ORIGINALLY WRITTEN CYNTHIA MARTENS
Fields of dreams may be inspiring in Hollywood, but they are a reality in Kansas.
Just ask Vern Vogel and wife Madelyn, who own a red and white classic Cessna 182 private plane.
In 1999, Vern decided to build an airstrip in the middle of a wheat field on his rural Marion farm.
Four years later, in mid-June, he reminisced about his inspiration to have his own farm airstrip, and the joy of landing and taking off-flanked by waves of ripe golden wheat and covered by a big blue Kansas sky.
“It’s mainly for fun,” Vern said. “Why do you buy a motor boat? You use it for fun. Sure, this takes two acres out of production, but I love flying.”
Although he still keeps his 1965 Cessna in a hanger at the Marion Airport, Vern knew four years ago what his landing strip would bring to the couple’s life in the country.
The airstrip has become a magnet for family and friends to fly in for visits.
He built the strip-and they came.
“People fly into our airport all the time,” Vern said.
Madelyn’s son by her first marriage, a private pilot who lives in Wichita, can jump in his Cessna 172 and land on their farm. And friends in a flying club, called the International Flying Farmers, can stop by for impromptu or planned visits as well.
Vern’s odyssey into the world of aviation began late in life.
Today, he’s 74 years young. But six years ago, he obtained his pilot’s license.
“A very good friend of ours was a pilot in the Second World War,” Vern said. “He gave me a ride over his land and encouraged me to learn to fly. He’s been a mentor throughout the years.”
Madelyn supported his fascination with flying by giving him an opportunity to take flying lessons as a birthday present.
“He’s always loved planes, so that was a special thing,” she said.
“Our instructor told us we were the oldest couple he’d ever taught to fly,” she added, as she demurred giving her age.
Madelyn was instructed on landing procedures in an emergency, but she does not have a pilot’s license.
“They have a program that they encourage the spouses to get so they can handle landing the plane if something incapacitates the pilot,” Vern said.
The Vogels’ home sits on 320 acres north of the dam at Marion Reservoir.
“All total, I have about 600 acres I farm,” Vern said. “I mainly have wheat and soybeans. I got rid of most of the livestock about two years ago.”
Madelyn has health problems that began about 11/2 years ago, but that has only slowed down their hectic schedule a bit-and perhaps sharpened Madelyn’s sense of humor.
Asked if Vern was getting out of the farming business, she said with a chuckle, “He’s tired but not retired.”
Vern was raised in a farmhouse built in 1903 by his father. And the quaint limestone structure is still located just west of his present farm.
“After the service, I got out in 1956 and bought a farm in the bottom of (what is now) the reservoir,” Vern said. “In 1966, I had to move because of the reservoir and bought this place from Jake Jost from Hillsboro.”
Vern and Madelyn were widowed when they met on a blind date.
Fifteen years later, they share a love of traveling and flying that includes about 100 hours in their Cessna in a good year.
During one typical Kansas harvest, about a decade after the couple met, Madelyn’s son suggested to Vern that he should clear some ground for an airstrip.
The idea, planted as a seed in Vern’s mind, quickly came to fruition.
In 1999, Vern opened a path through his cultivated ground just east of his brick ranch-style home.
“I mowed it, and I had a little motor grader and started working on it,” Vern said. “I proceeded to level it and smooth it with the intention of having a fly-in for my birthday. It was nice and smooth, and beautiful to land on.”
The fly-in took place that fall, when seven members of the IFF landed their Cessna airplanes on the Vogel field of dreams and had a party.
But a farm airstrip of dirt is not without problems. When spring rains pour down, the strip becomes muddy and rutted, and can’t be used for landing or take off. And winter’s snow and sleet take a toll on the runway, too.
Not to be deterred, Vern decided in spring 2002 to have his airstrip seeded with buffalo grass.
“It makes a very good sod, you can drive on it and walk on it,” Vern said. “It’s very strong grass and gets about 3 to 4 inches tall at the highest. It’s a native grass and very resistant to drought.”
Last August, Vern sprayed his newly seeded airstrip with about 3,000 gallons of water and used weed-control products to develop the grass-covered strip he uses today.
“I’ve mowed it with a riding mower that’s about 52 inches,” Vern said. “But now I’ve got my rotary mower on the back of the tractor to use.”
In the past, he considered keeping his plane at his farm instead of the Marion Airport.
“I thought so at one time,” Vern said. “But if we get a 2-inch rain and want to go someplace, we can’t.”
His farm airstrip is 50 feet wide and 2,500 feet long, laid out in a north-south direction. Private strips generally extend from 800 feet for ultralights to 2,500 for private planes.
Vern said he knows of one ultra-light airstrip in the county. But if there are other active farm airstrips out there, he’s not aware of them.
Amid talk of when to harvest wheat, Vern was also thinking mid-June about the paperwork he needed to fill out to become a registered airstrip with the Federal Aviation Administration. Once registered, he will be listed on the official FAA map as Vogel Private.
But his strip will not be under any strict regulations with the FAA, Vern said.
“The only drawback is liability-you land at your own risk. It’s mainly considered an emergency-landing strip. When you have some problems where you need to get down pretty quick, you can land there.”
He does have a wind sock, tucked amid a purple-martin bird house and a stand of farm outbuilding. And not to be overlooked is a large orange ball-placed on the telephone lines along his country road-that marks the midpoint of the south end of the strip.
Sophisticated radio towers and communication found at larger commercial airports are not necessary for a private airstrip.
“You don’t really talk to anybody,” Vern said. “They call it broadcasting in the blind to whoever is out there. So when I took off at Marion this morning, I called (on my radio) with information like what runway I’m taking and that it was a northwest departure.”
To keep his pilot’s license, Vern is required to have a yearly medical exam. And every other year, he must ride with a licensed instructor to test his general-aviation knowledge.
The couple’s memories of flying their private plane-and their enthusiasm for meeting others who share their passion-tumble forth as they recount traveling together.
“We’ve seen this country from one end to the other from the air,” Vern said.
“We’ve seen things you just don’t see from an automobile. I’ve been awed when I cross the Mississippi River and fly on to the west side of it-to Iowa, Arkansas and Missouri.”
Future plans for the couple include taking trips and opening their home to others who land on their farm airstrip.
“We’re going to fly as much as possible,” Vern said.
The sky is definitely not the limit for a couple who can take off in the morning to Branson, Mo., to enjoy lunch at a favorite restaurant, and return home the middle of the afternoon.
“I love it,” Vern said. “It’s entertainment. It isn’t just flying-it’s the opportunity to meet people.”