Amelia Earhart once asked, “What do dreams know of boundaries?” As children, our dreams have no boundaries — we can become anyone — do anything — the possibilities are endless. When Russ McDonald was knee-high to a model airplane, he dreamed of flying. Towards the end of WWII Russ joined the Navy and served as an enlisted man in San Diego, working on aircraft, not flying them, but don’t worry — Russ was just warming up his engines.
After WWII, Russ put the GI Bill to good use. He attended mechanic school, learned to fly, earned his licenses, and received his flight instructor certificate. Once back home in the Heber Valley, his dreams soared past the boundary of only flying. Russ was approached about building an airport, buying an airplane, and teaching others to fly. When Russ began carving out that first runway, he couldn’t have known it, but he was also carving the path for hundreds of others to realize their dreams of flight.
In 1947 Russell McDonald, Elmo Jacobsen, Guy McDonald, Rex Whiting, Lloyd Lawton, and Sperry Rollins formed Heber Valley Flying Service, Inc. With an access road from Highway 189, an office building, a hangar, and a 1946 Aeronca Champion waiting in the wings — Heber Valley Flying Service, Inc. opened their doors for business on September 7, 1947, with Russ as chief flight instructor, head mechanic, and general manager, and the rest is, as they say, history — seventy-three years of history to be exact.
For the first five years, the Heber Valley Flying Service was hopping. World War II veterans flocked to the small airstrip eager to learn and take to the air. In 1948 the corporation added another Aeronca Champion, an ERCO Ercoupe, and a Cessna 170 to their growing fleet. In 1949, with financial support from the Federal Aviation Funding Program, the runway was extended to 4,400 feet. The runway, taxiway, access road, and aircraft parking areas were paved, and the water tank was replaced by a well. With all these improvements came more opportunities, and six local Heberites with a Luscombe 8 took advantage by starting a flying club. Everything was blue-skies until a few clouds rolled in.
In 1951 Russ McDonald became a pilot for United Airlines, leaving the corporation. By 1952 the GI Bill flight training had run its course. With no revenue the Heber Valley Flying Service was forced to sell their airplanes and equipment, and Heber City acquired the hangar. For a few years, it seemed as if this field of dreams had reached its boundaries, but like all good stories, a hero swooped in — quite literally — saving the day — or in this case, a fledgling airport. Soaring gracefully through the air, Gliders, and Sailplanes were the core of the airport from 1955 to the mid-’80s. By 1956 the airport was once again up and running with a full-time fixed-base-operation.
For the next sixty-four years, the airfield would host planes from the prop-piston era to the jet era and go through a myriad of changes. In 1992 the runway was extended to 6,898 feet and in 1996 Heber City honored Russ McDonald — what began as a small field with a bulldozed runway for a handful of dreamers was now the Heber Valley Airport — Russ McDonald Field. Today there are 53 hangars and over 100 planes on the field.
Perhaps one of the most important hangars is the one that houses the Heber Valley Air Museum. Started by Eddie Strauchand and Steve Guenard in 1997 to honor and tell the stories of WWII veterans, the museum became headquarters to the Commemorative Air Force in 2001. In 2008 a new hangar was built specifically for the museum. Matt McNamara, CAF Utah Wing Leader, shared, “We [Heber Valley Air Museum] have a lot of memorabilia from local Park City and Heber folks that served in WWII, so that’s kind of our specialty niche for this museum. We believe in telling the stories of WWII from as many perspectives as possible to give people a complete picture of it. We want to put the real human aspect to the war that gets lost in the history books.”
The museum is full of artifacts, from a 1930’s wood-crafted propeller, to a rebuilt B-17 instrument panel with all original instruments, to an electric suit worn by a B-17 crew member. For those interested in the engines and planes, they’ve got those too. A P38 built by General Motors and a Rolls-Royce Griffin sit side by side. The museum’s centerpiece is a 1941 Boeing PT17 Stearman — currently under restoration. In addition to exhibits depicting stories of WWII and other historic military events, the museum has a full library, a section dedicated to the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), and displays showcasing local aviators and veterans.
Other fascinating pieces of history aren’t in the museum at all. Silently, and not so silently at times, the warriors of the air sit outside the museum during visiting hours. Their tales of glory are told orally by those who designed, built, maintained, and flew them, yet one can almost hear each part, from rivet to wing, tell their unique story — adding to the whole. Part of CAF’s and the museum’s mission is to honor these historic airplanes by maintaining and sharing them with the public. Matt shared, “It is amazing when a veteran, or someone who worked on the airplanes — maybe built them in the factories — when that person in their eighties or nineties shows up at the airport and actually sees the airplane, puts their hand on it, gets in their old seat, or touches something they built; the years melt away and all of a sudden they’re twenty years old again, and they will start telling their stories. It’s an emotional thing. That’s why a lot of us volunteer to do this. All the blood, sweat, and tears are worthwhile when you get to see a child, grand-child, or great-grandchild see the airplane that their grandma or grandpa built or flew.”
In the fall, a B-25 will land at the Heber Valley Airport. It will be there from September 21-28 for the public to enjoy. Original film from WWII will be showcased along with various information and memorabilia. Patrons will be able to snap photos and take to the sky in the B-25 or the two on-site warbirds. One may choose from a T-6 Texan or a Boeing Stearman biplane. In conjunction with the B-25 visit, if Covid-19 restrictions allow, the museum will host a hangar-dance on Saturday, September 26. In between flying and dancing, you can peruse the displays and read the stories of locals like Burnis Watts, Jackson ‘Jack’ Wells, Harry Moyer, Seymour ‘Ike’ Issacs, Ray Brim, and Russ McDonald.
David Gorrell, CAF Utah Wing Finance Officer, expressed his admiration for Russ McDonald, “Russ, to those of us who’ve been here for a while, was our mentor. He was the gentleman that everyone wishes they knew as they begin their career in aviation. He was a remarkably kind man and an incredibly skilled aviator; it was a real honor to be part of his group.”
David and Matt both shared that the day Russ retired after 36 years as a pilot for United Airlines, he purchased a P-51 Mustang, a famous WWII fighter. A few years later, he bought a little red Pitt’s Special aerobatic biplane, which is still at the airport. He kept both at the Heber Valley Airport and flew one or the other every day. If you happened to be around, Russ would say, “Jump in the back, I need someone to ride with.” Russ also had a great sense of humor. McDonald had Newf, the unofficial airport canine mascot, painted on his P-51. Newf’s owner, another pilot, had shaved his fur to look like a lion. Matt recalls, “That’s why it looks like Russ has a lion in his plane — a little insider joke at the airport back then.”
For seventy-three years the Heber Valley Airport has been an integral part of Heber Valley’s history and community. It’s not just an airstrip or a museum, the airport is a place where families can gather to watch aircraft from WWII bombers to modern day jets, to gliders, take to the sky. It’s a place to learn about the past and look to the future, a place that understands change and is committed to being good stewards and helping that change move in a positive direction. It’s a place of dreams, possibilities, and stories. Like Russ McDonald’s story of a farm boy who dreamed of flying and became a pilot, an instructor, and started an airport, there are countless stories out there waiting to be told and endless dreams with no boundaries. Matt McNamara said it best, “Chase your dreams wherever they may take you.”
For seventy-three years the Heber Valley Airport has been an integral part of Heber Valley’s history and community.
The Heber Valley Air Museum hosts several events throughout the year.
Open Friday and Saturday 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
To learn more about the
museum and their events
To learn more about the Heber Valley Airport — Russ McDonald Field,