RED STEWART AIRFIELD IN WAYNESVILLE KEEPS TAIL WHEEL AVIATION ALIVE
People come from all over to experience “flying like a bird” at the old-fashioned, family-run airfield.
By Jim DeBrosse – February 18, 2021
Emerson Stewart III, the third-generation operator of Red Stewart Airfield, shouts “Contact!” out the open cockpit window. Like a scene from a classic aviation film, the mechanic heaves downward on the front propeller—once, twice—and the Piper Cub’s underwhelming 65-horsepower engine (the kind you’d find at the rear of a vintage VW Beetle) coughs into uncertain life. Chug, Chug, Chugga-Chug, Chug, Chug, Chugga-Chug… Stewart is in the front seat of the canary yellow Cub, and I’m in the back, sharing the same set of simple controls. My legs are splayed and feet pressed against two rudder pedals, the aileron stick nearly in my crotch and about navel high.
I’m here to learn more about Stewart and his family of aerobatic aviators and flight instructors, as well as to get a taste of flying the old-fashioned way, called “tail wheel” or “tail dragging,” named for the landing gear on vintage planes with a steerable wheel in back. Think of any biplane or World War II war bird, and you have the idea. The joy of tail wheel flying—stick and rudder, seat of your pants, little instrumentation separating pilot from plane—draws beginners and experienced pilots from all over the country and the world to this tiny grass airstrip in Waynesville, Ohio. I’m about to find out why.
“THIS LITTLE AIRPORT IN WAYNESVILLE IS ONE OF THE BEST-KEPT SECRETS IN THE REGION. IT FEELS TO ME LIKE GOING BACK IN TIME.”
Pilots who have received flight training at Red Stewart Airfield say its long-standing appeal is born of its combination of vintage planes and the Stewart family’s devotion to traditional flying. “This little airport in Waynesville is one of the best-kept secrets in the region,” says Brad Conner, a 47-year-old local funeral home owner who took up flying again two years ago after a 25-year hiatus. “It feels to me like going back in time. They could have easily paved over the runway years ago, but they’ve wanted to maintain that sense of history.”
Connor Riggs, who’s training to be a flight instructor at Red Stewart, says his love affair with Cubs began a decade ago when he was 14, the first time his uncle took him up in one. “They’re just unique antiques. You can fly them with the door open. To me, there’s nothing closer to flying like a bird.”
Greg Johnson, an aeronautical engineer at GE Aviation, was drawn to Red Stewart Airfield to earn his private license because of its hands-on approach to training. “At typical flight schools, they’ll have a lot of ground school work first and then you’re in the aircraft. Here, the approach is, You’re in a plane from day one.”
“You don’t have to be an astronaut to do this,” says Emerson “Cub” Stewart Jr., explaining the school’s simple philosophy. He owns the airfield with his wife, Cathy. “The average guy can do it with proper guidance and encouragement.”
And by preserving the less expensive tradition of grassroots flying, the school has been able to keep its rates lower than many other programs, says Julie Malkin, a Glendale resident who earned her private pilot license there last fall. The New England transplant, whose father was an aeronautical engineer, says she always knew she’d enjoy flying but thought the training would be too expensive.
Then, about eight years ago, a friend in New Richmond took her up in an ultralight. “I was hooked and wanted to get my feet off the ground,” she says. Her friend told her about Red Stewart Airfield, where she got her recreational license at age 60 (she’s 67 now). It took her several more years to earn her private license. “They’re very concerned about making sure you know the basics,” says Malkin, “but they really let you go at your own pace.”
It helps, too, to have instructors who are passionate about flying. Malkin says the younger Stewart, who was one of her flight instructors, communicates his own love of flying to students in every lesson. Once while showing her maneuvers over Caesar Creek Lake, he had her circle above a bald eagle to watch its majestic flight below them, a reminder of the privilege humanity shares with the bird’s ancient mastery of the air. “He has the soul of a poet,” says Malkin.
As Stewart and I strap into the Piper Cub, his voice comes over my headset, soft, slow, almost folksy. “We’ll fuel up first and then take off to the west,” he says. After a night of rain, the mid-morning sky is still layered with gray clouds, their tattered edges weeping here and there along the horizon.
My teeth are chattering, either from nerves or the vibration of the taxiing plane. Or both. The last and only time I took the controls of a small plane was more than 35 years ago, with a pilot who was the ex-boyfriend of my then-girlfriend. I don’t like to think it was an act of jealousy and revenge, but with no advance warning or instruction, the pilot shouted over the engine noise, “She’s all yours!” and we dropped into a stomach-knotting dive that seemed to go on forever before, grinning, he pulled us safely up again.
Once we’re in position for takeoff, Stewart pushes forward on the throttle, and the engine vibration grows to a steady roar. We jounce over the soggy grass at a smoothly accelerating speed that seems almost too slow to get us off the ground. Seconds later, though, Stewart pulls back on the stick and the Cub’s 720-pound frame of steel and Dacron sailcloth has, in the words of the poet, “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.”
Liftoff is a magical moment, a sudden and unexpected buoyancy of body and spirit that’s bedazzled humanity for more than a century, ever since the Wright brothers perfected flight just 25 miles up the road at Huffman Prairie. The plane’s nose is aimed at the clouds, and we seem to be floating toward them without need of an engine, as though being pulled upward atop a kite. Aloft, the Cub loses all its earth-bound ungainliness and finds its grace and charm in doing what it was meant to do: Fly!
At 1,000 feet, well below the clouds, we level off at a cruising speed of 70 mph, the same speed a careful motorist would ply along the interstate. The only difference is that we can look out the Cub’s windows to a diorama below of homes and barns like tokens on a Monopoly board and rectangular shapes of green, brown, and yellow fields broken only by the glassy surface here and there of a farm pond.
Twelve miles to the west, we can see the misty outlines of downtown Middletown, but not downtown Dayton 20 miles to the north, a sight that’s usually available on clearer days. Stewart lightly banks the Cub east toward Caesar Creek Lake and, as if on cue, the sun’s rays slip through a gap in the clouds and shimmer across its dark gray waters.
Stewart’s grandfather, Emerson “Red” Stewart, the airfield’s namesake, was the last of an audacious breed: a barnstormer. Red’s famous disclaimer was, Don’t ever do this, but if you do, here’s how. That included stunts like disconnecting the control stick, throwing it out the door, and landing the plane with only power, trim, and rudder. In the air, he would fly the aircraft while sitting outside on the wing strut. At the bottom of acrobatic loops, he would dare to touch ground with his landing gear.
Red had wanted to fly for the military during World War II, but his varicose veins—and the danger they posed for clotting and strokes—disqualified him. Instead, he did defense production work at the Frigidaire plant in Dayton. But that didn’t keep Red from flying. He commuted to work from Fairborn in his Piper-like Aeronco Chief and, after a 10-minute flight, landed in the parking lot, where he tied his plane to the perimeter fence.
When Frigidaire officials grew nervous about potential liability issues, such as Red crashing into employees arriving by more conventional means, he quit the plant, got a box of dynamite and a bulldozer, and started clearing 40 acres of airfield from the 108-acre woodland farm he and his father had purchased two miles south of Waynesville.
With the help of his wife Irene and some friends, the project was completed by the end of 1946. The beloved Piper Cubs were part of the Stewart flight school from the very beginning. Red purchased a brand new Cub from the factory in Lock Haven, Pennsylvania, a plane that still sits in a hangar on the property awaiting renovation. The airfield and the flight school grew along with Red’s three sons—Emerson Jr. (nicknamed Cub, of course), Steve, and David—all of whom began flying (illegally) in their early teens.
When Red died in 2000 and was laid to rest in Waynesville, his friends and former students flew scores of small planes in circles above his gravesite during the funeral ceremony. Ownership of the airfield was handed down to Cub and Cathy, as was the tradition of preserving grassroots aviation. Red Stewart “was the kind of guy who loved to fly, and any excuse he could think of he would do it,” says Cub. “I think his enthusiasm has just carried down through the generations.”
The Stewarts are to local aviation what the Flying Wallendas are to circus acrobatics. Every Labor Day weekend, the family hosts an air show featuring stunt and aerobatic flyers from across the Cincinnati region.
Like his father, Cub is a flight instructor and accomplished pilot who’s done a good deal of his own aerobatic, vintage aircraft, and war bird flying. He’s also a certified aircraft mechanic with a specialization in older fabric-covered airplanes like the Piper Cub. The two World War II observation planes hanging in the U.S. Air Force Museum in Dayton were restored by Cub and Cathy, a certified aircraft mechanic herself as well as the family’s wizard for re-covering fabric-covered planes.
Their son, Emerson III, has been flying since he was 13 and performing in airshows since 1998. His wife Kimberly, who has a commercial aviation license, has performed as a wing walker during her husband’s aerobatic shows. Emerson’s sister Sara works at the family business and flies as well. Emerson and Kimberly’s 13-yearold daughter Audrey is working on her glider pilot license, and their 10-year-old son Emerson IV (“Ace”) dreams of his own flying exploits while playing in the burned-out fuselage of the Beechcraft 18 that fronts the family’s airfield on U.S. 42.
The vintage twin-engine Beechcraft, reminiscent of the famed Songbird on the old Sky King TV series, was forced to land at a nearby airfield 35 years ago when it caught fire in-flight. Stewart’s uncle, a commercial pilot, had the wreck towed to the airfield a few years ago as a gift to the young Ace. “He’s convinced he’s going to rebuild it some day and fly it,” says Stewart, showing the scorched insides of the wreck. “I don’t want to discourage Ace, but, yeah, you can see that’s not going to happen.”
As we fly across Caesar Creek Lake, Stewart asks if I want to take the controls. I gulp and say yes. The moment has come, and part of me simply wants to get it over with. He reminds me to gently pressure the stick and pedals, no need to push or tug. Then he lets go of the controls and shows me his hands.
I expect to lose the contents of my stomach in a sudden steep dive, but the Cub continues on, steady and aloft on its own, without my having to move a muscle. I feel utterly superfluous. “See how stable it is,” says Stewart. “The plane wants to fly itself.”
“Now try a turn,” he suggests. I ease my foot against the right pedal while pressuring the stick in the same direction, and the Cub banks obediently, gently to the right like a well-trained horse. I do the same to the left to bring us over the lake again. Feeling comfortable at last with the controls, I realize that the flaps and rudder don’t move the air so much as shape it around the plane, bending it left or right, up or down, with the Cub following in its path.
I straighten out and continue on, my pre-flight jitters a thing of the past as I begin to enjoy the scenery again. When we begin our landing approach an hour later, Stewart is in charge, choking back the throttle and pressuring the stick forward as we line up with the airfield. Just before we touch ground, he eases back on the stick, flaring the Cub’s nose into the air for a final view of the clouds. Chafing at being earthbound again, the plane bounces and rattles as its wheels make peace with the ground, then putters along the soft grass to its eventual repose.
Planes like the Piper Cub got a boost in 2004 when the Federal Aviation Administration created a new category of certification requirements for Light Sport Aircraft (LSA). Unlike other pilot certifications, it doesn’t require a medical certificate, only a valid driver’s license, enabling many older pilots to take to the air. LSA pilots, however, are restricted to flying lighter, slower planes at lower altitudes, one reason for the renewed interest in vintage planes like the Cub, says Connor Riggs, the flight-instructor-in-training.
Other pilots already licensed to fly big commercial jets have come to Waynesville just to experience the joy and challenge of traditional flying by earning their tail wheel endorsement, an FAA requirement for anyone wanting to fly vintage planes. Julie Malkin, who’s worked the front desk at the airfield, says, “Not infrequently, somebody who worked for one of the major airlines will come in and say, Oh my, I’m really scared of this. You ask why and they say, Flying an airliner is just managing systems. Flying a Cub is real flying.”
Stewart says that students from Europe and Australia will use their generous vacation time by coming to the airfield “and, in two or three weeks, do a whole year’s worth of flying.” A pilot from Chile had more than just recreational reasons to get his tail wheel endorsement. “He was going to fly DC-3s in the jungle,” he says.
The Red Stewart Airfield and family farm is a family compound of sorts, home to three generations. Stewart, Kimberly, and their children reside on the airfield. Sara, his sister, lives nearby with her husband, Chris, and sons Ryan and Jonah. Cub and Cathy occupy the farmhouse, where they also tend to a small menagerie of mules, miniature donkeys (which can be heard all over the airfield at feeding time), and two horses. The daily lunchtime break from 11:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. is inviolable among the close-knit family.
The maintenance hangar is where you’ll usually find Cub and Cathy working in the company of the family dogs, Ruby, a 15-year-old beagle-boxer mix who is the airfield’s unofficial greeter, and Banjo, a blue heeler puppy who gives Ruby fits.
Most every hour the airport is open it’s also where you’ll find Riggs, who works there as a mechanic.
“I spend all my extra time here because the people are great and it’s fun to watch the airplanes,” he says. “There’s just no place like this around. It feels like home whenever I’m here.”