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American Barnstormers Tour Lands in the Chippewa Valley

Lauren Fisher |

The Checkerboard (Image: Neil Hodorowski)
The Checkerboard (Image: Neil Hodorowski)

The American Barnstormers Tour is a breath of fresh air for those unenamored with aviation. A troupe of pilots and their aircraft landed in Eau Claire this week as part of their Midwestern travels. This year’s tour celebrates Travel Air biplanes, which are open-cockpit propeller planes with two sets of wings. Twelve of these planes total will be on-site, with five on display and five used to provide biplane rides. The three-day event opened to the public today (July 19), and runs through Saturday (July 21) from roughly 10am-6pm each day at the EAA Chapter 509 clubhouse at the Chippewa Valley Regional Airport, weather permitting.

Image: Lauren Fisher
Image: Lauren Fisher

Volume One Goes for a Ride

Volume One had a chance to get up in the air early Thursday morning – I took a ride in the sky with V1 staffer Neil Hodorowski and our pilot, who most refer to as “The Candy Man.” This nickname originated with jokes that David Mars, who has been flying for half a century, might be an heir to the Mars candy fortune. He and the other pilots were dressed to impress in 1920s costume. Mars explained that the first barnstormers wore ties to suggest respectability and reliability, reassuring their riders.

We stepped up onto the lower wing and boarded Checkerboard, a 220 horsepower 1929 Curtiss Travel Air 4000. It wasn’t until after the ride that I took proper stock of the craft, which sported a red-and-blue checkered pattern and a gorgeous wooden propeller. Mars bought the plane in the ‘90s in Michigan – he jokes that he has been “destoring” it ever since. Compared to some of the other biplanes, which shine with carefully maintained paint, Checkerboard is a little rough around the edges. From the front seat, we could watch a second and third plane prepare to lift off. Behind us, the Candy Man listened for instructions.

Image: Lauren Fisher
Image: Lauren Fisher

The trio filed down the airfield, propellers buzzing, and we watched our companions launch. The volume leapt from lawnmower level to an industrial roar and we lifted off. The noise was all but forgotten when we were high enough to look over the side of the plain at the verdant patchwork of the Chippewa Valley countryside.

Neil and I exercised our cell phone photography skills, grasping the devices tight so as not to lose them to the wind. We waved at the other planes’ passengers and watched them rise and then spiral dive through the air. Our stomachs dropped with Checkerboard when our pilot brought the nose down, then righted the biplane for a gentle cruise back to Earth.

Image: Lauren Fisher
Image: Lauren Fisher

Mars pilots dozens of biplane rides every day, helping others experience flying freely through the air for what might be a once-in-a-lifetime chance. “It’s about them, and I want to make the experience good for them,” he said. “I immerse myself in their enjoyment.”

Mars’ son, Charlie Mars, was ready with a step stool to help us out of the plane. Despite his full-time work as a prolific singer-songwriter, he has spent the month of the tour with his father, helping fuel the planes, guide people on and off the rides, and manage finances. In a soothing Mississippi drone, he poeticised the relationship between music and flying through the air:

“Barnstormers and troubadours are about a hiccup away from each other.”

V1 staffers Neil Hodorowski and Lauren Fisher
V1 staffers Neil Hodorowski and Lauren Fisher