Breakfast, it would seem, is the preferred way to celebrate the Fourth of July in these parts. The firemen put on an annual pancake feast in town, as do the folks who run the local airfield.
We call them airfields because, in the beginning, that’s exactly what they were. Not runways, but weedy fields about one mile square, allowing aircraft with little or no braking ability to land against the wind from any direction and skid to a halt. Nowadays, such open spaces are in short supply. But for people like Greg Heckman, a professor of aircraft mechanics in Rockford who operates his own hangar on the Ogle County property, the few green runways still around are irreplaceable.
Heckman also builds impeccable aircraft. The floor of his shop shines, just about as much as Greg’s bright red 1946 Funk B85C, the plane that won him his second Gold Lindy Award (named after Charles Lindbergh) at the Oshkosh AirVenture show, the most prestigious of awards at the world’s largest air show.
Just 50 yards beyond the folding bay door of Heckman’s hangar, a steady buzzing of traffic takes off and lands—single-engine Cessnas, hand props, glorious warbirds, colorful crop dusters, even some quirky homebuilts. Many of the vintage aircraft are taildraggers, meaning they balance on the small wheel at the rear of the plane. Such craft can be an exhilarating challenge to maneuver, but they essentially require a grassy landing strip like the one at Ogle County.
Around the corner from the hangar and toward the road, the line waiting for breakfast moves slowly. As each successive group approaches the serving area, eyes are affixed on pancake preparation. There, on a makeshift cooktop, dozens of flapjacks spin on two giant turntable griddles, creamy batter on black metal, like bubbly moons orbiting in parallel galaxies. It takes a whole crew of men just to keep them flipping.
I find a seat at one of the hangars’ folding tables outfitted with salt, pepper, syrup and squeezable Parkay. Someone next to me astutely observes: “Fake cheese, fake butter, fake syrup. GEN-U-INE America.”
But Independence Day isn’t just an excuse for celebrating pancakes and planes. Fly-in breakfasts like this are a regular occurrence across the region. For fly-in diners, it amounts to paying $100 for a $6 plate.
As I sit and watch the crowds pass, sporting the Stars and Stripes in every imaginable form, it’s obvious people are coming for more than breakfast. And pilots get more out of this than expensive pancakes. People around me wear patriotic pride on their faces in a way that says, “Forget Chicago or New York. This land is my land.”
In a way, the atmosphere and romanticism resemble a car show, except that the exhibits are ever in motion, where you might see a different model drop in every few minutes and can always hope to catch a ride into the clouds. As a drive-in affair, it attracts all sorts. Suburbanites. Gritty farmers. The biker crowd. Minivan moms. Proud war vets. Kids of every age who love to get up close to an airplane, to peer inside a cockpit at an instrument panel so simple you can imagine taking her yourself for a spin.
I look around. It’s the perfect setting for it. No lighted runway. No glass-encased terminal. No air traffic control tower. Only a rusty crane reaching over SR 64 and waving Old Glory.
Today there’s a raffle on the lawn for a rifle. You can inspect the gun while you wait in line—the only line at this airport—as it elbows around the buildings. In this queue you can even keep your belt on, though from the looks of some plates, I’m guessing a few folks may be forced to loosen their buckles well before 11 a.m.
Standing here in Greg’s garage, I find the nostalgia of his vintage aircraft to be intensely physical. In the collision of risk and beauty. In a slick wooden frame covered with paper-thin sheeting. In creative power that can resuscitate antique machines and send them soaring. In unmatched engineering precision that dances with the unpredictable elements of fire and earth and wind.
We will likely never return to simpler times, to the glory days of American aviation. We’ve come too far down the runway for that. We can’t stop now. Just like you can’t get the bubbles back on flipped pancakes.
But at least we can still make it out to grassy airstrips like the one in Ogle County. Where you just might catch a ride in a cockpit open to the wind and to real American freedom.