BENTON — In years of flying into small airports around the country, Stearman Field owner Dwayne Clemens made a keen observation.
“I noticed that any airport that had a restaurant was a hopping place,” Clemens said.
Clemens, 46, and his wife, Julie, couldn’t afford to build a restaurant at the airport they operate in Benton, a town of about 900 people located nine miles northeast of Wichita.
So they remodeled the existing building and added a grill, a fryer and a couple of freezers.
They opened on Jan. 1, 2010, and customers were lined up out the door.
They ran out of food.
“It just went gangbusters,” Clemens said.
To keep up with the traffic, the couple has expanded the kitchen four times and doubled the amount of seating. They added an outdoor patio, a stage for live music and a playground.
The restaurant is open from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. seven days a week.
“It’s just nuts,” he said.
The Stearman Field Bar and Grill draws aviators and non-aviators from the Benton and Wichita area. They watch airplanes fly in as they dine under one of two distinctive 24-foot overhead fans.
It’s a destination, Clemens said, a gathering place for aviators and families, and for bike clubs, car clubs and flying clubs, too.
The restaurant wouldn’t be successful without its airport location, he said. And its success has breathed life into the airport.
Fuel sales are up.
Hangars are full.
And more people have decided to make the airport home.
All 40 lots slated for condominium-hangars have been sold. Twenty condo-hangars, essentially apartments inside a large hangar, have been built.
Twenty-seven houses line the west side of the runway. Some were built more than 20 years ago.
Fifteen lots, offered through Stearman Estates Development Co., are still available for sale.
Once they’re sold, “then we’ll be done,” Clemens said of the airport’s development.
The ‘history of aviation’
Clemens and his wife, both pilots, bought the airport with two partners in 2004.
In 2005, they changed the name from Benton Airpark to Stearman Field to reflect the number of vintage Stearman aircraft kept there. Ten are based there, including one owned by the Clemenses. That many at one airport is unusual.
In 2008, they widened and extended the runway from 2,600 feet to 5,100 feet and bought land to develop more housing.
“The economy then killed us,” Clemens said. “It was scary.” Still, in April 2011, the couple bought out their partners.
The airport offers lots of amenities that appeal to pilots and their families, said Randy Hardy, a pilot for 34 years who is building a home there.
Hardy first moved into a condo-hangar, then sold it to build a house.
“This brings back the history of aviation,” Hardy said of the atmosphere. “We can take people out to the airport. They can sit there, and in a short distance, watch airplanes come and go. It brings aviation front and center again.”
The amount of activity is unusual for small airports, Hardy said.
“There are a lot of airports around the country that’s deader than a doornail,” he said.
Hardy’s house will be completed in three weeks. The hangar next door to the house is finished. It houses his 1943 Stearman and 1960 Cessna 310D.
Dwayne Clemens grew up in Parsons, where his father was a crop duster. He attended the Spartan College of Aeronautics and Technology in Tulsa. Julie grew up in Minnesota and went to flight school at the University of North Dakota.
The two met at Hawker Beechcraft, where they worked as test pilots.
Today, they’re a flying family.
Son Alex is a test pilot at Hawker Beechcraft. Daughter Lizzie, who has soloed, attends Wichita State University and works in the family business. Their youngest, Austin, 9, loves to fly.
Dwayne and Julie crew and manage three airplanes for local businesses and families.
Dwayne typically flies more than 500 hours a year.
Flying is his passion.
Julie flies with him 95 percent of the time.
“It’s a blast,” Dwayne Clemens said.
Not all couples work well together. But they do.
“The trick is to be nice to each other in life,” Dwayne said.
Between the flying and the airport, the couple work seven days a week.
Julie keeps the books and helps in the restaurant. Dwayne does the maintenance and works on a myriad of projects.
They want to continue the momentum and “keep it a fun, happening airport,” Dwayne Clemens said.
He doesn’t expect too much future growth, however.
“I don’t think there’s much more we could expand,” he said. “We’re out of room.”