Written by the author, Yasmina Platt.
Reprint from July 11, 2016, from AOPA's Views From the Region (VFR) blog: https://blog.aopa.org/aopa/2016/07/11/the-nebraska-air-trail/
In addition, a summary of this air trail was included in the Oct/Nov 2016 edition of Midwest Flyer Magazine:
These Air Trails are designed to bring flying and tourism together. The idea is to give pilots another reason to fly and give their passengers another reason to get in the airplane. This time we are highlighting Nebraska.
Nebraska is a midwestern state encompassing the prairies of the Great Plains, the towering dunes of the Sandhills, and the panhandle’s dramatic rock formations.
According to Reference.com, Nebraska is known for its four seasons and friendly, hospitable residents. Gallup surveys rank Nebraska among the top 10 states with the happiest residents. Nebraska is known as the "Cornhusker State." The state insect is the honeybee, the state flower is the goldenrod, the state gem is the Blue Agate, and the state motto is “Equality before the law.” Nebraska is the only state in the union with a single house legislature, also known as a unicameral. The 911 emergency dispatch communication system was developed in Nebraska and it was the first state to utilize the system.
I have to agree with Reference.com on that Nebraskans have to be the nicest people in the country! That has been my experience!
While the Omaha skyline surprises visitors with its big city feel, part of the real beauty of Nebraska lies in the sunsets that spread across the rolling plains. The vast openness of the scenery is overwhelming at first, as every color of the rainbow seems to blend together in perfect harmony.
A few symbols have been added throughout the route to make it easy for readers to identify the facilities and activities each airport/area has at a quick glance.
Figure 1. Symbol Legend.
We have developed a circular route to make it easier to follow with multiple stops. We may have identified too many possible stops but you can start/stop this route from any airport and fly it in any order or direction you prefer. You can also skip and add other stops as you please; these are just suggestions. Fly at your own risk!
The following figures help give a visual of the entire route.
Figure 2. Route Overview (see references to locations in Figure 3)
Figure 3. References to Locations on Previous Sectional
Figure 4. Route on ForeFlight
If you decide to do part or the entire route and use social media, we would love for you to use #NebraskaAirTrail as a hashtag.
Fly safe, fly often, and enjoy the Air Trail!
Omaha is the largest city and lies on the eastern edge of the state along the banks of the Missouri River. Omaha holds attractions like most metropolitan cities across the country. While shopping, one can find goods that run from locally produced items to the exclusive items sold throughout the world. Omaha has areas of revitalization worth visiting such as the Old Market downtown, Midtown Crossing, Benson, and Aksarben village. Omaha also has numerous breweries, a vast array of restaurants of all food types, the world famous Henry Doorly Zoo and Aquarium, the Josyln Art Museum, and Lauritzen Gardens. In addition, TD Ameritrade Stadium is the stadium where the College World Series is played every year.
The Eugene T. Mahoney State Park is halfway between Omaha and Lincoln. It offers year-round accommodations and recreational use along the picturesque Platte River. This ultra modern park offers an array of lodging (Little Creek and Lakeside campgrounds near Owen Marine Lake, cabins secluded on wooded ridge tops, and the Peter Kiewit Lodge has 40 rooms), group meeting facilities, and activities (like paddle boats at the Owen Marina or the Family Aquatic Center with water slides, a wave pool, and a lap pool, for example). The lodge also has a restaurant.
Nearby attractions include the Platte River State Park, the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum, the Lee G. Simmons Conservation Park & Wildlife Safari, the Quarry Oaks Golf Club, and the Iron Horse Golf Club.
You can visit the Strategic Air Command & Aerospace Museum any day you like or you can consider attending when they are hosting a certain regular event, such as their annual Indoor Air Show, Swing Under the Wings, Helicopter Day, or Family Fun Carnival.
The quaint Platte River State Park draws guests to its cabins every year, with the teepees as perhaps the most unique lodging option. Other popular draws are the park’s picturesque waterfall, scenic hiking and biking trails and two observation towers that allow those who climb to the top a spectacular view of the Platte River Basin.
The Omaha area has several airports to choose from:
2. Nebraska City
“It’s hard to think of a state with a bigger interest in creating shade than Nebraska. And with that in mind, it makes perfect sense that Arbor Day began in this town positioned where the Missouri River valley gives way to the vast Great Plains. Did you know that Nebraskans planted more than 1,000,000 tress on the first Arbor Day? J. Sterling Morton launched the holiday here in 1874, and his Arbor Lodge mansion still hosts tours of both the home and its parklike setting. Next door, Tree Adventure sends visitors into a series of interconnected tree houses and teaches lessons about conservation. Across the valley, the modern Lied Lodge features 140 hotel rooms, a massive indoor pool and the high-end Timber Room restaurant. Thousands come to town for the AppleJack Festival in September. The next month brings prime time for views of the river valley from the Missouri River Basin Lewis and Clark Center on a bluff just outside of town.” – Midwest Living magazine, July/August 2016.
The Nebraska City Municipal Airport (KAFK) is your gateway to the city and you have your choice of runway based on your aircraft capabilities or preference – a 4,500 ft paved runway or a 2,500 ft turf runway.
3. Falls City
The John Phillip Falter Museum opened in the historical downtown on May 1, 2015 in the lobby of the former Richardson County Bank. After graduating from Falls City High School in 1928, John Philip Falter went on to become a world-renowned illustrator. The museum features: his Philadelphia studio (on loan from the Nebraska State Historical Society Museum), his 129 “Saturday Evening Post” covers, original Jazz works and prints, as well as other works on loan from local collectors.
The Indian Caves State Park is in close proximity. Named for the park’s large sandstone cave, the park is well known for its beautiful camping and picnicking spots, as well as for its 22 miles of scenic hiking and biking trails along the mighty Missouri River. The park is particularly beautiful in the autumn when you can see wonderful, changing colors.
The Brenner Field Airport (KFNB) is your key to the area.
The Homestead National Museum has a Heritage Center and an Education Center. In addition, the 1867 Palmer-Epard Cabin is located just outside the Heritage Center and the Freeman School serves as a reminder of the role the schoolhouse played in the history of settlement on the prairie.
The Beatrice Municipal Airport (KBIE) is a nice little airport with two wonderful crossing runways.
Nebraska is also famous for being home to the largest porch swing in the world. Suspended from a giant crop irrigator pole, it can comfortably seat 24-25 adults.
The Hebron Municipal Airport (KHJH) offers two runways: a 3,600 ft concrete runway and a 2,500 ft turf one. While the airport may not be incredibly busy when you visit, I have seen that airport at one of its busiest time and that was during the 2015 Nebraska State Fly-in and Airshow. They had a great event and turnout!
Lincoln is the Capital of Nebraska and the State Capitol is definitely worth a visit.
Nebraska Cornhuskers football is basically a state religion. On game day, Memorial Stadium becomes the third largest city in Nebraska, with over 90,000 screaming fans. With more than 320 consecutive sold out games, the Cornhuskers have been one of the most dedicated fan bases for over 50 years.
Mammoth fossils have been found in most Nebraska counties so the state designated the mammoth as the official state fossil in 1967. In fact, the world's largest “Woolly Mammoth" fossil was discovered in Lincoln, Nebraska and can be found in the University of Nebraska State Museum.
The Lincoln Airport (KLNK) is Lincoln’s airport and a great one; however, several pilots have landed on the extremely long (12,900 long!) runway when they were cleared to land on the long-enough (5,800 long!) almost parallel (18/36 vs 17/35) runway instead. Look out and review the FAA’s hot spots.
If you are looking for an adrenaline sport… Skydiving Crete is based at the Crete Municipal Airport (KCEK), only 16 air miles southwest of KLNK.
Seward is home to the world’s largest time capsule, buried by Keith Davisson, a man who vowed not to be forgotten. Weighing 45 tons, the capsule was buried in front of a store he owned in 1975 and was marked with a huge pyramid. Set to be opened in 2025, it contains over 5,000 items including a bomb, a pair of bikini-style panties, and even a brand new car.
You have your choice of runway at the Seward Municipal Airport (KSWT): a 4,200 ft concrete runway and a 3,400 ft turf runway. Seward is home to the Midwest Aerobatic Championships, scheduled at the beginning of each July. This year, they had over 30 aircraft and 50 participants!
8. Grand Island
Depending on the time of year you visit, Grand Island creates a huge migratory corridor for Sandhill Cranes. That, of course, is both good and bad news for pilots. Good news… they are pretty and interesting to watch. Bad news… look out the window and avoid them!
The Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer preserves and portrays the inspiring era of the pioneer town builders who created the first communities in Nebraska.
The Central Nebraska Regional Airport (KGRI) has three wonderful runways and, let me tell you, they do come in handy in windy Nebraska sometimes. The airport has an onsite restaurant called the Afternooner’s.
Hastings celebrates the birth of Kool-Aid with an annual festival called “Kool-Aid Days” in August.
The town is also home to Hastings College and the Hasting Museum has a popular Planetarium from 1958.
The Hastings Municipal Airport (KHSI) is just northwest of town.
Depending on the time of year you visit, Kearney also creates a huge migratory corridor for Sandhill Cranes.
The Nebraska Firefighters Museum and Education Center preserves the state’s firefighting heritage, fosters public understanding of the impact and benefit of firefighting in regards to saving lives and possessions, and educates individuals about fire prevention and fire safety.
Pilots like airplanes, cars, motorcycles… you name the kind of vehicle! Kearney’s Classic Car Museum is your chance to see over 200 beautiful classic cars.
And the Great Platte River Road Archway is something to see from both the road and the air… as it spans 310 feet over Interstate 80, representing 170 years of America’s westward movement. It features the story of the homesteaders and pioneers who pushed west.
From the air, Kearney Regional Airport (KEAR) may appear to have four runways. Well, it used to. Now it has two and that is sufficient for us to come and visit. And, if you hear students on the radio, chances are they are students from the University of Nebraska at Kearney :)
11. Alma and Red Cloud
Alma is another good location for bird watching. I should mention that this Nebraska Birding Trails website is a good guide to Nebraska’s bird-watching.
Although the aerial picture of Alma Municipal Airport (4D9) may show a turf runway, their runway is actually paved and very newly paved, actually.
Have a seaplane or an amphibian? Bring it to Alma! They have Nebraska’s only seaplane base – Harlan County Lake (H63).
Side note: Just east of Alma is Red Cloud and the Red Cloud Municipal Airport (7V7) (not pictured on graphical route). The town is the home of Willa Cather and visited extensively by fans of her books on pioneer life.
12. McCook and Imperial
This area had some serious clashes between Native American tribes back in the day. McCook had a WWII training airfield and Imperial is just a nice little farming and agricultural business town.
The former McCook Army Air Field was activated on April 1, 1943 and it is seven miles north and three miles west of McCook. It was one of 11 U.S. Army Air Forces training bases in Nebraska during World War II. It includes three 150 by 7,500 foot concrete runways, five hangars and barracks for 5,000 men. McCook provided final training of heavy bomber crews for the B-17 Flying Fortress, Consolidated B-24 Liberator, and Boeing B-29 Super Fortress. Today, though, the land is owned primarily by farmers and the Nebraska Bureau of Land Management. Most of the concrete runways have been removed except for a 20' strip on the E-W and SW-NE runways. About a dozen World War II-era buildings still exist at the former airfield in various states of deterioration including all the hangars. You can find it in google by typing “McCook Army Air Base Historical Marker.”
Figure 5. General Location of the McCook Army Air Field
Source: Google Earth
Figure 6. McCook Army Air Field
Source: Google Earth
Figure 7. McCook Army Air Base Historical Marker
Source: Google Earth
The McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport (KMCK) and the Imperial Municipal Airport (KIML) are your gateways to the area.
13. North Platte
From the 7th floor of the Golden Spike Tower you can see the largest rail switching yard in the country. Union Pacific’s Bailey Yard is the largest railroad classification yard in the world. Named in honor of former Union Pacific President Edd H. Bailey, the massive yard covers 2,850 acres, reaching a total length of eight miles. The yard is located in the midst of key east-west and north-south corridors, on the busiest freight rail line in America, making it a critical component of Union Pacific’s rail network.
The Buffalo Bill State Historical Park is also in North Platte. Col. Wm. F. Cody (better known as Buffalo Bill) built his North Platte home during the heyday of his famous Wild West Show. Cody owned some 4,000 acres and, in 1886, built the large Second Empire mansion at a cost of $3,900. Sixteen of his acres became a historical park in 1965 where you can see his house, barn, and much of his memorabilia. In addition, Nebraskaland Days is held there for almost a week every early summer with rodeos, parades, concerts, etc.
The Norte Platte Regional Airport Lee Bird Field (KLBF) is the airport you want to fly into. The airport has an onsite restaurant called the Lincoln Highway Diner.
Sidney, Nebraska is the birthplace of Cabela’s outfitters. Go see where the dream of the Cabela family began and take in the whopping 85,000 sq ft of outdoor supplies and a museum-quality taxidermy kids love.
And if you want to take a short detour, the town of Porter is about 10 miles west of town and has the only “Duckpin Bowling Alley” west of the Mississippi River.
I am told the Sidney Municipal Airport / Lloyd W. Carr Field (KSNY) is a very nice airfield with a new pilot/passenger lounge and enthusiastic airfield staff. I believe it in Nebraska…
This is a very picturesque part of the state and most of what is mentioned below can be seen from the air as well as from the ground for two different perspectives.
The Western Nebraska Regional Airport / William B. Heilig Field (KBFF) is just east of town. The airport has an onsite restaurant called the Flight Deck Restaurant & Lounge.
Stretching 300 feet into the sky, the Chimney Rock National Historic Site served as a landmark for travelers heading west throughout history. Not only did Oregon Trail travelers use it, but those on the California Trail and Mormon Trail did as well. Chimney Rock is southeast of town by about 25 miles.
The Scotts Bluff National Monument is just on the other side of town from the airport. Towering 800 feet above the North Platte River and rich with geological and paleontological history as well as human history, Scotts Bluff also served as a landmark for peoples from Native Americans to emigrants on the Oregon, California and Mormon Trails to modern travelers.
The town of Mitchell is just northwest of there and is home to the Brown Sheep Company which spins world famous yarn on a family farm.
Alliance is a railroad town and has a large BNSF rail switching yard.
The perplexing but very cool “Carhenge” is found just outside of town. There’s a lot of flat land in Nebraska that seems to stretch for endless miles. That just means there are a lot of places to do some weird things. One of those weird things is Carhenge, made of 38 old cars buried partially in the ground, reminding viewers of the mysterious Stonehedge found in England.
The Alliance Municipal Airport (KAIA) was a WWII Army Airfield Base where they trained glider pilots among others. The “Ghost Bomber,” a lost B-25 from the Cold War, can be seen east of the field.
KAIA was 2013’s host of the annual Nebraska State Fly-in.
East of town is the Museum of the Fur Trade, home to the only museum in the world that showcases the fur trading industry. It has fantastic displays of Native American artifacts, Fur Trapper tools and garb as well as an impressive display of firearms used during this period of the country’s history.
This is a gateway to the Black Hills with very hilly picturesque terrain.
Travel southwest for 30 miles via car from Chadron to visit the Fort Robinson State Park, an old Cavalry Fort. It one time housed “Buffalo Soldiers” who participated in frontier battles and it offers lots of attractions, including jeep and horse-drawn tours, stagecoach rides, hiking, biking, equestrian trails, and swimming among other things.
West of town and just north of the Ft Robinson State Park is the Toadstool Geological Park and Campground, in an area known as Nebraska’s Badlands. I hear it looks like another planet and is worth a visit. The spectacular rock formations and unusual examples of the effects of water and wind over millions of years make the Toadstool Geologic Park Trail Hike a definite “Must See” on any Western Nebraska trip.
The Chadron Municipal Airport (KCDR) is a good 5 miles west of town.
Valentine is on the Niobrara River and has some of the best scenery in the state both along the river and south of town into the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge.
West of Valentine are the towns of Gordon and Rushville. There was a grassroots movement to build approximately 16 miles of the “Cowboy Trail” which is found in other parts of the state and is a repurposed rail bed.
The Miller Field Airport (KVTN) is Valentine’s airport. A leg from KAIA-KVTN or vice versa takes an aircraft over the heart of the Sandhills.
19. Broken Bow and Ord
A southeast heading from KVTN gives you the option of:
The Broken Bow Municipal Airport / Keith Glaze Field (KBBW) is just north of town.
The Evelyn Sharp Field Airport (KODX) offers two runways: a 4,700 ft concrete runway and a 2,000 ft turf one.
For planning purposes… KBBW is just southwest of KODX.
20. Norfolk and Columbus
Norfolk was the birthplace of Johnny Carson, the American television talk show host and comedian.
The Norfolk Regional Airport / Karl Stefan Memorial Field (KOFK) is one of the larger airports we are highlighting in this Air Trail. The 2012 Nebraska State Fly-in was held at the KOFK airport. Keep in mind the Norfalcon Radio Control Club has a Remote Control (RC) airfield just south of the Norfolk airport.
Figure 8. Location of the Norfalcon Radio Control Club
Source: Google Earth
Just 32 miles south of Norfolk is the town of Columbus, on confluence of the Loup River and North Platte River. Columbus is the birth place of Andrew Higgins, who designed the Higgins Boats used in the Normandy Landings.
The Columbus Municipal Airport (KOLU) is a very active airfield with aircraft restoration. Paul Muhle, a previous Oshkosh grand champion winning builder, has his shop there.
In its entirety, the state of Nebraska has a far more dynamic topography than one would expect. While it may fit the mark of a “fly-over state” from FL350, it reveals at least four different types of terrain that stand out to those of us at lower altitudes.
The Eastern part of the state starts with bluffs along the Missouri River that turn into the rolling hills of the “Bohemian Alps” west of Lincoln. If one flies north or south along the western edge of those hills you can see where the edge of an ancient glacier once flowed (and flattened the middle part of the state).
The mid-portion of Nebraska is flat plains; however, there are numerous rivers running through the entirety of the state which are interesting to follow. Prominent rivers throughout the state are the Niobrara River, multiple branches of the Loup River, the Elkhorn River, and the Republican River. The biggest and most prominent of all is the North Platte which spans the length of the state and has centuries of unique frontier history.
The Sandhills territory starts about the midway point through the state, with hundreds of bodies of water filled by the Ogallala Aquifer. Airfields are few and far in between in this portion; however, if viewed from a car, boat or airplane, this area is spectacular and worth transiting as its own attraction.
The Western portion (Panhandle) has the greatest amount of hills, bluffs, and the beginnings of mountainous terrain. Whether flown from east to west, or west to east, the Panhandle of Nebraska is a striking beginning or end of an enjoyable air tour of this great state.
Additional Sources and Information
Nebraska’s Tourism website has plenty of additional tourism/things to see/things to do information you can review before your trip. You can also request a printed “travel guide” from there. Each year the state promotes different tourism destinations via a passport book. You can download it via an app and collect stamps along the way for a chance to win some prizes!
Not sure how exactly you are going to get around once on the ground at some of these locations? Looking for ways to bring a bike or canoe with you? Take a look at this blog I recently published for some ideas.
Have Additional Time?
The “Friendly Airports and Helipads in the AOPA Central Southwest Region” blog covering NM, TX, LA, OK, AR, KS, MO, NE and IA has a list of those airports that have an on-site restaurant, aviation museum, camping, and/or aircraft viewing area, etc that you may consider stopping at on your way to/from Nebraska.
People and Organizations to Thank
I personally want to thank Ronnie Mitchell, Director of the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics, Rod de Zafra, Pilot and PIREPS Editor for the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics, Jenn Gjerde, Public Information Officer, the Nebraska Tourism Commission, and Tom Winter for their knowledge, time, suggestions, and overall help with this particular Air Trail.