Barnstorming Rio, Wisconsin

By Scott Spangler on August 24th, 2020

Instead of Ghostly Nostalgia, a Living Connection to What Was

Rio-11Pandemic stir-craziness manifested itself on a glorious mid-August Sunday afternoon. From my second-floor window, I watched scattered cumulus clouds in a blue sunny sky dapple my small town Wisconsin neighborhood with slow moving shadows, spotting the landscape like the Holstein cows that define America’s Dairyland. Yeah. I need to get out of the house.

So I saddled up for Rio, Wisconsin, a village of 1,059 people (as counted in 2010). When Richard Bach circled it in 1966 and landed for food, fuel, and some pages in Nothing by Chance, A Gypsy Pilot’s Adventures in Modern America, the population was, he wrote, 776. (Rereading it was an antidote for a gloomy December day before Covid was a thing: See Giving Thanks: Bach in Nothing by Chance.) Having visited a number of small-town strips across the country over the past 15 years, even on a spectacular Sunday afternoon, perfect for some flightseeing, I didn’t expect anything but a ghost town.

Rio-4No one was flying when I arrived at Gilbert Field (94C), but several hangars were open, including this one, where I met these guys. That’s Bill Horton on the left, with the First Marine Division ball cap, a retired American Eagle pilot, who flies the Rio Flying Club’s Citabria, a Cub, and the Bonanza he operates with a partner. On the right is Steve Johnson, in his Oshkosh 2014 t-shirt and EAA ball cap. He grew up at this airport; “My dad was one of the founders of the airport in 1959.”

Bach wrote that Lauren Gilbert owned the airport, and Steve explained that the Rio Flying Club had always owned the strip; Lauren was the club’s president when Bach arrived in his Parks-Detroit biplane. Gilbert owned the glove company that was Rio’s primary employer (it’s now a gasket company), bought that biplane later, and they named the airport Gilbert Field, Bill said. “That didn’t go down without a fight, but when [Gilbert] died, some money was donated.”

Rio-18Asking about the silver water tower that caught Bach’s attention, with the village’s name emblazoned on it in black block letters, Bill said the trees on the east side of Highway 16 hid its replacement, a big white ball-headed push-pin. Pointing to the orange cones that marked the end of the turf runway’s official 1,092-foot FAA length, “There used to be a 6-foot drop off there,” Bill said. “When they were building the water treatment plant in the 1970s, they needed some place to dump the dirt, and [club president] George Williams went over and told them they could dump it here.” That leveled things out and gave the runway a 200-foot overrun on both ends.

Bach returned to Rio in 1970 to make the Nothing by Chance movie, Steve said, and this hangar here is where the Travel Air they bought used to live. Stuffed into it now were two of the half-dozen or so airplanes the A&P-IA owns, the Piper Tri-Pacer he soloed in and the Piper Vagabond he inherited from his father, now powered by a 100-horse Continental O-200. “Dad’s claim to fame is that he bought and sold 72 airplanes during his lifetime.”

Rio-22Steve’s dad was a watchmaker and jeweler who established his shop in Rio, and then moved to Portage, a city of 10,000 that’s 20 miles to the west-northwest. During the week, Steve works for the Wisconsin National Guard, maintaining the Army’s fleet of 11 C-26E Metroliners, which sport Rockwell Collins Proline 21 flight decks. Most of them are based in Madison, he said.

Walking up to the clubhouse for a cold drink, my hopes of seeing the wood burning Warm Morning stove Bach wrote about died when Bill said the building used to serve Rio’s telephone exchange. “They were going to tear it down; we moved it here instead.” Better than the stove was the poster for the fly-in that drew Bach back to Rio for its passenger-rich opportunity.

Rio-10Bach called it the Fireman’s Picnic, Steve said, but it has always been the flying club’s annual Sunday morning fly-in breakfast. Campgrounds surround Rio, Bill said, and the club often launches a three-ship formation of Cubs to fly around them and let the campers know we were serving Sunday morning breakfast. In years past, Bill said, the club fed upwards of 1,200 folks, and last year it was 800. Covid canceled this year’s fly-in feed.

We three being of the same era, Steve and Bill agreed that they had been fortunate to have grown up in Rio when they did. They discovered that they were both learning to fly when they showed up for their private pilot checkrides on the same day in 1977.

Steve, who was living in portage at the time, soloed in 1970, “but I procrastinated and thought I’d discovered girls.” Bill soloed in 1969, when he got out of high school, “my dad had a Cub and we flew the heck out of that.” He didn’t say so, but taking a hint from 1st MarDiv ball cap and several comments, an extended tour of Southeast Asia separated his solo from his private pilot checkride.

“When they say the world has changed, they weren’t kidding. We lived in a different time, and I don’t know if we will recover,” Steve said. “The older guys were buying, restoring, and flying airplanes,” Bill said. “We grew up around that and kind of took it for granted, but nobody’s doing that anymore.”

Rio-6Rio may well be one of the last American airstrips where this era of aviation still exists. The Rio Flying Club has 30-35 members, Bill said, pointing at hangars and counting maybe a dozen flying airplanes. The current president, Bruce, a retired American Airlines pilot, has a Stinson 108, is building a Fisher Flying Products Tiger Moth, and he just hauled a gullwing Stinson into his hangar, Steve said. “It was lend-lease to England in World War II, and it is a true basket case.”

In parting, the guys invited me to next year’s fly-in breakfast (watch the flying club’s Facebook page for details), but they could not answer my one burning question: Why does Rio pronounce its name RYE-oh? (Likewise the people of Berlin, who say they are from BURR-lin.) Steve shrugged his shoulders and Bill said maybe so people would not be confused with another Rio?

From the airport, I went downtown to see how it had changed from Bach’s Nothing by Chance, visit. But I’ve gone on long enough here. (If you’re interested in that perspective, see Biplane Point of View: Rio, Wisconsin.) – Scott Spangler

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