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Flying Farmers: 40 acres and a plane

Tuesday, November 07, 2000

By Rebecca Sodergren, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Farmers often consider it a pleasure to look out over their well-tended fields. There just aren't many who can do so from 10,000 feet.

Elmo Travis, a member of the Flying Farmers, soars above his farm in Smicksburg, Indiana County. He's taken to the air to track down errant cattle and pick up hard-to-get farm machinery parts. (Darrell Sapp, Post-Gazette)

But Elmo and Colleen Travis can -- from the cockpit of their Piper Archer, a little four-seat plane that hides in a hangar resembling a barn, right next to the real barn and silo.

Elmo, who goes by the nickname "Flip," drives the plane out of the hangar and guns it down the runway -- a manicured grass strip lined by orange windsocks at the edge of one of his fields -- and he's got a bird's-eye view of his farm in Smicksburg, Indiana County.

Back when he had cattle, it was a handy thing to do. If they broke out of their fence and were hiding in a cornfield, they could be mighty hard to find on foot. But from the air, it was a breeze.

Over the course of his farming career, he's also used the plane as speedy transportation to pick up hard-to-find farm machinery parts. But he'd be the first to admit that his flying isn't a job requirement. It's a love. Or, as Colleen Travis phrases it less sentimentally, "It's like golfing -- it's a disease."

Travis has flown himself and his wife around the country and even on a jaunt to the Yukon. But sometimes the simple pleasures are the most fun. He zooms over the local elementary school and points down to it, shouting over the roar of the engine:

"I used to drop my daughter off there." In the plane, he means. That must have turned a few little heads.

In their circle of friends, the Travises aren't as unusual as you might expect. That's because they belong to International Flying Farmers, a group of about 2,500 farmers in the United States and Canada who fly recreationally. Colleen Travis recently completed a term as the organization's duchess. She promoted a flying safety program while the couple visited Flying Farmer chapters around the country.

The organization is more than 50 years old. In its heyday during the 1960s and '70s, it had 14,000 to 15,000 members. At annual conventions -- to which many members fly their own private planes -- participants often take agricultural tours. The group also arranges for aviation insurance, coordinates legislative representation, organizes teen and junior programs and funds scholarships.

"A lot of it is the people you meet and the friends you make," Colleen Travis says. "You can call your friends in Canada and tell them you're coming" -- and then hop into the plane and go.

Activities are held somewhere in the country most weekends of the year -- chapter meetings, fund-raisers, social events. The Travises had a fly-in at their farm this summer, and Flip Travis arranged for a professional stunt-flying demonstration that day as a surprise for his wife.

They consider some fellow members to be among their closest friends. The warmth between Flying Farmers is perhaps best illustrated by an anecdote that still makes its way through the organization after more than 20 years.

Tom Cox of Monongahela was running a neighborhood grocery store and meat market and working a second job back in 1976. He and wife Esther owned a plane and kept it in a hangar at the Rostraver Airport, but he had little time for flying.

"Every once in a while, I used to drive out to Rostraver to make sure the runway was still there," he says.

On one such jaunt, he met a California farmer who had bought a

plane locally and was learning to fly it before making the long flight back to California. He was staying in a fleabag motel because he lacked transportation to a nicer place.

Cox was appalled when he heard the man's story, so he invited him to stay in his spare bedroom and borrow his car for the few days he'd be in town. When the man asked why Cox was so willing to open his home to a stranger, he replied, "You're a farmer, so you can't be all bad, right?"

When the man -- a Flying Farmer member -- returned home, he called Bob Jackson of New Galilee, an officer in the organization. He suggested that the Coxes be invited to join International Flying Farmers.

The Coxes were invited but didn't go to a meeting for the first eight or nine months, because they didn't consider themselves "full-fledged farmers" -- they have some land and a few animals, but their real business is their store. But they finally broke down and went to a Flying Farmer Valentine party in Hershey, and "the next thing you know, we were newsletter editors," Tom Cox says, laughing.

He even served on the international board of directors for several years. And when the international convention was in Arizona, the Coxes made a side jaunt to Fresno, Calif., to stay in the home of the same man they'd had as a guest in their own home.

The Coxes sold their plane about five years ago because Cox had high blood pressure and it wasn't safe for him to fly. But his blood pressure is under control now, and while the couple considers whether to buy another plane, Cox occasionally takes the Travises' plane out for a spin.

Travis has been in Flying Farmers since 1947, not long after it was founded. He was 17 when he got his pilot's license. He and his brother had always loved planes and vowed to learn to fly together. However, his brother was killed in Germany during World War II, so Travis decided to get his pilot's license on his own. In 1948 when he and Colleen married they had a plane.

Now retired from dairy farming, they've sold some land and lease most of their remaining 300 acres to soy and corn farmers.

"The nicest thing we raised here was kids," Colleen Travis jokes. But their two sons and two daughters are now grown and living elsewhere. None have pilots' licenses.

Like the Travises, many other Flying Farmers are now starting to retire or at least scale back, and the group is not attracting many younger members, even among the children who grew up with their parents in the group. Bob and Helen Jackson, both of whom have served as Flying Farmer officers, have sold their dairy herd but still grow about 500 acres of hay, corn and grain. They've also sold their plane. None of their four grown children fly, either.

Longtime members are not disheartened by the group's shrinking membership, seeing it as the natural progression of an organization.

"Its' like everything else -- not as many people can afford to fly now, and farmers are getting older," Cox said.

Not that flying is dying out in these families altogether. The Travises' grandson, a medical student, recently got his pilot's license, probably in part because of his grandfather's influence. And the Jacksons' grandson also got his pilot's license, prompting his uncle -- one of the Jacksons' sons -- to think that, because of his frequent business trips, perhaps he should do the same.

Maybe the urge to fly has to grow on you, whether or not you're a farmer.

"It took a while," Helen Jackson says, laughing.

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