Barnstorming Brainerd: Event showcases vintage planes and passionate pilots
David Mars first piloted a plane at age 3. The short flight by Mars and his 5-year-old sister--made possible by his toddler curiosity in imitating his father idling the throttle--ended in a cartwheel off the runway into the ditch. The siblings we...
David Mars first piloted a plane at age 3.
The short flight by Mars and his 5-year-old sister-made possible by his toddler curiosity in imitating his father idling the throttle-ended in a cartwheel off the runway into the ditch. The siblings weathered the crash, and for Mars, the flight foretold his future of more than five decades in the pilot's seat.
Mars, 68, of Madison, Miss., was one of 10 pilots showcasing their vintage aircraft Sunday, July 15, at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport. Dubbed "Candyman" on the American Barnstormers Tour, Mars piloted a 1929 Travel Air 4000 painted in a checkerboard pattern. The plane is one of six in his collection and represents the passion he has for sharing aviation history.
"What we're trying to do is to keep history alive," Mars said, "from the appearance of the planes-these planes are all 90 years old-to the garb I have on, which is supposed to be period clothing. The young kids have never seen anything like this, and we're hoping to inspire them. And the older folks, we give them a chance to maybe relive the experience they had 80 or 90 years ago."
Organizers of the tour, visiting local airports in five states through the month of July, said they aim to captivate young and old alike with a side of the aviation industry not quite as visible as the airlines. Tour producer Jill Manka said tour participants were excited to return to Brainerd six years after making a first appearance, noting the excitement level and high attendance made for a pleasant experience.
Manka came on board the tour after a biplane ride made her fall in love-both with vintage aircraft and one of the tour's founders, Rob Lock. The tour and their relationship are celebrating 12 years, and in that time, Manka transformed from a non-pilot with little knowledge of biplanes to a pilot and airplane restorer. The couple runs a tour company together based in Florida and Michigan. Manka said the most gratifying part of her job is making people happy.
"To have a chance to share what we do with all these cities on the tour is such a great, great responsibility and a great honor," she said. "Every single person who gets on the airplane is transformed into a better version of themselves during that flight. And when they come off, always a smile, always a happy expression, sometimes a woohoo and sometimes a yeehaw and hugs. I love it when the hugs come out, because then you know you've really connected with someone."
Even if visitors don't get the full plane ride experience, Manka said the opportunity to view the beautifully restored Travel Airs and talk to pilots about their experiences is inspirational. And she hopes the Jazz Age-era fun encourages more new pilots willing to carry the torch in the future.
"Our mission is to get people to engage with their local airports and to get people to participate in what's happening there-and to maybe spark some interest in aviation and nurture folks who may decide that's a career that could benefit them in the future. We want to grow the industry," Manka said.
One of those future pilots might be 4-year-old Tyler Thiein. Grandmother Kelly Amerud of Deerwood said she attended the Barnstormers event at the Brainerd airport in 2012, and was excited to see its return on behalf of her airplane-enthusiastic grandson. Tyler gazed up at one of the brightly colored planes parked for up-close admiration while Amerud spoke.
"We just love it, we were here six years ago, and he (Tyler) wasn't here yet," she said.
Whether looking to see Brainerd from above in an open cockpit of a biplane, admire aerobatics from the ground, or listen to the barbershop quartet Oh, Brother croon while enjoying nickel popcorn, the free American Barnstormers Tour offers a look at both the past and future of aviation with some romance tossed in.
"Don't get me wrong, airliners are awesome to get somewhere very quickly, but some of those inspirational attributes and aesthetics aren't in that experience, where you get that with these older airplanes," Manka said. "And it is more engaging and captivating."
If you go
The American Barnstormers Tour will complete its Brainerd run 9 a.m.-6 p.m. Monday and Tuesday, July 16-17, at the Brainerd Lakes Regional Airport.
The free event includes rare vintage biplanes on display, antique cars, historical presentations, aerobatic demonstrations at 1 p.m. and entertainment from the barbershop quartet Oh, Brother.
Those wishing to purchase 15-minute biplane rides above Brainerd may do so for a cost of $80 per passenger. Also for sale are concessions at 1920s-era prices, including nickel popcorn.
Flyovers by modern F-16s are planned between 1-3 p.m. Tuesday to illustrate the enormous strides aviation has taken in roughly 80 years, organizers said.
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