Editor's note: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified a plane, the 1942 AT-6 Texan Advanced WW II trainer.
Once upon a time, when a small group of pilots decided it would be fun to drop pumpkins at a target from their airplanes, only family members showed up at Stearman Field.
On Saturday, decades later, hundreds of people crowded on the grass next to the landing strips to watch pilots and bombardiers in vintage planes take aim at a target next to the runway.
“It’s about double the size of the city of Benton, so that’s a good deal,” Tom Rybarczyk, one of the pilots, said of the crowd.
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Many were regulars to the October day of fun. Several others were first-timers, drawn by social media or by serendipity.
David and Adrienne Ulrich of Wichita came to the airport’s bar and grill for lunch and decided to stick around for the pumpkin drop simply because it sounded wacky enough to be fun.
“Most Kansas airports are pretty dead nowadays,” David Ulrich said. “There’s nothing going on there. To see this much activity here is very encouraging.”
Like some parties, Saturday’s gathering featured an unwanted guest who showed up and made a nuisance of himself. At the pumpkin drop, it was the wind: south winds in the 20s with gusts that neared 40 mph at times.
The gusts were so strong that the number of pilots participating in the pumpkin drop had to be slashed nearly in half, to the single digits.
“It’s too much wind for a Cessna 150,” said Jerry Pelyash, who flew in last year’s pumpkin drop but was grounded by the conditions Saturday. “We were hoping for a great day, but it’s just too windy for the lighter airplanes.”
The crowd still got to see a World War II Stearman biplane fly, along with a 1942 AT-6 Texan Advanced WW II trainer. And the pilots make no bones about it: The annual pumpkin drop is just a chance to fly their planes and have some fun.
“It’s a little windy, especially right over the runway,” said Caleb Gibson, one of the pilots, who flew in a Cessna 172. “That last little bit kind of bounces you around, but it’s a lot of fun.”
Rybarczyk, who flew in a Piper Cub modified to perform aerobatics, called the gusty conditions “crazy.”
“Flying slow, you’ve got to be right on it all the time,” said Rybarczyk, whose father taught him to fly when he was a child. “Things can go wrong pretty quick.”
Daniel Johnson recruited Gibson for the festivities a couple of weeks ago by asking, “You want to go drop some pumpkins?”
“I’ve been a bombardier in search of a pilot for more than a year, and I finally found one,” Johnson said with a grin.
Each plane was given three passes at the pumpkin perched on a chair sitting in the middle of a tarp. Points were awarded based on how close the dropped pumpkins came to the target.
The crowd turned into coaches, shouting instructions the pilots couldn’t possibly hear.
“Now! Now! Now!”
This year, like last year, Rybarczyk and his bombardier, Monte Lamar, claimed first place. That earned them a small trophy and a $100 gift certificate to the Stearman Field Bar and Grill.
“It’s all about having fun and putting on a good show,” Rybarczyk said.
The day’s festivities included a costume contest, with entrants ranging from infants to grandmothers.
Jaxton Allen, 6, has been eager to wear his Deadpool costume ever since his father told him about the pumpkin drop a week ago.
“He’s stoked,” Dennis Allen, smiling broadly, said of his son, who took delight in striking poses in his costume.
The Allens, who live in Wichita, were first-timers to the pumpkin drop. They’ll be back, they said.
“Its a nice family event,” Dennis Allen said. “They put on an awesome show.”