High flyers: Local aviators share their passion for flight at Dowagiac airport

Published 9:01 am Monday, February 29, 2016

Bob Koshar poses next to his airplane in a Dowagiac hangar. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Bob Koshar poses next to his airplane in a Dowagiac hangar. (Leader photo/TED YOAKUM)

Editor’s note: Find this story and others inside Horizons 2016, available for purchase at any of Leader Publications’ offices in Niles, Dowagiac or Cassopolis.

As the saying goes, everyone needs a hobby.

Some people spend their down time behind the lens of a camera, capturing the breathtaking beauty of nature and the humble heartfelt moments between friends and family.

Others find tranquility with a steering wheel between their hands and pedals beneath their feet, with nothing but the trail of exhaust behind them and the open road ahead.

And some find their little moments of Zen hundreds of feet above the ground, surrounded only by the realm of blue skies and white clouds that can best be witnessed from the cockpit.

Inside a humble Dowagiac field, situated between the institution of Dowagiac Union High School and the sports complexes of Russom Park, is a gathering spot for many of this rare breed of daredevils in southwest Michigan.

At least once a week, Watervliet’s Bob Koshar and Marcellus’ Dick Martin can be found inside one of the hangars located on the grounds of the Dowagiac Municipal Airport, caring for the flying machines that have energized their lifelong passions for flight and aviation. The two are among the dozens of area pilots who use the local airport as storage for their beloved aircraft, as a staging ground for their flights, and as place to swap stories about their years of flying with fellow aviation enthusiasts.

Just like so many other people with a burning love of something, all one has to do is ask Koshar or Martin about their passion to learn all they ever wanted to about aircrafts and flight — and how those two things have shaped their lives.


Reaching the highest heights

For Koshar, his devotion to the skies has earned him one of the top distinctions an aircraft owner could hope to obtain.

In 2000, the retired automobile salesman participated in the annual Experimental Aircraft Association AirVenture fly-in show, located in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, the home of the venerable aviation advocacy organization. The airshow is among the largest gatherings of aviation enthusiasts in the entire world, with more than 15,000 planes flying into the weeklong event that year, Koshar said.

“There’s nothing like it, be it for automobiles or anything else,” Koshar said.

The local pilot and his son, Steve, flew into the show with his nearly 50-year old Cessna 172, entering the vintage aircraft into the event’s contemporary classic contest. In spite of their plane being just one of nearly 3,000 entered into the contest (290 of which were also Cessnas), the pair were named the grand champions of the airshow, receiving a coveted “Golden Lindy,” named in honor of aviation pioneer Charles Lindbergh.

For even the modest Koshar, the fact that a self-proclaimed “old farm hand from Hooterville” received one of highest honors a pilot could ever possibly attain is something worth bragging about.

“For as many planes were there, I was pretty honored to be named the best,” Koshar said.

Even 15 years later, Koshar continues to proudly display his award inside his hangar at the Dowagiac airport, along with the various other awards he and his aircraft have received in subsequent visits to the world-renowned airshow.

A native of Watervliet, Koshar traces his fascination with flying all the way back to his early childhood.

“I built my first model airplane when I was 10 years old,” Koshar said. “Back then, I dreamed of just being able to touch a real-life airplane.”

After graduating high school, Koshar entered the military, where he was stationed at various bases across the country. Despite serving as a pilot while enlisted, his passion for aviation remained, leading him to obtain his private pilot’s license while working in the automotive sales industry.

He purchased his first plane — the Cessna 172, from a fellow pilot inside an old rundown hangar in Indiana in 1972 for just $5,000.

“I ended up paying more to have it painted than I did to actually buy it in the first place,” Koshar said.

He has been flying the aircraft ever since, hailing out of the Dowagiac airport.

Although the plane has received a few upgrades over the years, including the aforementioned green, red and black paint along with updates to the radio and navigation system to comply with contemporary regulations, the overwhelming amount of parts inside the prop-powered plane are original, from the engine to the rivets. Sitting in one of the orange cockpit chairs, with a dashboard lined with various mechanical gauges and switches, makes one feel like they’ve stepped back in time.

Koshar credits his machine’s seemingly endless airworthiness to the care and attention he has poured into his beloved flyer the past four decades, he said.

“It’s like I never left the military,” Koshar said. “I keep everything maintained to the nth degree.”

Reaching the highest heights

Despite the accolades the machine has garnered him over the years, Koshar’s beloved Cessna is not a mere spectator piece. The pilot continues to take his plane out for a spin whenever he gets a chance, to stoke the flames of his love for elevation that has been burning since his earliest days.

“That’s the fun in flying — it’s always a different experience whenever you’re in the air,” he said. “Even when you pass over the same field you always do, you always see something different.”


Piece by piece

Martin’s love of flying, on the other hand, has led him down a different path — a path he has built entirely with his own two hands.

Situated in a hangar a short distance away from Koshar’s sits a shiny red and silver colored Sonex plane, that has belonged to Martin for more than 10 years.

And while many pilots claim that they know their aircraft both inside and out, that truly is the case for Martin.

In 2003, the Marcellus aviator decided, after years of owning airplanes, he would try his hand at building one himself, purchasing construction kits to build the popular sport monoplane.

“If you don’t know how to read a blueprint before, by the time you get done you will,” Martin said.

After two years of building, welding and machining, Martin finally took his new flyer for its first ride in 2005. In the 10 years that followed, he has racked up more than 400 hours of airtime, making regular trips across the Midwest and beyond, he said.

Like Koshar, Martin was bitten early by the aviation bug. His father, who was also a pilot, took him flying for the first time when he was 6 years old, in the process charting a course for him he would follow the rest of his life.

“It’s one of those things you just can’t forget,” he said.

Martin, a native of Galesburg, joined the Air Force two days after graduating high school, serving from 1959 to 1962. After leaving the service, he committed himself even more fully to aviation, including teaching others how to pilot ultralight aircraft while living in Hastings.

In 2006, Martin moved from Hastings to Marcellus, and in the process began flying out of the Dowagiac airport.

Since it is a homebuilt machine, Martin’s Sonex is considered an experimental aircraft. In comparison to Koshar’s vintage flyer, the monoplane’s cockpit is equipped with only a single digital monitor, which gives him many essential readings all in one convenient location.

Another advantage of homemade flyers are the reduced costs for maintenance and annual checks required for licensed aircraft, Martin said. In fact, the pilot is the only person authorized to make repairs to his aircraft, even if he ends up selling it down the road, he said.

Just like Koshar, Martin continues to take to the skies with the plane on a regular basis, he said.

When asked why he, like others of this increasingly rare breed of enthusiasts, continues to pursue his passion for flight, Martin said pilots treat flying the same way a car guy treats car or a sports guy treats his favorite game.

“It’s something we love to do.”