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Unbeknownst to many Kewaunee County residents, the Algoma area is home to four licensed private airports--Carnot Field Airport, Stoller Airport, Jorgensen Airport, and Rio Creek Airport.
Owned and operated by Bruce Steinhagen, Carnot Field Airport is located just north of Algoma. Since Steinhagen was ten years old and first flew in an airplane, he dreamed of becoming a pilot, he said. Steinhagen now stores his single-engine, tandem two-seat, 160-horsepower 1998 American Champion in a hangar next to an 1800-foot runway.
His conventional small plane is known as a taildragger--as opposed to one with tricycle landing gear. Taildraggers have a tendency to "weather-vane" on landings, sometimes turning around completely on the runway (ground looping) in the hands of less-experienced pilots, Steinhagen said.
The taildragger requires more expertise to maneuver than nosewheel-equipped aircraft mainly because of this tendency, he added. In that sense, it is similar to the Wright Flyer, first flown at what has become a shrine of aviation invention--Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. Its light-weight skin is made from a cloth-like fabric called polydacron, he said.
Steinhagen also owns two ultra-lights which are best described as a sort of motorized hang glider with a parachute that helps lift, steer, and land the one and two-seat aircrafts. They were especially-popular in the 1990s, Steinhagen explained, before 9/11. After 9/11, the FAA's regulation of the crafts became more strict and their popularity tapered off, essentially "killing the industry", he added.
Steinhagen explained that his love of flying and his desire to get a pilot's license has been a lifelong pursuit since his service in the U.S. Army. His vision worsened, however, during his military service and he was not able to pass that part of his physical to earn a steady spot in the cockpit of an Army aircraft.
"My love of flying didn't push me enough, but the fact that my parents lived over by Eau Claire, my wife's parents lived by LaCrosse, and I have (other) family in the Twin Cities...flying gave me time to fly there on weekends during my time off," he said.
Steinhagen, who began taking lessons in 1981 from a flight instructor through Cherryland Airport in Sturgeon Bay, paid $30 an hour for two to three days per week of flying lessons.
"You needed 15 to 20 hours of instruction and you needed 15 to 20 hours of solo (at that time) before you could take the test," Steinhagen said. "The biggest thing is the rules of the road which comes from the book."
With a science background (he is a retired pharmacist), aerodynamics is especially fascinating to Steinhagen. He said that a plane really wants to stay in harmony between four forces that play their respective role in the physics of the flying dynamic: drag, lift, thrust, and gravity, making flying a plane a lot easier than it looks--especially with technological advancements such as GPS, he added.
Before getting his own pilot's license, Steinhagen had to pass the written test and pass a physical. At one point, Steinhahagen had an "instrument rating", a rating which allows the pilot to literally "fly in the clouds". At this time, he has a commercial license. Steinhagen has even flown skydivers.
Steinhagen has flown to various locations throughout the Midwest such as Kansas City and as far south as the Miami, Florida area.
Just about five miles (as the crow flies) from Carnot Field Airport is the Rio Creek Airport.
Opened in 1973, the Rio Creek Airport occupies 45 acres just west of downtown Rio Creek. Its short-cropped grass field is known as Runway 7/25. Owned and managed by Don Walter, the Airport’s main activities are launched and coordinated by a close-knit group of pilots--the Rio Creek Aviators Club.
“I was interested in aviation ever since I was in school,” Walter said. “I got out of high school and started taking aviation lessons.
“As a double amputee, I started with an Ercoupe…that had no foot pedal for the rudder--it was operated by the wheel…,” he continued. “My dad had a shop downtown with a big, flat roof…it had a (mark) on it that was for airplanes in Sturgeon Bay…every time they would tar the roof, I would say ‘Dad, they can’t cover this up…it is for the pilots’,” he laughed.
While the Rio Creek Airport began operating decades ago, it has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years. In 1998, three new occupants arrived with their planes, stored them in hangars, and made improvements at the airport.
During this period, brush was cut, a skeletal “A-frame” structure was converted into a clubhouse, and hangar doors were fixed. The airport currently boasts three hangars that store about a half-dozen planes--mostly older, vintage models.
In 2001, the Rio Creek Airview Campgrounds reopened. The woodland sites were cleaned out and power was hooked up again. The total number of campsites increased from 14 to 25--a number of which are filled with visitors every summer.
A new hangar was built in 2002--increasing the total number of hangars to three. All of the improvements were made by folks who donated time and/or money to assist with the building process.
The RCA plays an integral role in aviation education in the community--teaching youngsters about general aviation. Some of the kids are eligible for the Experimental Aircraft Association’s (EAA) Young Eagle Program. Instructed by pilots who are members of the Rio Creek Aviation Foundation, the program includes an introductory Young Eagle flight. Kids’ activities--including field trips to the Oshkosh Fly-In--are very low-priced or free.
For Bruce Steinhagen and Don Walter, aviation is not just a hobby or avocation. While it may not be their livelihood, their shared passion for flying represents something far more important.