A Wing and a Prayer

Even at 100, Cole Kugel is ready for takeoff.

With their farms producing and their finances improving, Cole and Paul decided to indulge a mutual passion: flying. Although Cole had been the first to climb into a cockpit, Paul was the first to receive his pilot's certificate, in 1944. Cole acquired his the next year.

In 1929, before he'd been grounded by the Depression, Cole had flown quite a bit in Oklahoma and even accumulated a dozen solo hours of airtime in an American Eagle biplane. In Colorado, though, he had to prove himself all over again. As part of the test, he flew 5,000 feet high, then headed straight down.

"You had to put yourself into a spin and come out the way you went in," he explains. "You'd get up to good altitude, close the throttle, pull it up into a stall and kick the rudder, and when it starts down, you'd count the turns -- three or four of them -- and come out alive. Oh, I was a little nervous, I guess. But I went through it okay. It worked out pretty good."

Mildred Kugel served as Cole Kugel's navigator.
Mildred Kugel served as Cole Kugel's navigator.

In 1946, Paul was instrumental in the construction of a new airport in Longmont. He'd helped convince Longmont officials to buy 220 acres of farmland west of the city and had agreed to manage the airfield with his partners at the Longmont Flying Service. With Cole's help, Paul even built the first hangar and first runway.

"The city provided gravel, we got a truck from the farm, got a grader from the county and went to work," Cole remembers.

And Cole soon had his own plane to park at that airport: a $2,300 three-seat Piper Super Cruiser. He booked a passenger flight to Pennsylvania, went to the Piper factory in Lock Haven, inspected his purchase, waited for a rainstorm to pass, gassed up and "headed west."

"Back then, flying was an experience," he recalls. "Didn't have a radio. Didn't have an aerial map. You just followed highways and railroad tracks. When it was clear, you'd take off and go. If you ran into weather, you'd turn around. When the gas gauge got low, you'd find a town, look for a water tower, circle around and find a little airport."

Landing in New Philadelphia, Ohio, Cole gobbled a sandwich at the airport cafe, filled his tanks and celebrated Thanksgiving. Then he climbed into his plane and, steering a wide berth around St. Louis, which was too big and scary to fly over, made his way to Oklahoma.

After visiting a few days, he fetched Mildred and they flew home to Colorado. It was their first long-distance aerial adventure.

While Paul and Cole Kugel were looking at flying as entertainment, a group of farmers back in Stillwater began realizing the practical uses of the airplane. They could zip between their farms and big cities in a fraction of the time it took by car or train. They could fetch machine parts directly from factories instead of waiting weeks for delivery. They could survey their fields, livestock and fences in hours instead of days.

They could have fun, too. They could pack a lunch, hop inside their planes, zip across the state, set down on a farm somewhere and have a party. By 1944 they were doing this so often that they decided to form a club: The Flying Farmers and Ranchers.

Six hundred miles away in Longmont, Paul Kugel and his friends caught wind of this development and organized their own chapter in 1946. Cole joined a year later and helped build a hangar for the chapter, which started out as the Longmont Flying Ranchers.

Over the next few decades, whenever the Kugel brothers weren't planting, irrigating or harvesting, they were flying from Longmont to Limon to "wherever they had a good airstrip," Cole remembers. "You'd get together at someone's farm or ranch, bring a basket lunch and have a good old time. Nothing too special about it."

But the members of the Colorado Flying Farmers, as the group eventually was known, thought otherwise. They were so impressed with Cole's participation that in 1955, they elected him president. Around the hangar, he was known as a serious, meticulous pilot. He never experienced an in-flight emergency and never put his plane or his passengers at risk. His only mishap occurred when he inadvertently snapped a power line while landing in an Oklahoma pasture -- and aside from the power line, Cole says, "nothing got hurt."

Delmar Lemons was Cole's vice president.

"I've never seen him get riled up," Lemons recalls. "He's always very cool and very confident in whatever he does. He's always prided himself on having nice radios. Everything on his plane was top of the line. Everything had a utility. And everything always worked."

"Oh, he's real good in the air," agrees Howard Reid, a former United Airlines captain and a current Flying Farmer. "He's very cautious. Very thorough. He knows what he's doing up there, that's for sure."

One time, Cole, who likes fishing almost as much as he likes flying, became so frustrated with the "little fish" he was catching in Colorado and Wyoming that he took a trip to Saskatchewan, where he discovered a picturesque spot called East Trout Lake. The problem was, there were no roads: The only way in or out was a crude landing strip hacked from the trees.

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