Flying over Kansas while buckled in the open cockpit of a vintage airplane, I experienced firsthand a slice of Wichita’s aviation heritage. As I felt the wind in my face and looked down at the beautiful green countryside, I thought about pioneer pilots, and I understood why they were so thrilled about aviation. Flying in an open-air cocking is like riding a motorcycle through the sky. It’s fun, it’s fast and nothing separates you from the sky.
My airplane ride happened after lunch at Stearman Field Bar & Grill, an eatery at a private airport in Benton, about 25 miles from Wichita. A special announcement was made to my group of Midwest Travel Journalists Association members: Stearman Sky Tours would give two journalists flights in restored vintage 1943 Stearman PT-17 biplanes. And I was one of the two! The pilot sat right behind me (the plane was originally used to train pilots in World War II) and used the intercom headphones to tell me what was happening. Operators can schedule biplane flights by contacting the company.
Wichita is known as the Air Capital of the World for its innovation and manufacturing aptitude in the aviation industry. Iconic aviation brands Beechcraft, Cessna and Stearman were born in Wichita — thanks to Walter Beech, Clyde Cessna and Lloyd Stearman. Airbus Americas, Bombardier, Spirit AeroSystems and Textron Aviation currently design and manufacture aircraft and aircraft parts in the city.
The Kansas Aviation Museum, housed in the original art deco Wichita Municipal Airport Terminal Building, is full of aviation-related artifacts and planes. “Human flight may have been born in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, but it grew up and was raised in Kansas,” said Tim Norton, executive director.
“Design Build Fly” an award-winning exhibit at Exploration Place, a science museum, shows how airplanes are created in Wichita aircraft plants.
Wichita’s vibrant landscape
Life in Wichita over the centuries — its role in aviation, the cowboys who drove cattle there and the Wichita Native Americans — is covered in exhibits at the Wichita-Sedgwick County Historical Museum, located in Wichita’s 1892 city hall. Find more Western heritage at Old Cowtown Museum. The sprawling open-air museum, complete with gunfights, tells the story of Wichita from 1865–1881. Historic Delano District, now home to shops and restaurants, sits at the end of the original Chisholm Trail.
The Keeper of the Plains sculpture, created by Wichita artist Blackbear Bosin, stands at the confluence of the Big and Little Arkansas rivers in tribute to the Native Americans who lived and hunted there. Fire pots illuminate the sculpture in the evening.
Wichita’s more than 20 museums include the Wichita Art Museum, Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University, Mid-America All-Indian Museum and The Kansas African American Museum.
Another piece of the Wichita landscape is Frank Lloyd Wright’s Allen House — the last of the architect’s Prairie-style houses. “This house is 103 years old, and the lady is looking pretty good,” said Burt Brungardt, volunteer guide.
If the timing is right, book a Wichita Wind Surge minor league baseball game at the new Riverfront Stadium.
Discover hats of all sizes and styles at Hatman Jacks, owned by Jack Kellogg, milliner, Wichita history buff and philosopher. A hat should complement a person’s face, in terms of coloring, shape and physical size, he said.
I tried ax-throwing for the first time at Blade & Timber, where nine throwing lanes can handle groups of all sizes. A two-handed grip and an over-the-head throw worked best for me. While a lot of my throws clanked to the floor, on two successive throws I stuck an ax in the bullseye.