The Saratoga Sun -

Chili fly-in gets hot

Aviators dropping in for family recipe are forced to leave early due to warm weather

 

A 1949 Cessna 195. The first plane marketed as a "business aircraft," it is considered an Art Deco Masterpiece.

The first of 11 planes began to arrive at Shively Field at about 9:30 Saturday. They came out of the east dropping in altitude over Saratoga for the downwind leg of their approach. Somewhere west of town, they turned left and flew perpendicular to the runway several miles away; that's called the "base leg" of a visual approach. Then they turned left again, bringing their planes to bear on runway 23 at Shively Field for their final approaches.

One by one, they landed, taxied to the ramp and tied down in front of Saratoga Jet Center.

They were the pilots and passengers-26 people altogether-of the multifarious air force assembled by Rawlins native Dennis Koontz. And they came in a mix of planes that was about as diverse as could be.

The star of the show, if one were to judge by the number of people standing around staring at it, was a 1949 Cessna 195. Considered by many aviation buffs to be the most beautiful plane ever built, and considered a masterpiece of midcentury Art Deco design, its highly-polished aluminum skin reflected the throngs gathered around admiring and photographing it. A careful glance at the right place on the aircraft's empennage even showed the snow-capped peaks of the snowy range in mirror image.

The great classic was parked just a few feet from the newest plane in the squadron: The Cirrus SR22 GTS. Unlike the Cessna, it was brand-new-just recently off the assembly line. Instead of polished aluminum, the fuselage, empennage and wings are made of composites like carbon fiber, making it appear as though the plane was carved from a solid, seamless piece. Rather than the 195's curvy Art Deco inspired cabin with analog gauges, the SR-22 has a glass cockpit where most aircraft functions are monitored and controlled by two glass touchscreens.

In between, there were nine other planes of different manufacture and vintage, all part of the ragtag flock of avgas-swilling planes that swept into the Valley on a sunny, warm spring day to accomplish one mission: to eat green chili with pork at the historic Wolf Hotel.

***

For Koontz, the annual event he organizes-jokingly called the "International Pork Chili Fly-In"-combines two important aspects of his life: his days as a young man living in Rawlins, and his adult years as a professional pilot.

"I'm originally from over in Rawlins," Koontz says. "My folks were in the restaurant business and my father fired me four times in one day and I ran off to the airport in Rawlins and I never went home."

At the airport, Koontz worked as a line boy, cleaning airplanes and whatever else he could do. Eventually, some of the pilots got to know him and would take him up for flights. He was hooked instantly, his eyes lighting up when he describes it.

"I think it's God's gift to man to be able to fly around in an airplane," he says. "I thought it was pretty fantastic."

He has been flying ever since.

A few months later, he turned 18 and reported to the Ross School of Aviation in Tulsa, Oklahoma. There, he earned his license and all his ratings before he struck out on his own to work as a flight instructor. After earning enough hours instructing, he went to work flying for an oil company. He soon found himself at the original Frontier Airlines-which is not related to the modern-day Frontier-working as a jet pilot. After that company folded, he went to work for Continental Airlines, from which he retired in 2003.

Koontz had moved on to a new career since his employee-employer relationship with his father deteriorated. But Dennis' father stayed in the area and continued to run several restaurants, including his last in Walcott.

Koontz's father had made the acquaintance of another Carbon County restaurateur, Doug Campbell, who owns and runs the Wolf Hotel in Saratoga. "His dad was a phenomenal man," Campbell said. "I'd get up every morning go up there and watch him work with his spatula. It was beautiful."

Then one day, Koontz's father decided to move overseas. As he was leaving, he offered Campbell the recipe for his green chili, a longtime favorite among visitors to his restaurant. Campbell took the offer, and to this day still makes the green chili for patrons of the Wolf.

But once a year, he and his staff make a special batch for Koontz and his pilot friends who fly up when the weather is nice to enjoy the chili for which Koontz's dad was locally famous.

***

For Dennis Koontz's part, his dad's cooking fame in the Valley was something he ran from, preferring instead to find his fortunes in the airlines. The original Frontier, he said, was a top-notch airline with the best safety record in the world.

It was also terribly mismanaged, he said.

He joined Frontier in 1970 and was with the airline until it shut down on Aug. 24, 1986, he says wistfully. "When I meet new, young aviators who want to get into the airline business, I just tell them: fall in love with a good-looking lady, fall in love with a car, fall in love with a gun. Just don't fall in love with a damn airline; they'll break your heart."

After Frontier shut down, he went to work for Continental before retiring.

After retiring, it wasn't too long before the International Green Chili Fly-in was born. Koontz says he started the tradition about 10 years ago, just by inviting a few friends with airplanes to fly up from the Denver area to Saratoga to try his dad's chili recipe at the Wolf Hotel.

Every year, he brings a group of planes and people. This year it was 26 people who crowded the barroom at the Wolf. The Chili was served on a buffet set up at the end of the room. All around, aviators-mostly retired airline pilots-sat around enjoying chili and telling flying stories.

One old captain talked about flying a Boeing 767 wide body jet into remote, high-altitude airports in South America. At high altitude, getting a fully laden 767 off the ground is a challenge; the air is thin so there's not as much lift, and the same lack of oxygen cuts the amount of power the engines can summon.

"...So I told the co-pilot to hang on because this might be the only time he sees a 767 take an entire 12,000-foot runway to get off the ground," he said, as the pilots around him laughed.

***

When not being interviewed, Koontz was in the kitchen of the Wolf speaking with the staff about the chili.

The weather that seemed perfect to a lot of people for a lot of activities was beginning to concern a lot of the experienced aviators in the room. The temperature was creeping up to nearly 80 degrees Saturday. On a blacktopped airport runway, it would be even hotter.

Even though Shively Field is at 7,014 feet, there is something called "density altitude" that must be factored in when flying. As air gets hotter, it gets thinner. Humidity factors in, too. According to the equation used to determine density altitude, by the time a lot of pilots were finishing their chili, the air at the airport provided functionally the same amount of lift as air at 9,888 feet.

There were no 767s on hand at the fly-in, but that doesn't matter: the physics that make it hard to get off the ground in a 767 in thin air likewise makes it hard to get a small plane off the ground.

"Every few years someone runs off the end of the runway because they don't realize how hard it can be to get the plane off the ground at this altitude when it's warm out," local pilot Andy van Tol of Saratoga says.

The pilots and their passengers made their ways back to Shively field by catching rides in the beds of pickups and cars. They had walked to the restaurant earlier to enjoy the weather and the town, but now time was of the essence. Quickly, they got in their planes and the fleet coughed to life. Most were quiet, but the radial engine of the Cessna 195 filled the tarmac with a sound reminiscent of a group of Harley Davidsons driving by.

A Cessna 180 taxis to parking.

One-by-one, the planes took to the air gingerly. A Cessna 180 used much of the runway to get airborne. Once wheels up, he leveled off just 100 feet or so above the runway. That allowed him to gain speed to trade for altitude as he climbed very carefully to avoid a stall in the thin air.

All the planes got away clean, with the Cessna 195 making a pass over the tarmac wagging his wings-the airplane equivalent of waving hello or goodbye-to those still on the ground.

Because the fly-in got cut short by the seemingly beautiful weather, Koontz's interview with the Saratoga Sun got cut short too, and he was never asked about the personal significance of his annual trip to Saratoga to have his dad's chili.

That question might have to wait until next year. For now, Koontz did have time to say that he and his friends love the event because, "it's an excuse to fly airplanes and eat great chili."

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