Big Names & Small Towns

by Mark Baker
AOPA President & CEO
Published in Midwest Flyer December 2017/January 2018 issue

More often than not, when we make plans to fly somewhere, the name attached to the airport is more of an afterthought than anything else. How often do we take the time to learn about the person behind the name? Such a prestigious honor as having an airport named after you isn’t something that’s handed out to just anyone.

Thankfully for Rushford, Minnesota, there’s Robert W. Bunke, without whom, Rushford would not have an airport to begin with.

In July of this year, I had the honor of traveling to Rushford to present Robert Bunke, a Marine Corps veteran and general aviation pilot, with an AOPA Presidential Citation Award during a naming ceremony and fly-in of 90 aircraft – all organized to recognize one relentless man, in his hometown. Forty years after Bunke’s tireless work to bring an airport to his town, Rushford Municipal Airport would now be named Robert W. Bunke Field.

Bunke soloed at age 17 back in 1945 and trained in a variety of taildraggers he rented for about $7 an hour. Later in life, he took on business challenges to merge small rural telephone systems into a regional cooperative, and created a Wisconsin management and engineering services firm. He was able to incorporate his love of flying with his professional life – and eventually brought aviation to Rushford.

At first, Bunke’s small town rejected the idea of an airport, arguing there were no airplanes in Rushford, so an airport wasn’t necessary. Luckily, Bunke kept a Field of Dreams mentality of, “Build it and they will come.” He persisted and after more than 10 years of advocating for an airport, his vision would eventually become reality.

As advocates for general aviation, we must work to embody the spirit and honor the contributions of people like Bunke.

Many times, we take for granted small airports that allow us the access essential for growing businesses and reaching countless places across the globe. Many smaller towns across America still struggle to keep their airports running or are still searching for ways to build new ones. Yet, the importance of small airports was never as well demonstrated as during the recent hurricane relief efforts in Texas, Florida, and Puerto Rico.

The next time you’re flying to a rural town or even a big city, take a moment to reflect on the person that airport is named for. You might be surprised to hear the story of that person’s journey.  Even better, take the time to learn about your airport’s history, the people responsible for it, and consider honoring them for their contributions.

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