WHEATLAND – The skies over Wheatland were filled with both private and corporate planes Aug. 29 as pilots came from all over the Midwest to help the community celebrate the Phifer Airfield Grand Opening and Fly-In.
The airport, according to Brian Olsen, aeronautics administrator for the Wyoming Department of Transportation had 15 nonstandard conditions.
“That means it doesn’t meet Federal Aviation Administration guidelines for an airport should be designed,” Olsen said. “Basically, it’s geometry. We knew what the issues were, so we just made sure that as part of this project we fixed all of those issues.”
According to Olsen, in 2007 there was a master plan done for the airport in Wheatland.
“That master plan identified the need to reconstruct the runway,” Olsen said. “It was because of the safety issues as well as the pavement which had exceeded its useful life. So, between those two needs, as well as a lot of planning by the Federal Aviation Administration, the state and the local community, we’ve been planning and working on this for many years and acquiring land. It’s been a long process and today’s the fruition.”
Spectators, community dignitaries and prominent members of the community began arriving at 8 a.m. and had a chance to see many of the planes land on the newly built runways.
Breakfast was complimentary and catered by Wagon Wheel Catering and owners Jess and Melissa Arnold out of Wheatland. They prepared fresh breakfast burritos and offered cold water and hot coffee. The breakfast was paid for by the Town of Wheatland.
Before the official ribbon-cutting ceremony, there was an introduction by Wheatland Mayor Brandon Graves who helped organize the program with the assistance of town of Wheatland clerk Candy Wright.
Special speaker and President Emeritus of C.H. Brown Co, Chuck Brown spoke about the history of the airfield, pointing out where the old dirt runway used to be and went on to give a brief history of the Phifer family who the airfield was named after.
Wyoming junior U.S. Sen. John Barrasso was on hand as a special speaker and was responsible for the helping to gain the federal funding for the airfield.
“This year is Wyoming’s 130th birthday,” Barrasso said. “On the 100th birthday, George W. Bush came to Wyoming. Bush said that Wyoming is a special, sacred place whose values and visions continue to inspire America. And to me those words continue to be true today and I just wanted to be here to thank you because right here we are a very special and sacred place. And the visions and values of this community continue, Mr. Mayor to inspire America.”
Olsen then followed with some facts and figures about the project before community dignitaries and prominent community members stepped to the podium and made the grand reopening of Phifer Airfield official with a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
Dallas Mount, local aviation enthusiast and part of the Wheatland airport board and aviation community was running the show, so to speak, making sure the volunteers bringing in the planes were all on the same page and also was also in charge of the parking spaces for the planes.
“We are just so excited to have our airport open again,” Mount said. “So we decided to have a celebration and invite pilots in from all over the area and bring the public out to enjoy the airport aviation.”
According to Mount, planes began flying in at 7 a.m. and he estimated that there were 35 airplanes that flew in for the celebration. Mount was also manning the air traffic control duties.
“Actually this is what we call and uncontrolled field,” Mount said. “So the pilots announce their position and other pilots listen and they talk to each other. So really, the pilots are sorting out their own air traffic control.”
After the ribbon-cutting there was a candy drop for the kids with a pilot flying low over the runways bombing the area with goodies.
The oldest plane and one of the most viewed at the show was a 1943 Navy S&J training plane owned by Allan Cook who purchase it from a gentleman at Front Range Airport in Adams County, Colorado.
“The S&J is basically the Navy’s T6,” Cook said. “It came off the same production line, and if it went to the Army it was called a T6, but if it went to the Navy, it was an S&J. The “S” stands for Scout Trainer and the “J” North American who built it. The engine is a R1340 which is 600 horsepower made by Pratt Whitney.”
There was also one family who flew in from Spearfish, South Dakota, that was just out on a weekend family jaunt. Michael and Kristi Rath and their children Faith and Joshua had been at the Hot Springs Balloon launch when the radio chatter came across their radio about the fly-in, so they decided to make a stop in Wheatland.
“Our plane is a 1953 Cessna 195,” Michael Rath said. “It seats five people and it’s a good family airplane and we’ve just been enjoying it from Spearfish, South Dakota, and glad we came down today. I’m a pilot actually and work in Net Jets corporate department. I’m flying on my days on and then get to do this on my days off. We got an invite to come fly-in from Robert Hilty who has a plane just like this. We’re going to hop in the airplane and head back to Spearfish.”