This article was originally published in Forward in Flight magazine, a publication of the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame.
“Bill’s Air Park”
75th Anniversaries abound
By Patrick Weeden
My friend Joe Snow recently mentioned that his trusty little Cessna 140 will turn 75 years old this year. A quick search of his airworthiness documents found a birthday of August 9, 1946, and we’re now planning a Diamond Jubilee party for the big day. Too bad it’s a Monday, or this party would last all weekend.
The post-war civilian aviation boom of 1946 will result in a great number of 75th birthday events this year. A lot of Luscombes, Cubs, Cessna taildraggers, Stinsons, Taylorcrafts, and dozens of other models of vintage general aviation aircraft still flying will turn 75 years old in 2021. We could probably have a birthday party each day if we looked hard enough in the hangars at all the airports around the state. And why not? These ubiquitous airplanes, produced by the thousands, have served all of us well over long and successful careers.
My favorite little Wisconsin airport also turns 75 this year. Brodhead Airport, “A Home for Grassroots Aviation,” has been quietly offering pretty grass runways and Midwest charm to thousands of pilots for three quarters of a century. And like the airplanes themselves, the airport has long been a stalwart field for fun flying and aviation camaraderie. Please excuse my favoritism here, since I quite literally grew up at Brodhead Airport (C37), flying and mowing, and generally witnessing the airport move into the 21st century. No amount of modern technology could erase the tangible history of this place. As a kid, I heard the stories from the “old guard” pilots who were here at the beginning, and I have been fascinated by the story of the Brodhead Airport ever since.
Brodhead, a 1400-person town in the 1940s, was built at the intersection of a river and a railroad, and it once hosted a different airport, Government Field. Located a few miles northwest of town, the field served as an emergency landing site for early mail pilots. Activated in 1932, an airway beacon was turned on each night by the local farm family whose land was leased by the government. Newspaper stories report a nightly flight around 11:00 p.m., en route from Chicago to St. Paul. This field was deactivated in the early 1940s, likely during WWII.
The current Brodhead Airport that everyone now knows actually began as “Bill’s Air Park” in 1946, during the post-war civil aviation boom that produced my friend Joe’s Cessna. The story has an endearing local element, and I want to share it here.
Born in 1919, Capt. William “Bill” Earleywine, USAAF, was the eldest of six children and grew up on a farm near Brodhead. He attended UW-Madison and enlisted in the U.S. Army as a flying cadet in April, 1941. He received his wings on December 12, 1941 at Brooks Field in San Antonio, and married his sweetheart Margaret the same day – all less than a week after Pearl Harbor. One can only imagine the trepidation that a young military pilot and his new bride would have at that moment in history.
After completing initial training in the B-24, Bill and the “Earleywine Crew” began their service with the 12th Anti-Submarine Squadron stationed at Langley Field, Virginia. Promoted to Captain in September, 1943, Bill and his crew left for Crew Combat Training School in Tucson and returned to Langley in January, 1944. They were then assigned to the 859th Bomber Squadron as Crew 901.
That April, they signed out B-24J #44-40053, named her “Sweat’er Gal,” and headed for North Pickenham, England. Capt. Earleywine flew as an aircraft commander for 15 missions over German airfields, oil refineries, and railroad yards. After more training, he commanded another 20 “Pathfinder” missions in the B-24, completing his tour in November, 1944. During this time, he received the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Air Medal. Bill was discharged at Truax AAF in Madison in 1945 and moved home to Brodhead.
The flying bug must have infected Capt. Earleywine deeply. By February, 1946, he had rented a hay field south of town and named it “Bill’s Air Park,” offering flight instruction, sight-seeing flights, and aircraft sales with Taylorcraft and Ercoupe dealerships. Newspaper accounts paint a picture of daily activity, with dozens of student pilots throughout the week, and Sunday pleasure flights “starting at $1.50 up and a 30-minute ride costs $4.” One article states, “The plane is available every day and people who can take trips on week days are urged to do so as it is impossible to accommodate everyone on Sunday.” Business must have been good!
Bill’s Air Park sold one Ercoupe 415-D and three Taylorcraft BC-12D models. One of the Taylorcrafts is still based at Brodhead Airport 75 years later, while the Ercoupe also remains on the FAA register in the Chicago area. Soon, other local WWII veteran pilots were flying a war surplus Fairchild PT-19 and Waco UPF-7, along with various other new aircraft of the day. Within a year, several hangars and an office building were built.
One can imagine Bill racking up flight hours faster than he could log them – for business, for fun, and to lend a hand to his neighbors. He flew the Green County Weed Commissioner on surveying flights to map invasive plants. There were regular charter flights to Chicago, Milwaukee, and beyond, in the little T-Craft. During a legendary blizzard in February, 1947, the roads were blocked for a week; Bill put skis on one of his planes and flew the local physician, “Doc” Steussey, to area farms in need of medical attention.
Then in July, 1947, a terrible tragedy struck. Bill and his 16-year-old brother Derald, along with a few other local pilots, had attended the Wisconsin State Air Fair and Circus at the nearby Rock County Airport near Janesville. Around 6:45 in the evening, as Bill and Derald were on approach to land after flying home, their Taylorcraft slowed, then stalled at about 50 feet and nosed into the ground, killing them both. One witness and friend thought perhaps Bill was giving instruction to Derald at the time, but nobody knows for sure.
The tragic irony of surviving 35 combat missions in WWII, only to perish performing a fundamental flying maneuver in a simple taildragger, is almost unfathomable. Bill was an incredible pilot, and his accident reminds us that, no matter how careful or skilled we may be, disasters sometimes simply happen.
Bill’s aircraft and flight school were sold to Gilbert Baltzer of Badger Flying Service at the Monroe Airport, and Bill’s “Air Park” was renamed Brodhead Airport. Operations slowed significantly. The other pilots “passed the hat to pay the taxes” and kept the field mowed. In 1953, an Air Show featuring the “World Famous Cole Brothers” and sponsored by the “Progressive Pilots of Green County” was held on the field, and color photos from the event show a lineup full of brand-new Pipers and Cessnas.
By the early 1970s, Brodhead Airport was for sale and a handful of local pilots formed EAA Chapter 431, then pooled their money to purchase the field. An era of expansion commenced; today, there are 60 hangars and well over 100 aircraft here. The Kelch Aviation Museum, now home to the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame archives, will open in July, adjacent to the airport.
In spite of the vibrant local history, many non-pilots in the area aren’t aware of the amazing stories and vintage planes flying here, and the museum will hopefully make that more accessible to all.
So, as summer rolls in and we all get back to attending fly-in events around the state and beyond, take a moment to appreciate the 75 years that have passed since the creation of our familiar small airplanes like Joe’s, and our favorite little airports like Bill’s.
Patrick Weeden is the Executive Director of the Kelch Aviation Museum at Brodhead Airport (C37), and a member of the Board of the Wisconsin Aviation Hall of Fame. He is a private pilot and has been involved with vintage aircraft operation and restoration since childhood.