as told by Jackie Nelson
Little did we know when we bought 117 acres, 6 miles west of North Liberty, with a little grass landing strip that it would become registered as Green Castle Airport and support two businesses. One business would known as Green Castle Aviation, Inc. and the other as Roof Aircraft Service. This is the story how it all came into being.
I guess you might say that it had been a lifelong dream of Don and mine to have a place in the country with a little landing strip and our very own airplane. Sometimes our dreams work out and sometimes they don’t, but I think every couple should plan their dreams for the future. Everyone needs to have a goal to reach for. It’s what life is all about.
We finally got into a position that we could start looking for that place in the country. For several years we had been looking for the ideal location. One day we saw a place advertised in the paper so we decided to go take a look. When Don and I got off work that warm summer day in July we headed for the country. We turned off Interstate 380 at the North Liberty exit and headed west. “Four miles,” they said, but it seemed like a long four miles to me! We went up and down several hills, passed several deserted houses and I thought we were getting into “No Man’s Land.”
As we went by the last deserted house, suddenly a beautiful place came into view and in the big front yard was a sign that said “For Sale.” We couldn’t believe our eyes! Here is what we had been looking for and much more. One hundred and seventeen acres of wide open space with a wind sock and a grass landing strip that lay just east of a big two story brick house with a beautiful big green lawn. As we sat there that evening under those two big cottonwood trees in that night cooled grass with the wind whistling through the trees (anybody know the sound I was hearing?) and looking out over the fields, we knew that we had come home! We hurried back to town and called the real estate people and that was the beginning of our life that is now Green Castle Airport.
That was in July 1975.
In the spring of 1976 Don bought his airplane, a little red and white 150 Cessna, and said, “I will get five or six students to instruct and I can call it a business. Then I can deduct the expense of flying through the business.” Sounded like a good idea to me! Don’s first six students were Dick Pattschull, John Ockenfels, Bill Nelson, Russ Davis, Joyce Faltis and Les Carkhuff and we were in business.
Little did we know what our business would become! I was still working in town at Moore’s Business Forms and Don was still flying for the Iowa State Patrol and giving flying lessons on his days off and in the evenings. Word got around fast that Don was giving lessons and the phone began to ring off the hook. By late summer Don had so many students that we had to buy another airplane for solo students. So we bought a little gold and white 150 Cessna (N60354) from some people we met at a Flying Farmers picnic on a Sunday afternoon.
By August we needed to have a ground school program. Charlie Johnston said he would teach it for us. We started out with a class of 28. Every Tuesday night for the next ten weeks we had ground school class in our basement. When it came time for the “Big Test” the F.A.A. came out to our place and gave the test. That was really neat. So, now we had a bunch of new students that passed the test and were eager to start to fly.
During our ground school we had a fellow by the name of Randy Robison come down from the flight service in Cedar Rapids to give a talk on weather, etc. Don found out that he had an instructors license and asked him if he would like to come down and help out instructing. Randy readily accepted. We had just hired our first instructor. Randy was with us only a short time and was offered a promotion to a better job in St. Louis. He reluctantly left us and Cedar Rapids in December.
By now things were getting completely out of hand and Don could no longer handle it alone. Our fame was beginning to spread and one night the telephone rang and a young fellow was on the other end. He said, “I hear you could use another instructor out there,” It John Buck, an eager young law student looking for a part-time job. In January of 1977 John joined our ranks and I quit my job of twelve years to stay home and answer the phone, schedule students and do bookwork.
As of yet we were still operating the business out of the house. We had one room for the office and from our kitchen table we gathered around to have coffee and talk flying with our students. Also, this was the month we started our second ground school. Now I was home so instead of serving coffee and donuts from Donutland for our ground school, I made cookies each week. Our second class really rated. Charlie Johnston also taught this class.
John Buck stayed with us through the summer. He was still taking a few summer classes but most of his time was spent instructing. We also hired Winston McWilliams three days a week for the summer. So now we had Don, John and Winston as instructors. This was also the summer that our son Bill built our big new hangar and shop.
If you’re going to have a shop you need a mechanic. So this is where Keith Roof came into the picture. Between his friends back here and us we convinced him to leave his job in Rock Falls, Illinois, and go into business for himself here at Green Castle Airport. We didn’t have the shop ready for him yet so he worked out of our shop at a great inconvenience. Soon after the first of June, JoDee, Patrick and Michele got their house sold and found a place to live in North Liberty. I’m sure it took a great deal of courage on their part to leave a good job to come here. Needless to say they contributed a great deal to the success of this operation.
Building the hangar and shop was a pretty big project that summer, but it looked like a mighty fine building by the time Bill had it finished. By fall Winston went on to a better job and Keith Millard, Don’s fellow patrol pilot, joined our ranks as a part-time instructor. His first student was his son Rory, who attended our first ground school.
By the fall of 1977 we had 40 students. With some with their license in hand, we decided we needed a 4-place airplane so we purchased a pretty white Skyhawk with brown and orange trim. That was our third plane. This one was set up with radio equipment for instrument flying. Also, we had our ground school for the third time. This was Charlie’s last time to teach the class.
The winter of ’77 and ’78 slacked off somewhat. But we had a few hardy souls that kept right on flying. For a couple of months that winter Roof Aircraft Service had rough going and I’m sure Keith and JoDee did some soul searching on what they had gotten themselves into, but somehow they managed to hang on.
The spring of 1978 saw us knee deep in mud. Our poor little grass strip had worn down to bare dirt with so much use. The spring rains turned it into nothing but mud. We knew something had to be done about our runway so our project for the summer of 1978 was to hard surface (rock and oil) it.
Also in the spring of 1978 John Buck left our ranks to go into law practice with his father in Britt, Iowa, and Jerry Whitmore came to instruct for us. He was also an instrument instructor so now we could put our 4-place to work for instrument training besides renting out. Now we needed to have an instrument ground school so Jerry taught that and Don Zieberek taught the private school. That spring was the last of the ground schools to be taught in the basement.
The summer of 1978 was our busiest yet. Jerry was instructing full time and Don and Keith were kept busy in their spare time. I put in the busiest summer of my life. I was beginning to have doubts about running our own business and thought it was much easier to have a job where you just punched a time clock. I was putting in 12 hour days. That’s when Patty Swenka came to help me out a few hours a week. She stayed with me until the middle of August.
Late in July we decided to buy two new Cessna152’s . Green Castle Aviation bought one and Roof Aircraft Service bought the other. Then in August Keith Roof, Don and I flew to Wichita to attend a school to be certified as a Cessna Pilot Center. Now the ground school was integrated with flying instructions. Also in late July Bill started building on more rooms to our office to accommodate our new Cessna Pilot Center. Now we had a total of five rooms in the northwest corner of the old hangar building but still had room to hangar our own planes.
While Keith, Don and I attended school in Wichita, JoDee ran the business and did a very fine job. When Patrick and Michele went back to school I hired JoDee to help me run things. Now I could have a few days a week to call my own. Twelve-hour days, seven days a week gets old in short order.
We were real busy until November when old man winter moved in. We did get our runway lights put in before winter hit though. If we thought the winter of ’77-’78 was bad, we were in for a surprise. Some say this winter was as bad as the winter of 1936, which I remember well as day after day I was the only one that made it to the little country school a quarter mile from our house.
But in spite of the day after day snow and cold weather, Green Castle Aviation and Roof Aircraft Service survived. Now the days were getting longer and there was a hint of spring in the air. New students were signing up every day and old students were coming back to fly again so once more things would be buzzing at Green Castle Airport.
Who knows what lay in store for Green Castle Airport for the summer of 1979? But, whatever, we were looking forward to seeing all our old friends and fellow pilots and making new friends and enjoying a beautiful summer with everyone who came to visit and fly with us.
The summer of 1979 was again a very busy summer. We decided to do some black topping. We did the areas which picked up rock the worst (each end of the runway where the planes did their run up, the taxi-way and an oval area between the office and shop). Then we laid sod in the center of the oval. It really looked nice when we got done.
By fall we needed a second mechanic and a full-time instructor. Through Keith and JoDee we found that Stan Kaiser was looking for an instructor’s job. So Stan became our first full-time instructor and Fritz Jackson became our second mechanic. This was Stan’s first flight instructor’s job and he lived in the big house with us. Now we are in the process of finishing off the basement for an instructor’s apartment.
The year of 1980 was the biggest yet. We became Cessna Dealers in the spring and Don sold four brand new airplanes that summer. That really gave us a boost. We had felt the pinch of the recession that spring and early summer and our students had fallen off so selling the airplanes did help us out a lot. By mid-summer on we became swamped with new students again.
Also, May of 1980 brought us the Air Care Ambulance Helicopter from the University Hospital of Iowa City. Seems they needed a place to land and gas their helicopter from their own gas truck. Guess we were the only place they could find that made them feel welcome. We had become great friends of the helicopter crew and it came and went from Iowa City to Green Castle and back without any bother to us. There were also a few antique airplanes that have found their home with us.
Besides selling airplanes that summer, Don decided the runway needed lengthening. We were getting closer to getting our Part 135 done so we could get certified for charter. Stan had been working long and hard at the typing and legwork between Green Castle and the F.A.A. in Des Moines. We would be needing the extra runway if we ever wanted to get a twin for charter. At that time we were limited to fair weather flying until we could get a twin.
Stan was our only instructor certified for charter so with our load of students we needed more instructors. Fritz Jackson got his instructor rating in September and became a part-time instructor for us on weekends and was still a mechanic from Monday through Friday.
Then in late summer, Larry Kuebrich, who owned half or the Red and White Skyhawk that we had on leaseback, started working for us part-time. We really needed extra help to run the office and to keep up with the new students passing through our doors. I had about all I could do doing bookkeeping. Don and I could soon see where Larry would be a good asset to us out here. So he told Larry if he would get his instructor’s rating, we would put him to work full-time. In December Larry went on full-time. You might have called him our assistant manager. He became our aircraft salesman, instructor, and helped run the office.
Keith Millard, our part-time instructor since the fall of ’78, had been teaching an instrument ground school for us the last two winters. He had a very high pass rate with his classes. We were fortunate to have him as an instructor. Like Don, he was also a patrol pilot for the State of Iowa.
Don had less than two years to go and he would be retiring from the State Highway Patrol with 30 years of service. The first 12 years were on the road and the rest were flying the patrol plane for the State. I guess he had racked up close to 15,000 hours of flying time. In 1973 his fellow Troopers from his district voted him Trooper of the year.
It was now nearing the spring of 1981. It had been five years that Don started with his six students as a hobby. We had now had about 190 students pass through our doors. We soloed our 141st. Sixty-five had gotten their private, seven their instrument, three their commercial, three their CFI-A, and two their CFI-I. We had seventeen aircraft based on our airport; six of which we used for rental and instruction: three 152s, two 172 Skyhawks and a 172 RG Cutlass.
We had our maintenance shop which employed 2 mechanics and our flight school which employed Don and me (his wife), 2 full-time instructors and 2 part-time instructors and who knew what lay in store for Green Castle Airport for the summer of 1981.
Don and I were looking forward to spring now, to hear the birds break forth in song, to hear the planes humming in the air, to hear our son Bill on his John Deere tractor turning the beautiful black soil up to be disced and planted for corn. Don and I were born and raised on a farm so the yearnings of the country never left our blood. But Don’s yearnings for flying overcame his yearnings for the farm and about four years after we were married we left the farm for other pastures and the city life. The years slipped by and it took us to the summer of 1975 to find our place in the country again. Don liked flying better than farming but it seemed that our son, Bill, inherited his grandfather Nelson’s love of farming. I think it’s in his blood. This would be his fourth summer to turn the soil. Although he knows how to fly, he likes farming better than flying. So between Green Castle flying and Green Castle farming, Don and son Bill, made a pretty good pair for operating our 117 acres of wide open space.