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Vintage aircraft pilots keep Labor Day 'Fly-In' aloft

Danie Harrelson

— Ian Caragol saw his house from an entirely new perspective Saturday.

The 4-year-old and his parents were on hand for the Vintage Aircraft Fly-In at the Steamboat Springs Airport, which also runs from 9 a.m. to noon today.

After two trips through the air in a restored World War II Navy fighter plane, the amateur flier was ready to go again.

“The best part was that I could see my house,” Caragol said.

Caragol’s parents, Stephen and Michelle Caragol, each went up into the air with Ian. From their bird’s-eye view, they were able to point out their house to their excited son.

Seeing the house was an added bonus to their 15-minute flight, Michelle Caragol said.

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“I’ve ridden in some smaller planes, but nothing compares to feeling the wind in your face and looking over your shoulder at the whole expanse of town,” she said.

They planned to just stay for a few minutes, but the chance to leave the ground was too enticing, Stephen Caragol said.

“You get a completely different feel for the plane when you’re up in the air,” he said.

Spencer Mamber of Denver piloted the plane. It is people like the Caragols who make each trip meaningful, he said.

“You take people up there who have never seen the world from that perspective, and you can’t help but catch their enthusiasm,” he said. “They give you a fresh look at the same old thing.”

Mambers, a retired Air Force pilot, has flown for 30 years and started flying for Stearman Aviation about a year ago.

The $75 price tag for flying with Mambers goes entirely for aircraft maintenance and fuel.

He said he never sees a penny of the $75 fee, but he doesn’t mind.

“The truth is, we don’t do this for the money,” Mambers said. “All of these pilots here at this fly-in have real jobs. We’re just here this weekend for the pure love of flying.”

The World War II bi-plane piloted by Mambers was once used as a crop duster before Eric Baldwin had it restored about 12 years ago.

Baldwin owns Denver-based Stearman Aviation and shows his planes all over the state and region.

His grandfather began flying in the 1920’s, and his father was a World War II pilot.

“My grandfather’s pilot license was No. 87, so that tells you that he was somewhat of a pioneer in the then relatively new field of flying,” Baldwin said.

Baldwin’s bi-planes were just two of the 16 planes that visitors can see at the fly-in, Airport Director Matt Grow said.

The small number doesn’t bother Grow.

“It’s what preserves the grass-roots quality of it,” he said.

If the fly-in grew larger or ever became an air show, the additional money and regulations necessary to hold it would be overwhelming, he said.

“This weekend people can still be close to the airplanes,” Grow said. “That’s what we’re aiming for, something personal that still holds a sense of awe for these people.”

Last year, two people died when a vintage plane crashed following the fly-in. Joe Gunnels and Dave White were part of an air show intended to highlight the start of a bull-riding event at Romick Arena.

Most of the pilots and volunteers do not like to speculate about the cause of the accident, but witnesses have said that the pilot entered a flat spin and then fell about 300 yards from Ramada Hilltop.

Despite the tragedy, Grow is confident the fly-in can still draw crowds.

Flying unfortunately does involve this risk, and it’s something that all pilots must take into account every time they climb into a cockpit, said Susan McAllister, owner of Steamboat Soaring Adventures.

McAllister, who with her husband, Tim, offers flights in a motor glider out the airport, said safety has always been the top concern among commercial businesses who fly in and out of the airport.

“This tragedy just brought safety to the forefront again,” she said. “Those men loved flying just as much as the rest of the pilots here,” she said. “We remember that and move on but more cautiously the next time.”

To reach Danie Harrelson call 871-4208

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