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Autumnal colors accent Sky Manor's grass landing strip. Two or three of the flying club's members mow the strip; the $100 dues pay for the gas. The Island Lake flying community is called "paradise." (Submitted photo)

Flying community calls lake location 'paradise'

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News Park Rapids,Minnesota 56470
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Flying community calls lake location 'paradise'
Park Rapids Minnesota PO Box 111 56470

"If you fly for pleasure or business, Sky Manor is meant for you!" a brochure advertising the "four season paradise" on Island Lake declared in 1966.


Forty-five years later, the president of Sky Manor's Flying Club, Sandy Berg, agrees.

The sector manager for Delta was, by necessity, headed back to Atlanta to assume duties as "conductor of the orchestra in the day-to-day operation of the airline." But he and wife Carol make frequent flights to their cabin overlooking Island Lake - and the hangar housing his Beechcraft.

"This is paradise," he said of the "aircraft-owner community."

Sky Manor Aero Estates is but one of three flying communities in Minnesota, Berg said. "It is even more unique in the nation as it is a flying community on a lake."

Summer and winter, residents and guests descend upon the lake and landing strip to savor the north woods and waters before heading skyward again.

"This is the brass ring aviators are looking for," said Berg, who came upon Sky Manor in 1990 while perusing real estate ads in the aviation section of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Vacationaire sparks idea

Real estate developer Bill Blewett was the man behind the development north of Park Rapids that began to gel in the late 1950s.

Blewett's concept was featured in "Flying" magazine in 1959. The late entrepreneur, who built Vacationaire in 1951, was a licensed pilot. His interest in the possibilities of a fly-in real estate destination began while meeting the resort's guests at the Park Rapids airport.

Blewett had purchased 193 acres across the lake for its timber, with plans to cut logs for resort buildings. But after buying a plane and soloing over the property, he was convinced of the possibility of building a private airport, "Flying" magazine reported.

A surveyor determined a site for the airport, originally meant to serve just the resort, a mile and a half by road around the lake.

Then came the dream of a fly-in lakeshore real estate development.

"Two bulldozed hills, a filled swamp and re-routed country road later, the airport and taxiway were realities," the magazine reported.

Seasons with reasons

"If you thrill to the midnight cry of the loon,

Or the splash of a fish in the light of the moon,

Or a furtive look of a doe with her fawn,

Or the eerie rising of the lake mist at dawn,

Sky Manor is meant for you!" the brochure declared.

"Every season has a reason at Sky Manor," the pamphlet states of year 'round recreational opportunities. "No more hurried reservations, disappointments or surface travel problems. You know where you're going and you go when you wish! And Sky Manor's licensed airport enables you to drive right to your lakeshore estate."

But while touting the area's amenities - "pure well water, year-round sports, electricity and Bell Telephone service at each estate" - the brochure added a somber "safe haven" caveat, a reflection of the era.

"The threat of nuclear war is real! Despite elaborate Civil Defense planning, survival is still a personal responsibility. A well-equipped auxiliary home away from target area makes sense where dollars count prove 'centsless.'

"Your airplane could mean 'wings of survival' to you and your family for a quick evacuation to your pre-arranged haven of safety," the brochure states.

Aircraft carrier landing

Blewett "seemed to have hand-picked the people," Berg said of the "utopia" that evolved, a physicist, dentist, doctor, banker and president of a construction company among the first occupants of the lakeside retreat, formally incorporated in 1967.

And the tradition continues. Today, a unique, colorful cast of characters has taken up residence at Sky Manor, 16 families, a half-dozen who fly.

"Some own two or three planes," said Berg. And some of the pilots build the planes.

Retired 3M chemical engineer Bill Isaacson, 73, navigates a 1946 Aeronca Champ. He learned to fly the same model in 1957, and purchased the plane in 1992, "as an early retirement present."

Isaacson developed the material for B1 bomber windshields in the 1960s, a lightweight plastic designed to withstand high temperature.

He and his wife bought the "cabin" in 1995, a year before retiring. A map in the garage shows his flight paths. "I try to fly 100 hours in a year," he said, a camera mounted on the window beside him documenting his airborne views.

"It's like landing on an aircraft carrier that's not moving," resident and World War II pilot Cliff Peterson said of the 200-foot wide, 3,200-foot long runway, encompassed by 75-foot trees. At 88, he's still airborne.

"I've seen guys coming in at 35 mph crosswinds," Berg said. "There are no steadfast FAA rules he said of the airport's Part 91 designation.

Another resident, Gene Fuchs, Berg describes as an "Alaskan bush pilot who happens to live in Minnesota. I'm amazed at his technique...He flies his plane like the barnstormer, and pretty much lives by his own rules.

"He's a quiet spoken individual and, in a lot of ways, possesses character traits that made America great," Berg said of the man who invites friends for a fly-in on skis, come winter.

'Like a car going by...'

When the weather's calm, pilots depart and land over the lake. The aviators often fly over the landing strip looking for deer before descending.

Elevation is an easy to remember 1492, the northwest, southeast runway lined up for wind predominance.

"It's like a car going by," said Pat Katzner, who, with husband Albin, resides in the former Blewett home. "I don't even notice it anymore."

Berg - who's worked for Northwest Orient, North Central, Republic, Northwest and now Delta - and Carol host fly-ins each August.

A few years ago, he extended an invitation to Harrison Ford, who he knew was flying from Wyoming to New York. Berg suggested an ETA of 10:30 a.m., forgetting the pilots generally show up a half hour late.

At about 10:30 Berg heard an A36 Beechcraft Bonanza approach - ostensibly Ford's. But with no planes in sight below, Ford did not make a landing.

Indiana Jones continued his easterly flight.

Jean Ruzicka
(218) 732-3364