Landing Pad

Lee Bottom Field
is a popular stop for area pilots

Airfield owners say annual fly-in
is an economic boon to county

By Konnie McCollum
Staff Writer

(January 2008) – Rich Davidson heard the talk by other pilots of a grass airstrip situated in a picturesque spot along the Ohio River near Hanover, Ind. Curious, Davidson decided to fly over the quiet, rural airfield to see if the rumors of its unique beauty were true. What he saw was a place that appeared untouched by time since the early days of aviation.

January 2008 Edition Cover

January 2008
Edition Cover

Little did he realize during that first flyover how his life would soon become intertwined and passionately connected with the little piece of aviation history called Lee Bottom Flying Field.
Today, more than a decade later, Davidson, 39, and his wife, Ginger, 43, own the airstrip. And they have worked diligently to preserve the Lee Bottom Flying Field as an aviation refuge. While the airstrip is a public access facility open daily for small aircraft usage, it is also a place where aviation enthusiasts with vintage aircraft are more than welcome.
In fact, for the past 11 years during the third weekend in September, Lee Bottom Flying Field becomes the hot spot for vintage aircraft during the annual Wood Fabric and Tailwheels Fly-In. During the event, pilots with vintage aircraft that date to the 1940s gather by the hundreds for good, old-fashioned fun and flying. Scores of visitors from across the region flock to Lee Bottom to see the spectacular “old birds” as they circle the grassy landing field by the dozens.
From its inception in 1996, the annual Lee Bottom fly-in has grown from just a few more than a dozen pilots gathering at the field for some friendly socializing to more than 1,885 registered visitors during the 2007 Wood, Fabric and Tailwheels Fly-In. It was held Sept. 29-30. More than 150 planes landed on the Friday night of the latest event, while 450 classic and vintage aircraft landed Saturday.
Despite the fact the event is relatively unknown to most residents in the Madison-Hanover area and those directly across the river in the Kentucky counties of Trimble, Oldham and Carroll, people and planes from across the country, including visitors from Alaska, Florida, California and several New England states participated in the event. There were even several international tourists, including people from as far away as Australia, South Africa, England and Canada.
Although the fly-in has attracted some business sponsorship in recent years, the Davidsons believe more local civic and corporate support could turn the event into an economic opportunity for the entire community. According to the economic figures tallied during the last fly-in, the economic impact on the entire community totaled more than $300,000.
“While we want to maintain the current friendly and non-commercialized atmosphere of our event, we believe it ties in perfectly with the rest of the historic aspects for which our community is known,” said Ginger. “We think this is a wonderful chance for local businesses to get involved and find a way to capitalize on our event because it attracts so many visitors to our community.”

The history of Lee Bottom

Lee Bottom Flying Field has been an airstrip since the 1930s, when aviation was in its infancy. According to Rich, during the late 1920s-1930s there was a camp near Hanover Beach of pilots called Barnstormers, or “flying gypsies.” These people would give rides in their planes, which would land on the grassy strip of land that later became known as Lee Bottom Flying Field.
For several decades, the airstrip remained relatively the same until the 1950s. At that point, Tony Harmon and Dale Munday bought the land and started an aircraft salvage shop. The field became nationally known as a place to find old aircraft parts.
“The airport was simply covered with old wreckage of planes,” said Rich, who is also a commercial pilot for a regional airline.

Fritz Hagemann

Photo provided by Rich Davidson

The late Fritz Hagemann poses with
his dog, Casper, next to a bi-wing
airplane at Lee Bottom Field.

By the 1980s, the partners sold the property to a lumber mill, which in turn sold the property in 1985 to Fritz Hagemann, a retired U.S. Air Force pilot and mechanic. Hagemann, who was residing in Miami, had always wanted to own a shop. He saw an ad for the land and knew he had found the perfect opportunity. “Fritz said he retired on a Tuesday and bought the airfield on the following Thursday,” said Rich.
Hagemann realized the airfield would make a wonderful destination for owners of antique and classic aircraft.
He set out to make improvements to the property that would help attract such visitors. Initially, the landing field was 1,800 feet by 26 feet. He bought an adjacent farm field and enlarged the runway to 3,000 feet by 100 feet. He also added restroom facilities and a picnic shelter area to make pilots feel welcomed, and then obtained the airfield licensed as a public use airport.
“Fritz Hagemann was a fine man and a true lover of aviation,” said George Pascal of New Castle, Ky. Pascal was a long-time friend of Hagemann. Pascal, a pilot for United Parcel Service, had heard about the old-time grass airstrip across the river, so when he bought his 1943 Stearman airplane, he decided to fly over it.
“I kept coming back, and Fritz and I became good friends.”
Pascal has been attending the annual fly-in at Lee Bottom Field since it started. “It was a small affair at first,” he said. “It is very special, and of all the fly-ins I attend, the one at Lee Bottom is my favorite.” He brings his family to the yearly event, and said everyone, even those with no aviation background, will love the family fun at Lee Bottom’s fly-in.
He believes the success of the fly-in is because of the friendly atmosphere of the event and the efforts by the Davidsons to recreate the atmosphere of the 1930s-1940s. During that era, airports were important social gathering spots for people.
It was actually Pascal who introduced Rich Davidson to Hagemann. “I told Rich about the field, and I helped foster their friendship,” he said.
In 1995, Rich was in between jobs and didn’t have a home location, although he was operating primarily out of Columbus, Ind. He decided to visit the little airfield he had heard so much about. “I met this neat old guy at a grass airfield in the middle of nowhere,” said Rich. “He was just a great person, and we became friends.”
Rich began to help Hagemann out with little chores around the airstrip, including mowing grass and other general maintenance. As time progressed, Hagemann let Rich live in a little trailer located on the airfield in exchange for the upkeep of the airstrip.
In the meantime, Hagemann had no family to help him, and his health began to fail. Rich ended up taking care of Hagemann. “He became my adopted grandfather,” said Rich. “My family became his family and loved him.”

Rich and Ginger Davidson

Photo provided

Rich and Ginger Davidson have
worked hard over the last decade
to establish one of the region’s
largest aviation events.

Fritz died Dec. 29, 2000, of heart failure at age 75. Rich became the owner of the airfield. By this time, Hagemann’s dedication and passion for the airfield of the bygone days had become Rich’s passion, too. “Aviation represents freedom,” he said. “You forget your restrictions and just simply live.”
He said the attraction for the vintage planes was very simple. “It’s like riding a Harley with wings.”
Rich went solo for several years in working to promote the airfield, but then he met Ginger during a party in an airport hanger. In 2003, the couple wed, and Ginger joined his quest to preserve the airport.
Ginger runs the daily operations at the airport, which can have up to 15 planes landing each day. She also is licensed to teach pilots how to fly antique aircraft. Her interest in flying was peaked when she was a child. “After traveling by car with my family to 49 of the states in the country, I realized we could have gotten there faster by plane,” she said.
Recently, the couple received a 501-c3 nonprofit status to start an airport history museum at the airport. Once complete, the museum will house old airport artifacts that have been discarded and replaced, including old lights, signs and other airport memorabilia.
“Eventually, we will have living aviation history events, with possibly a replica 1940’s village,” said Ginger. “Our long term goal is to capture and preserve the overall essence of aviation.”

Wood, Fabric and Tailwheels Fly-In

In 1996, Rich asked Hagemann to consider the idea of hosting a fly-in for antique and classic aircraft. An avid aviation buff, Rich realized there was a lack of opportunity for other antique and classic aircraft admirers in the area to get together.
“Our area was deprived of antique and classic aviation,” he said. “I was looking to make an opportunity happen.”

Lee Bottom Field

Photo provided by Rich Davidson

Airplanes line up along Lee Bottom
Field during last September’s
weekend fly-in event.

Hagemann was worried no one would come to that first fly-in, but they did. Drew Middleton of Crestwood, Ky., was one of the pilots at the first fly-in at Lee Bottom Flying Field. Middleton, a pilot for United Parcel Service, owns a 1947 Piper Super Cruise. It is a cloth-covered, three-seat airplane.
“My family and I just love the annual fly-in at Lee Bottom,” he said. “My daughter made her first trip there when she was just three days old.”
During every fall, he visits more than a dozen fly-ins within a 100-mile radius of Louisville. He said fly-ins are like antique car shows where people get together to socialize and talk about their vehicles, but even average people with no flying background would be fascinated to attend one. “The fly-ins are certainly a spectacle to see,” he said. “The old planes from bygone days are interesting and amazing to everyone.”
Middleton said there is a huge general aviation interest in this area, and the fly-in at Lee Bottom Field is definitely filling a niche for those interested in the older planes. He believes the event is growing larger each year because of the tremendous efforts by the Davidsons to make everyone feel welcome.
Cliff Robinson, a Madison, Ind., Realtor and pilot, is also one of the original pilots to attend the Lee Bottom fly-in. He is a well-known pilot in the local area. Each year during the Madison Regatta, Robinson performs amazing daredevil stunts during the annual air show.
Last year, Robinson flew his black-and-silver 1941 Stearman bi-plane to the event. He said the event is beginning to receive nationwide attention. “The beautiful setting of the grass airfield between the Ohio River and a tree-lined hilltop is one of the main attractions of the event,” he said. “It’s also like aviation used to be with the long grass field and all of the socializing.”
He is thrilled with the amount of non-aviation people who are showing up to the fly-in, and he believes the event is definitely something local tourism leaders should look to help promote. “It is an excellent attraction for people of all ages and backgrounds.”

Economic and tourism potential

The Lee Bottom fly-in received national recognition in 2006 when it was spotlighted in a national syndicated Sport Pilot TV segment. The Davidsons began an email correspondence with the director of the series. Impressed with their efforts at airfield, the director agreed to film a segment during the annual fly-in if funding could be raised for filming and travel.
The Davidsons approached the Jefferson County Board of Tourism with their funding request. The board agreed to sponsor the filming, which cost $4,000.
“It was a good one-time promotion for our area,” said board president Dave Dionne. “Anything filmed carries on even after the event is finished.”
He believes, however, that the fly-in held limited future potential as something the board would sponsor, even though it is an excellent event for people to know about.
“Madison and Hanover should work hard to capitalize on the Wood, Fabrics and Tailwheels Fly-In,” said Ray Johnson of Marion, Ind. He coordinates his city’s annual Fly-In Cruise In, which is sponsored by the City of Marion.
The event, which was started as a fundraiser for the local high school band, is similar in size to the Lee Bottom Fly-In but also features antique and classic cars and tractors on display. It is free for visitors, including parking. Funds are raised for the band during the event by a pancake breakfast.

Lee Bottom Field

Photo by Don Ward

Lee Bottom Field is
but a narrow strip
of grass along the
Ohio River a few
miles downriver
from Madison, Ind.

Last year, more than 3,000 people were served pancakes by volunteers. More than 5,000 people visited the event, and $10,000 in proceeds was donated to the band for equipment, uniforms and travel expenses.
“Local people support our fly-in, and airplanes come from everywhere,” said Johnson. He said the event is great for his city because it helps showcase and promote the airport and city. “People travel in, stay in hotels, buy gas and eat at restaurants; everyone benefits from these events.”
Johnson flies a 1947 Aeronca Chief to the Lee Bottom Field fly-in. He said it is the most unusual fly-in around. “Nothing beats Lee Bottom because of its picturesque setting, its grass airstrip and its unique old-fashioned atmosphere,” he said. “It is a wonderful opportunity to showcase the entire area.”
Madison pilot Cris Sauer says he also loves to attend the Lee Bottom Field event. Sauer attends numerous fly-ins and has even traveled to what is considered the world’s largest such events, the EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, held in Oshkosh, Wis.
“The Lee Bottom fly-in is the highlight of the season for most of us because it is so different than the rest of them,” he said. “It’s about as close as it gets to how it used to be.”
Sauer also helps produce Aviation Awareness Day at the Madison Municipal Airport. The event, which includes an air show, is a collective effort to help promote the airport. “Our event is more civic-minded; it’s to promote business at the airport,” he said. “On the other hand, the Lee Bottom fly-in is just terrific fun and friendship for the entire family.”
Sauer, whose Shipley’s Tavern is the title sponsor for T-shirts at the annual Lee Bottom event, believes that if word got around through more promotions it would be good for everyone.
Madison Area Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Linda Lytle has also attended the Lee Bottom Field annual fly-in. “It is a fabulous event that more people in the area should try to see,” she said.
Unfortunately, the Wood, Fabric and Tailwheels Fly-In has always been held on the same weekend as the Madison Chautauqua Festival of Art, which is operated by the tourism bureau. Lytle saw only limited potential for tourism to get involved in promoting the fly-in because of that schedule conflict.
“There are only so many hotel rooms in the area, and most of them fill up because of the Chautauqua,” she said. She also said the event had limited possibilities for promotion because of the limited parking and space available at the event.
Ginger acknowledged parking is a challenge that must be overcome, but she believes it can be solved.
“Any time an event brings visitors to the area, it is good for all of us,” she said.

• For more information about Lee Bottom Flying Field or the Wood, Fabric and Tailwheels Fly-In, call (812) 866-3211 or visit: www.leebottom.com.

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