Up, up and away!

Volunteers at the historic Stanton Airfield keep aviation alive and their skills sharp

Many volunteers at Stanton Airfield fly, maintain and even restore hobby planes such as this colorful Piper.
Many volunteers at Stanton Airfield fly, maintain and even restore hobby planes such as this colorful Piper.

Minnesota retirees often do volunteer work, sharing their time and talent with worthy causes.

Twenty volunteers from around the Twin Cities are doing their part at a historic, grass-strip airfield east of Northfield.

Yes, they volunteer AND they get to fly. In some cases, they soar.

The group includes men and women — former business managers, department heads, engineers, consultants and airline pilots.

In 1990, a group of flying enthusiasts bought Stanton Airfield, formerly known as the Carleton Airport.

Among the board members of the enthusiast group — known as Stanton Sport Aviation — is 79-year-old Marilyn Robinson Meline, the current board secretary. She flies a Piper Super Cub and a glider, an aircraft that sustains flight by taking advantage of rising currents of air.

Stanton Sport Aviation employs a full-time airfield manager, but he’s only part of the program, which also includes a flight school, glider and plane rides for the public, aircraft maintenance, aircraft restoration services, a pilot-certification program and hangar space rentals.

“We really rely on our volunteers,” Meline said. “They answer phones, keep logs, fill gopher holes (on the two grass runways), pump gas, clean buildings and, in some cases, restore old planes and airport fixtures. The volunteers appreciate the history of this place and also want to keep it viable for the future.”

‘It never gets old’

Stanton Airfield’s history dates back to World War II when Carleton College began a program to train pilots, crews and mechanics. In 1955, Malcolm and Margaret Manuel bought the buildings and airfield and ran a flight school and charter service until the current owners, Stanton Sport Aviation, took over the facility, now officially designated as a national historic site. It’s also home to the 50-year-old Minnesota Soaring Club.

Hank Geissler, 79, is on the board. He’s also a volunteer and a flying instructor.

“I’m being useful here,” said Geissler, an Air Force veteran and former pilot for Western and Delta airlines. “I don’t fish. I don’t hunt. I don’t want to play bingo. I like to fly and I like to work on airplanes. It never gets old.”

Geissler, who lives outside Northfield, is currently working to restore a Cessna 140 that dates back to 1948. His son, Chuck, who’s a current pilot for Delta, said the volunteer work keeps his father younger and healthier.

“I love the people who hang around,” said Chuck Geissler, who flies a Delta route in and out of LaGuardia. “This place is a step back in time: No razor wire, no fences, only the grass field. Sometimes the boys sit out here in lawn chairs and critique the takeoffs and landings.”

Gliding like a hawk

Tom Kuhfeld, a retired engineer for the City of St. Paul, has been taking off and landing since 1964 when he started flying. Recently, the 71-year-old from Roseville has taken up soaring in a glider.

“It’s kind of a three-dimensional experience,” he said. “Some days you can rise on the thermals like a hawk. And then some days the air is still and you can just glide.”

On the ground as a volunteer, Kuhfeld worked to clean, sand, strip and restore a runway tower beacon more than 70 years old. The beacon light, which came before radar and GPS devices, was used for nighttime navigation.

Restorations, old pictures and flight logs are part of the preserved history at the Stanton Airfield, too.

Bill Gacki, 68, recently retired as a business consultant. He appreciates the energy, enthusiasm and excitement that permeate the airfield environment.

“I can come here more often now that the calendar is blank,” he said. “I can come to talk, to watch, to work … and to fly. I’m flying a tail-dragger (a Piper PA 11) that’s perfectly maintained — and it’s as old as I am.”

The Stanton volunteers all qualify for AARP cards. But make no mistake about them: They can still fly up, up and away — and land smoothly on a soft, grass airstrip.