Log Cabin Airport

Doug Ward, neighbor to all, near and far

On the banks of the Buffalo River (Wisconsin) is an airfield with two grass runways, three log cabins, a bunkhouse, saloon, barbershop, outhouse, and four open-air hangars wearing all the patina and charm you’d expect from a place called Log Cabin Airport.

The airfield lives up to the nostalgia of its name thanks to 91-year-old B-17 ball turret gunner and all-around good neighbor Doug Ward. Don’t be fooled by his age; Doug doesn’t live like any other 90-year-old I’ve ever met. If anything, those nine decades have taught him how to live.

On the eve of hosting his 28th annual Log Cabin Fly-In, Doug was ready for a festive night, dressed in trousers, black suspenders, polished shoes, and a turn-of-the-century-style straw boater. He sat on a worn bench inside his saloon and began pumping his feet on the pedals of a player piano. His fingers danced above the keys, quite convincingly, while friends twirled behind on the saloon’s wooden floor, hand laid by Doug himself for just such an occasion.

Outside, another dozen friends huddled around a campfire in conversation. I’m not sure which was brighter that night, the campfire or the star-filled sky. An interesting phenomenon occurs when the sky is that dark — the heavens seem to glow.

Stories and laughter carried late into the night, long after I retired to my campsite mere feet from the rushing waters of the Buffalo River.

I awoke the next morning to a yodeler, or at least someone attempting to yodel — an appropriate way to begin the celebratory day ahead. Each year on Labor Day weekend, Doug opens up his home for neighbors, near and far.

A seven-piece bluegrass band set up near the windmill and began filling the air with folk music. Their banjo, harmonica, and spoon melody was complemented by the occasional woosh over the treetops — a sound of flight heard only when an engine idles quiet enough you can actually hear the air flow over the wings and airframe — just one of the aviation purities experienced at Doug’s Log Cabin Fly-In.

Families set up lawn chairs at the intersection of the grass runways to watch arrivals. My two oldest daughters named each aircraft according to its paint scheme — blueberry pie, apple cobbler, vanilla ice cream with a cherry on top. Another girl wearing a summer dress ran across the field with arms spread wide, in her mind flying, until her mom grabbed her “wing” and corrected her for running where planes were taxiing just moments earlier.

Doug made the rounds in his normal fly-in attire: a tan World War II crusher cap with bomber wings, leather knee-high combat boots, khaki shorts, a B-17 button-down shirt, a tie, and an over-the-shoulder leather holster.

The only thing deeper than the wrinkles on Doug’s face is the warmth of his smile. Every summer during EAA AirVenture Oshkosh, Doug stands in EAA’s Welcome Center next to a B-17 ball turret and explains to guests how he fit inside it for 37 missions over Europe. He then reaches in his pocket and pulls out a slab of flak recovered from his B-17 as a “souvenir” from his final mission. He carries the flak around like it’s pocket change.

“I’m glad to pass on a little bit of history that I can,” Doug said. “I do more listening than I do talking. I just listen and let them share their experiences, too.”

Doug said he’s met many wonderful people through EAA, including a man that was born in Hamburg, Germany, on the very day Doug was bombing Hamburg. “His wife wasn’t friendly toward me, but he was,” Doug said laughing.

Doug’s sense of humor, fullness of life, and patriotism are what he enjoys sharing most, and that neighborly love is the very reason he began inviting people to his airport 28 years ago.

In the 1960s, Doug bought 20 acres of farmland along a bend in the Buffalo River. He then carved two runways on it and bought himself a 65-hp J-3 Cub, which he still owns.

He built the hangar using lumber from his land, then designed and built a log cabin using only hand tools since he didn’t have any power on the property yet.

“I kept getting airplanes, so I kept adding hangars,” Doug said. He currently owns three Cubs, a Taylorcraft, a Pietenpol, and many other treasures tucked inside his four open-air, dirt-floor hangars.

“Since airplanes were flying out of here regularly, I wanted to keep on the neighbors’ good side, so I invited a few of them over 28 years ago,” he said. “Each year it kept getting bigger and bigger…and now I couldn’t stop it if I wanted to. Everyone looks for- ward to it.”

His Log Cabin Fly-In attracts upward of 150 air- planes of all varieties and vintage and nearly 800 guests, or as Doug would say, “neighbors and friends.”

“We give a personal greeting to everyone who comes,” he said. “It’s not a pancake breakfast where they feed you and send you on your way. Our fly-in is personal. Friendship occurs here. I know most people by name.”

That friendship isn’t just pie-in-the-sky talk either. I saw more hugs at Doug’s fly-in than any aviation event I’ve ever attended.

Beyond the charm and natural beauty of Doug’s airport, it’s also a mini-museum full of artifacts from yesteryear, displayed as if you were actually living in the 1940s. Doug’s original canvas Army Air Corps duffle bag, com plete with his name, rank, and serial number stamped on its side, sat packed and ready next to the door of his barber shop. (Yes, he has a 1950s-era barber shop, complete with a chair and all the accessories, at his airport — next to his saloon and outhouse, of course.) Above his duffle bag hangs an ironed airman’s uniform — the very one issued to Doug in 1942.

I felt I was standing inside a Norman Rockwell painting, inside a soldier’s home the night before his deployment.

Outside the barbershop, a crowd gathered and welcomed U.S. Rep. Ron Kind to a makeshift stage. Kind has attended Doug’s fly-in before and was invited back this year to award Doug the French Legion of Honor, an order of distinction established by Napoleon himself in 1802.

The French government asked Kind to award the medal to Doug for the missions he flew over Nazi-occupied France 70 years earlier.

“It’s the highest honor the French people can bestow on anyone, whether it’s their veteran or any veteran,” Kind said.

After having the medal pinned on his shirt, Doug turned and pointed to a P-51 weathervane above his barn, painted in the colors of his childhood friend Chris Hanseman’s airplane.

The two boys not only played high school basketball and football together, serving as co-captains, but they also took their first airplane ride together in the back seat of a J-5 Cub that landed in a cow pasture next to their high school. After Pearl Harbor, both men enlisted to serve their country.

Chris was assigned to a fighter unit and began flying P-51 Mustangs. He became the first ace of the 339th Fighter Group, making everyone back home in Wisconsin proud. When Doug arrived to England in the summer of 1944, Chris flew over to visit his friend.

Excerpt from Doug’s journal:

“July 27, 1944: Chris Hanseman flew over to see me today to find out if I could meet him in London the 3rd and 4th to celebrate his birthday. He did a buzz job for us when he left and really put that P-51 of his through some real maneuvers.”

Those six rolls Chris performed on takeoff were the last time Doug saw his friend. Two days later, Chris’ P-51 struck the ground while strafing a small air- field in Eastern Germany. He died just four days before his 20th birthday.

Doug’s next journal entry:

“August 4, 1944: I spent the last couple of days in London waiting for Chris but he never showed up. I think something must have happened to him.”

Doug is an American patriot, hero, and aviator who knows the price of freedom, the value of life, and the importance of sharing that life and freedom with his neighbors — near and far. At the age of 91, he is still doing just that, from a humble airfield on the banks of the Buffalo River, Log Cabin Airport.

Brady Lane is a private pilot and multimedia journalist for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin.

Article originally published in EAA Sport Aviation magazine.