It’s a steamy summer evening at KC37, which is what pilots call the small airport just south of Brodhead, Wisconsin. Surrounded by miles of farmland and sheltered from the sun under a striped awning, a group of pilots and small-plane enthusiasts talk about the latest trends in general aviation while kids play tag between rows of picnic tables. The familiar scent of grilled meat hangs in the still air. It’s a scene that repeats itself all summer long as the Wisconsin Flying Hamburger Social makes its rounds to community airports across the state.
The Brodhead Airport, which has been hosting socials for the last four years, is just one of around 128 public-access airports in Wisconsin. Generally operated by individuals or municipalities, these community airports (as they are known) cater to privately owned, single-engine airplanes and don’t provide regularly scheduled passenger service. People who are used to flying on big, commercial airlines might not even know about the 5,100 small, public-use airports like KC37 that dot the American landscape.
Tonight’s social is an opportunity for the people who appreciate community airports and light aircraft to share a burger and some camaraderie, to ogle each other’s planes and talk shop, and to catch up on how life is going. It’s also a good excuse to get in some flying time for these pilots and their families.
The social began as the Putt Putt Patrol, a regular hamburger night hosted by Rick Coe, Merrill McMahan, and a few other pilots at the Wausau Downtown Airport. In 2012, Bob Mohr and John Chmiel asked a few other airports in the immediate area if they would be interested in hosting their own “Hamburger Night.” Jeff Gaier, who runs the Marshfield Municipal Airport, was one of the first people to volunteer to host. Soon Gaier became an enthusiastic recruiter, signing up other small airports such as those in Wisconsin Rapids, Stevens Point, Medford, Merrill, and Antigo. The Wisconsin Flying Hamburger Social was born.
After just one season, Gaier and Chmiel found that the demand for the weeknight cookouts was so great that they had to organize the state into branches in order to ensure an equitable distribution of events. On any given Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday during the summer months you can find a Wisconsin Flying Hamburger Social somewhere in the state. Each host airport adds its own flair to the social, providing and cooking a main dish like chicken or brats, with local pilots and their families and friends bringing a dish to pass like potato salad or a fruit plate.
“Not every airport does grilling,” notes Gaier, pointing out how “Juneau has Taco Tuesday and Mauston usually has a seafood deep fry.”
According to Gaier, around 200 people and upwards of 40 aircraft show up at a typical social—that is, with good weather. Less ideal weather usually means that just the locals come out, bringing the crowd down to about 35 people. While the majority of participants are pilots and their families, friends and people associated with the airport often show up, too, along with a few curious onlookers.
“The whole idea of aviation is to travel somewhere,” says Gaier. “We are feeding that. We’re encouraging people to … go out, get their airplane out of the hangar, and go somewhere.”
And, of course, it’s a chance for pilots to showcase their airplanes. Social attendees will see a wide variety of aircraft on display, even restored aircraft from the 1940s and earlier, many of which don’t have electrical systems (which is why all socials end before dark).
“We’ll see normal aircraft, ultralight aircraft, sometimes there’s brand-spanking-new aircraft. Every now and then you might see what’s considered an antique,” says Gaier. “The oldest ones I’ve seen are some 1940s Piper Cubs.”
For aviation students or those interested in learning to fly, each social is also a great opportunity to see a wide variety of airplanes, get familiar with airport services, and meet experienced pilots.
For Gaier, whose parents were pilots, the socials remind him of the fly-in events he enjoyed as a kid. “I was born into aviation, literally,” he quips, adding that he was flying in utero and took his first “official” plane ride at two weeks old. “When I was younger, my parents took me all over. The Flying Hamburger Social kind of stems back to something similar called Wisconsin Flying Farmers.”
Launched in 1947, the Wisconsin Flying Farmers was a chapter in a larger Flying Farmers organization that originated at Oklahoma A&M University. In its heyday, the international organization was a social hub that offered member services and perks, and even lobbied on national issues affecting farmers and rural pilots. However, over the decades, membership in the Flying Farmers has fallen off, and the numbers in state chapters like Wisconsin’s are dwindling.
Gaier says his dad, Harold “Duffy” Gaier, encouraged him to get the Flying Hamburger Social up and running. Duffy Gaier, who was inducted into the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame in 2004, flew as a pilot for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and the U.S. Farm Service, and he was responsible for major improvements—such as better lighting and runway extensions—at the Neillsville and Marshfield airports. A designated pilot examiner responsible for granting new pilots their licenses, Duffy has conducted over 3,500 FAA flight checks. His grandson, Jeff’s son, was the last pilot he did a flight check with before retiring in 2017.
Duffy’s influence clearly rubbed off on his son. Nowadays, you can find Jeff Gaier at the Marshfield Municipal Airport, Monday through Saturday, where he operates Duffy’s Aircraft Sales, a business named after his father. When he’s not working or hosting his own social, Gaier flies his prized, green 1947 Piper Cub—called Sweet Pea—around the state to other socials. This summer, he’s especially looking forward to getting back into the groove, since (like most everything else) last year’s social season was cancelled due to Covid-19.
Both Gaier and Chmiel are glad the social is back this year. The Wausau Municipal Airport, which Chmiel and his wife Angela have operated for 30 years, hosted one of the first 2021 socials in early June. Nearly 300 people and 25 planes showed up. Chmiel believes the “pent-up frustration” from the closed socials last year will lead to record numbers this year. “You can just see it on the faces of the people that attend,” he says. “They’re just so happy to be there.”
Chmiel likens the events to a car club meetup, where everyone drives down Main Street, showing off their rides. While most people fly common airplanes like Cessna 172s or Cirrus SR22s, “sometimes you get lucky enough to see a warbird,” comments Chmiel. “It’s nice to see the unique ones, but I just like to see that the airplanes come out to do it.”
Much like Gaier, Chmiel has been involved in general aviation since childhood. His dad was an airplane mechanic who took his son to work with him in the summertime, and Chmiel’s own kids grew up at the airport. Both still work there.
Chmiel’s favorite airplane to fly is the Stearman, a Boeing-built biplane that was used to train pilots in World War II. It requires special training to fly, which Chmiel is licensed to provide. “There’s nothing like open-cockpit biplane flying,” he says with a smile.
Waxing nostalgic about how the aviation world looked when he was growing up, Chmiel comments that, during the 1960s and 1970s, small airports like his were social centers. Pilots would hang out at the airport, inviting others to fly along with them for fun, and people would come by just to watch the airplanes take off and land.
“Today’s pilots are a lot more mission-oriented,” says Chmiel. “They don’t embrace the idea of just going up and flying and having fun. ... People go to a Flying Hamburger Social and they figure out more ways to use their airplane than just the socials.”
According to Chmiel, the socials are also a great opportunity for host airports to showcase their unique services, whether it’s flight training, aircraft rental, fuel-ups, hangar space, or plane maintenance.
Gaier also enjoys checking out new spots, one of the highlights of having the socials all around the state. “As a pilot, it’s definitely an excuse to get out of my comfort zone and fly to an airport that I haven’t been to before,” says Gaier. “And it’s certainly a good way to see other people I know in aviation.”
For Gaier and Chmiel, hosting socials has become a rite of summer; they could almost do it in their sleep. They’re always encouraging other airport owners to take the plunge and host an event—owners like Elliot Eiden, who, at just 25 years old, is one of the youngest in the state. Eiden began managing Camp Lake Airport, which is located just north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border near Trevor, in August 2020. The small airport is home to one of the few remaining grass runways in the area.
Eiden is an aircraft mechanic who specializes in the Gulfstream G550, a business jet with a 94-foot wingspan and a top speed of 585 mph. Even though Eiden recently earned his pilot’s license in 2017, he has always been an aviation enthusiast. He says his interest in planes was most likely sparked when he watched his dad build a 1983 Ultralight in their apartment in Libertyville, Illinois. Once the aircraft was complete, Eiden’s dad brought the plane north to a good friend’s airport for its first flight. That airport was Camp Lake.
While nostalgia might have brought Eiden back to Camp Lake, his desire “to make it a vibrant location for events and camaraderie” keeps him working on repairs and cleanup. He recently launched a GoFundMe campaign in the hope of raising $15,000 to fix the runway and clear brush that threatens to overtake the hangars. It’s a lot of work, he says, noting that he has already put in 700 hours, on his own.
Yet there is something special here that Eiden believes is worth keeping. He only recently heard of the Wisconsin Flying Hamburger Social, and immediately jumped at the opportunity to host. He’s enthusiastic about his first social in mid-July and hopes that, with the help of Gaier and Chmiel, many pilots and their families will visit his airport. “It’s easier to get the word out [about us] than doing it on my own,” says Eiden. “I’m hoping that a decent amount of people show up. Anyone’s welcome.”
Eiden’s enthusiastic and optimistic attitude reflects what Gaier, Chmiel, and all of the others involved in the Wisconsin Flying Hamburger Social are hoping to convey: Anyone’s welcome. They are certainly on to something, as their socials have already spread to Minnesota and Michigan.
Picking up on the popularity of the socials, in 2017 the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, Bureau of Aeronautics, and the Wisconsin Airport Management Association collaborated to create the Fly Wisconsin Airport Passport Program to encourage more hobby flying in (and to) the state. Pilots and their passengers earn a stamp at each airport they fly into, which add up to rewards such as a Fly Wisconsin t-shirt or a leather jacket.
Overall, the forecast for general aviation looks promising: It’s in the midst of a mini-boom right now, with small aircraft flights as well as fuel sales up 10% to 15%. More people are opting to travel privately, if they can afford to, and advances in battery-powered and hybrid engines could make light aircraft travel much more economical and commonplace in the coming years.
How often do any of us pause to consider the thousands of factors—from the design of a propeller to the skill of a pilot—that come together to propel a vehicle (and all its inhabitants) into the air, so high above it all, only to land in an entirely different place? The Wisconsin Flying Hamburger Social provides a unique opportunity to learn about flying, and to explore the airplanes that conjure feelings of awe and wonder. For the pilots who come to show off their airplanes and talk shop, these socials are a chance “to rediscover why they learned to fly in the first place,” says Chmiel.