Owner says Vinland Valley Aerodrome carries on hamlet’s pioneering spirit

Lawrence resident Jerry Cobb, 74, changes the spark plugs on his 1946 Luscombe 8A on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017, at the Vinland Valley Aerodrome. Cobb is a regular fixture at the airport, where he and others spend many hours tinkering on and flying planes.

Leaning against a wing strut of his 1946 Luscombe, Jerry Cobb said he had the best hangar in the Vinland Valley Aerodrome.

“I can see the runway from here,” he said of his hangar, which sits on the southeastern end of a row of hangars. Although there was no activity on the 3,000-foot grass airstrip that morning, Cobb said the airport was busier than its bucolic setting would suggest.

Cobb’s hangar also looks out on one of Vinland’s four streets and three of the five buildings in the village that are on the National Register of Historic Places.

Dave McFarlane, the airport’s owner, said the airstrip runs astride a railroad that once connected Vinland to Lawrence to the north and to Baldwin City to the south.

“They took the railroad’s ballast rock and moved the airstrip’s center line about 100 feet to the west to give Vinland more clearance,” he said of the airport’s origin in the 1960s. “They did crop dusting, like I started here in ’78.”

Austin Pyle, of Mission, removes his things from inside a plane after flying on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 at the Vinland Valley Aerodrome.

That’s when McFarlane bought the airport, moving his crop dusting and aviation businesses to the site. The airport wasn’t too busy then, but that wasn’t because there was no demand.

“The hangars were pretty much empty when we bought it because of the lack of people being here to run the airport,” he said.

That’s not the case anymore. McFarlane said the airport’s 25 hangars were full and so was the waiting list for them.

The airport is friendly to him and his fellow airplane enthusiasts, Cobb said.

“You don’t have a lot of people telling you, ‘Do this and don’t do that,'” he said. “They don’t make a better guy than Dave McFarlane.”

A little more than half of the airport’s hangars are occupied by those who own a plane for private use, but that’s not the airport’s only clientele, McFarlane said.

“There are quite a few business aircraft located here,” he said. “We have a training aircraft for our small flight school. We’ve had airplanes used for pipeline patrols based here, as well.

“It’s a privately owned airport, but anyone can land here. We provide the same service as a public airport, but without expense to the taxpayer.”

McFarlane’s crop dusting venture has ended, but the airplane repair and restoration business he brought to Vinland with partner Fred McClenahan has grown into the McFarlane Aviation aircraft replacement parts business, which continues to prosper. McFarlane said the parts business on an adjoining 40-acre industrial park and the airport are inseparable.

A pair of sunglasses sit on top of the dash of a Piper Cherokee 140 on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 at the Vinland Valley Aerodrome.

“We just about have to have the airport,” he said. “It gives us access to test products we develop. Its big advantage is it gives our customers the opportunity to fly in and pick up parts. It facilitates our business.”

The airport and industrial park have a unique conditional use permit from the 1960s that doesn’t have to be renewed and doesn’t restrict growth, McFarlane said. With that, the parts plant has expanded three times and completed a 24,000-square-foot expansion last year. McFarlane started making improvements to the airport soon after he acquired it.

“We lengthened the runway in the early ’80s,” McFarlane said. “There was a giant ditch on the south end. We put a tube across it and extended the runway 800 to 900 feet.”

A later improvement upgraded the runway’s turf. Helping with that was Larry Janssen, McFarlane Aviation’s one-time health and safety director and still a part-time employee of the company. With a degree in turf management, Janssen oversaw a project that removed the rock ballast from the runway and reseeded it with that bane of suburban lawns, Bermuda grass.

“Now, we have a pretty nice airstrip,” McFarlane said. “Bermuda grass is short and causes little drag on takeoffs and provides soft landings. It’s durable in dry weather.”

Other advantages of grass airstrips are that they cause less tire wear than concrete and are more forgiving when airplanes taxi, especially for older models with single small rear wheels that can skate around on concrete, McFarlane said.

Another recent improvement was the installation of LED lights for night landings.

“They are extremely bright,” he said. “With LED technology, we get a lot more brightness from the same wiring that has been in the ground since the ’60s.”

Vinland Valley Aerodrome groundskeeper Ken Kern drives his mower past a plane on Tuesday, Aug. 29, 2017 at the Vinland Airport.

Cobb said the new lights make a big difference for pilots.

“It used to be hard to see the lights,” he said. “Now, you can see them from three or five miles away.”

Pilots can turn on the new lights with their radios, McFarlane said. That makes it more convenient for pilots and for him. He had to personally turn on the old lights when pilots scheduled night landings, he said. But even that system was a step up from the airport’s first lighting system.

“It used to be they never had runway lights,” he said. “They had to set out battery powered lanterns if they knew someone was coming in.”

The grass reseeding was done with the help of a grant from the Kansas Department of Transportation’s aviation division. McFarlane said two more grant projects will replace the runway culvert installed in the 1980s and provide the airport a lighted windsock that pilots can see at night.

As for the airport’s future, a few more hangars may be added as demand dictates, McFarlane said. The improvements assure that the airport will have a continued presence in Vinland.

“It’s always been a pioneering town,” McFarlane said. “We try to keep the spirit of the original settlers alive with the airport and services we develop.”