis. He had to get a loan from the local bank — $1500 — for the plane, a pickup truck and a loader. It was made on faith, and he paid it back in less than a year. The Stearman was retired as a duster in 1969, and lovingly restored to military livery by John in 1980. His sons Robert and Richard now run the operation, and cousin Ron Schlittenhardt helps fly the sprayers. Although John died in 1997, N777JG will always be referred to as “Dad’s Stearman.”
The fly-in started small, with only five Stearmans and some of Robert’s skydiving buddies, and an informal “come over to Robert’s for a beer Friday evening.” But about the third or fourth year, Robert scooped up his parachute in the schoolyard and arrived home to find 100 people in his back yard. He ran out and bought all the beer in town. The next year was the start of a catered feed. About this time, Robert, who is also a balloon pilot, asked Colorado Springs balloon rally organizer Dewey Reinhard if he would be interested in bringing some balloons. This is much more low-key than the typical balloon event — just a chance to come and fly. A number of balloonists find it to their liking, and are regulars.
In addition to the adventure of a Stearman cross-country flight and the fly-in itself, I always look forward to the balloon chases. After Robert launches, Ted and I jump in his truck with an assortment of crew members – often including wife Debbie, daughters Mackenzie and Michaela, Richard’s daughter Amy, cousin Terry Bandel and his wife Diane, and a couple of others who are in line for a ride if he can make an intermediate stop to switch passengers. The size of the group usually necessitates a second vehicle. If Ted is a driver he takes a local guide who knows the back roads and can tell from eyeballing the balloon in the distance which farmer’s field to head for. Even with a radio and cellphone it is easy to lose contact with the balloon, which may be flying low to catch wind in a desired direction.
The local farmers are very friendly to the balloons. The pilots are careful not to land in a field where they will damage crops, and Robert will often chat with folks as he drifts overhead. As he made an intermediate stop near a farmhouse to switch passengers this year, the farmer came out to visit and said, “I figured it was you when the dogs started barking.”
I am something of a burden to have along on the chases (or anything else), as one of my passions is photography and I often stop for pictures. I have gotten some beautiful shots, and I will be back next year in pursuit of the ones that got away. And, of course, Ted’s passion is airplanes, and he will be back for ever and ever in pursuit of another moment in the air or around a flying machine. One of the highlights of St. Francis for both of us was the chance to go with Robert on our first balloon flights. We are still eyeing the parachutes, with a mix of fascination and a deep-seated feeling that a person really shouldn’t jump out of a perfectly good airplane….
Robert Grace and his Stearman