KEOKUK — A handful of 50- and 60-year-old war birds sat on the tarmac Friday afternoon at the Keokuk Municipal Airport, but the low cloud cover wouldn’t allow for some of the fancier flight maneuvers the planes are known for.
It didn’t stop the pilots from taking to the air anyway — even if it was only at 1,500 feet.
“I enjoy being in the air, and I enjoy the view from up there,” said L-Bird pilot Tom Gordon, who makes his home in Loveland, Colo.
The 26th annual L-Bird Fly-In started Friday, and Gordon has been participating for the past 20 years. It’s exactly how long it took him to restore his 1948 L-17 war bird, which fits perfectly with the event’s theme of honoring liaison aircraft that flew in World War II and the Korean War.
“It needed work when I found it, to put it lightly,” Gordon said. “It took a lot of time and effort to restore it. I don’t know how many thousands of hours we put into that.”
Gordon developed an interest in flight while in the cadet corps, and joined the Marines once he was out of high school. It’s where he learned to fly.
“I was one of the last guys to have two years active duty after flight school. Everybody after me served three years,” he said.
Gordon’s service ended the same day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, but his passion for flying remained. He spent the next 35 years as a commercial pilot, retiring 20 years ago so he could fly strictly for fun.
“I enjoy the formation flying, and we want people to learn how to do it safely. So I got talked into helping train people,” he said.
While the L-Bird Fly-In is a gathering of like-minded pilots with an interest in classic war birds, it’s also an opportunity for less experienced pilots to learn formation flying. Mike Pope of Chippewa Falls, Wis., has been flying 22 years, but is a rookie when it comes to formation flying.
It also was his first L-Bird Fly-In.
“I had a chance to fly with some of these guys at Oshkosh (Wis.) last year as part of the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association), and that’s how I found out about this program. That’s when I decided I want to get in some official formation flying,” he said. “New guys like me have someone in the back seat.”
Pope was flying a 1951 DeHavilland Super Chipmunk, a trainer plane for the Royal Air Force. Pope has been a RAF buff since childhood, and owning one of the planes has been a lifelong dream.
“I’ve put 200 hours on it so far, which is a lot of flying. A lot of it is aerobatic. That’s kind of my thing. I like that,” he said.
Putting that many hours into the air can be costly, though. And that doesn’t count the $5,000 to $6,000 it takes to get a pilot’s license.
“It’s not outrageous. It’s not for everybody, but it’s not outrageous,” Pope said.
Mike Weinfurter of Rhinelander, Wis., said flying for fun can cost as much as $150 an hour, counting the fuel, oil, maintenance and storage costs. It doesn’t stop him from flying his 1952 Cessna L-19 bird dog every chance he gets, though.
“This is the first airplane I’ve ever owned. Probably the only plane, as much as it costs,” he said.
Weinfurter makes his living flying for a private company in Wisconsin, which means much of the money he earns flying for other people is spent on flying for himself. He always enjoys taking to the air, but a job is a job.
“When you’re flying for fun, you go where you want, when you want, how you want. When you’re flying for a living, you’ve gotta’ go where they want, when they want, with who they want,” he said.
Weinfurter knew he wanted to fly the first time he saw the 1950s TV show “Sky King” as a child. He too is an L-Bird Fly-In veteran, and started flying to the event in 1996. He hasn’t missed a year since.
“I don’t fly every day. Some weeks, I won’t turn a blade all week. Some weeks, I’ll put eight hours a day in the air,” he said.
The L-Bird Fly-In will continue through today at the Keokuk Municipal Airport. There is no charge for spectators to check out the planes and chat with the pilots. The annual $5 pancake breakfast is from 7 to 10 a.m., and later in the day, pilots will take to the skies to drop flour sack bombs onto targets in competition.
There will be 20-minute airplane rides through 1 p.m., weather permitting. There also will be formation flying routines throughout the day.