February 11, 2004
While driving down Hilltop Road, most Shawnee residents probably don't realize that where there are now driveways there used to be a runway.
Located between Johnson Drive and 47th Street where the Woodsonia neighborhood now sits, the Kansas City Suburban Airport was developed on the Feilbach farm sometime after 1955. John Feilbach, owner, started the airport with Bob Scott, owner of the Acme Sign Company, and Frank Jones, a TWA pilot.
Though Feilbach died in 2001, the Monticello Community Historical Society recorded an interview with him in 1990. In the interview, Feilbach described the grass runway he created on his farm in the late 1940s to fly his plane.
"I just had this old Aeronica airplane that I used to fly, and it wasn't long before others came along wanting to fly there," Feilbach said. "One thing led to another and before we knew it, we had more planes than we could take care of, so we started an airport."
For the more than 20 years that the airport was open, it housed up to 60 planes, mostly from Kansas City, some being business planes and some for weekend pilots. The airport was recognized locally by many names and was sometimes referred to as the Bonner Springs airport, as the area was not annexed into Shawnee until 1971.
Though many of its Monticello neighbors may have found it something of a nuisance, the airport brought visitors from all over Kansas City to the little community in rural Johnson County.
A haphazard beginning
Though Feilbach remembered the airport coming together in 1955, a book printed in 1999 that included a short history of the airport records its years of operation as 1958 to 1980.
The airport was made up of hangers, an office building and tie-down areas. The 3,000-foot dirt runway, which was surfaced with blacktop in 1964, ran from the north to the south at about the location of present-day Hilltop Road, with gravel taxi strips.
Carl Holthaus was training for his pilot's license in the 1960s and would fly into the airport as he learned landing technique.
"A lot of people landed there that came out of the bigger airports in downtown Kansas City to learn how to land at smaller airports with shorter runways," Holthaus said.
Several different part-time flight instructors worked at the airport, working on commission. Bob Watson, the first black accepted by the Federal Aviation Administration as a general aviation operation inspector, issued pilot licenses out of the airport for about six years.
Feilbach, a member of the Flying Farmers Association and the Civil Air Patrol, used his Cessna 210 at Christmas time to fly people over the Plaza lights. He would make several trips from dusk until midnight, taking three passengers a trip for $5 per person.
Also around Christmas time for a few years, Santa would parachute into the airport out of Scott's plane, which was often used by skydivers.
Feilbach would fly Agricultural Stabilization and Conservation Service officials to take aerial photos of Johnson County farms and was able to get an aerial photo of the airport.
But not everything ran smoothly in the airport's early years. Scott, known as Scotty, was the only one of the owners with business experience. Jones, as a TWA pilot, had little time for the airport, and Feilbach was "never quite sure what was going on."
The breakdown of the airport's management in 1964 was recorded by Emalou Laible, wife of Bob Laible, the airport's second owner.
"Actual management of the airport thus ended up in Scotty's hands, and he wasn't happy about it," Emalou wrote.
With customer complaints, a slow mechanic, a leaky roof and very little money being made, it was time for a new owner.
A change of hands
Bob Laible had been storing his plane at the airport since 1960 when Scott approached him about taking over.
Laible had grown up in Omaha, Neb., and learned to fly at the age of 15 on an airplane he and his brother had rebuilt themselves. He worked at Bendix Corp. in Kansas City, Mo. as an electronic foreman in 1964, but he still loved to work on planes.
When Laible helped out the slow mechanic by repairing the wings of one of the airport planes, Scott saw in him the new airport manager.
"Here, he knew, was a man who not only knew flying but also was surprisingly experienced in aircraft maintenance," Emalou wrote.
When Laible was passed over for a promotion at Bendix, he was easily talked into taking over the risky venture in June of 1964.
"We ran it for 13 years, and it was the most interesting and exciting 13 years that airport was run," Laible said.
The first thing the Kansas City, Kan. couple did to beef up business was run an ad in The Kansas City Star, advertising Cessna Day, where visitors could take airplane rides for a penny a pound. The ad brought people from Lawrence to Kansas City for Cessna Day, July 26, 1964.
"Three airplanes flew all day, starting at noon flying and flew clear until dark," Laible said.
Laible became a licensed pilot instructor in 1968, not long after Watson had left for a job with the Federal Aviation Administration in 1966.
Laible said he made more than 30,000 takeoffs and landings as an instructor, and he had students who lived anywhere from Shawnee to Lansing. He called the flight school Kansas City Suburban Flight, Inc., "The happy place to fly."
Ruth Bitikoffer of Kansas City, Kan., and her husband got their pilot's licenses at the airport in 1968, and continued to fly out of the airport for several years.
"My family still lived out west of Monticello towards De Soto so we were out there all the time, and we were always looking at different airports, so I think we just decided to try them out," Bitikoffer said.
Other operations began under Laible's management. He was a Cessna dealer from 1964 to 1967, and operated Kansas City Air Transport with two other pilots from 1965 to 1967. Laible even helped the FBI track down a stolen plane that had crash-landed at the airport in the late 1960s.
Trouble began for the Liables with their new landlords not too long after the Feilbachs sold the land around 1970. Laible said the new owners wanted to get more money out of the airport, and they weren't making that much in the first place.
"We made beaucoup money for Cessna, finance companies, and insurance companies, but none for us," Bob said.
The last years
The airport's troubles forced another change in management in 1976.
Laible sold the gasoline concession that year to Paul Zimmer, one of the new landowners, and John McNay was hired to run the airport. The field was sold to Hoyt Farms in 1979.
On July 29, 1979, a tornado destroyed the hangers and office building. The Laibles, who still stored their planes at the airport, heard about the tornado on the news while on vacation at the Lake of the Ozarks.
When the Laibles returned to the airport, they found that they had gotten lucky.
"It left all of daddy's airplanes," Laible's daughter Deborah Herbert said. "It kind of blew all of the others away, but his were spared."
Though the hangers and office were never rebuilt, pilots continued to use the runway for about another year. The airport officially closed in the summer of 1980, and the land was eventually sold to J.C. Nichols for development.
The airport now only lives on in memory, as the land is completely covered by rows of houses. A short history of the airport is chronicled in the 1999 book, "A Century of Kansas City Aviation History: the Dreamers and the Doers," by George R. Bauer.
Though Emalou Laible died in 1998, the story of her family's time at the airport is recorded in the family diaries she kept every year until her death. Laible keeps the files of his wife's diaries at his home in Parkville, Mo.
"She was the spark plug of that airport for many years," Bob said.
Laible pointed out that there is something of the airport that remains, according to some information his daughter got from a friend who lives in Woodsonia.
"There's a runway there yet," Laible said. "You just have to dig down about six inches."
Originally published at: http://www.shawneedispatch.com/news/2004/feb/11/west_shawnee_neighborhood/