The Pilot's Lounge #58:
An Aviation-Themed Hotel in the Heartland

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There aren't a lot of places right next to an airport where those family members who are not obsessed with airplanes can have fun too. AVweb's Rick Durden took a trip away from The Pilot's Lounge and found a nice hotel with all the necessary family amenities, plus an aviation theme to boot.

The Pilot's Lounge

There is a deep, abiding pleasure in discovering a place that is somehow both pilot- and family-friendly; where a pilot can share the joy he or she feels when in the sky with the most important people in his or her life. Not long after I had listened in on a gripe session in the pilot's lounge here at the virtual airport in which a bunch of pilots complained about the lack of ways to do something fun with the family in a way that somehow involved flying, I had the good fortune to come across the Alexis Park Inn of Iowa City, Iowa. It is an aviation-themed motel just off the approach end of Runway 25 of the Iowa City Airport. In a world of kitsch and tacky, it is a rare gem, a tasteful atmosphere of aviation with large, comfortable suites and a swimming pool (outdoor) that make it an ideal overnight stop on a trip or a weekend destination with the kids.

Alexis Park Inn

Here in the Lounge, we have watched pilots go through endless frustration in the process of trying to find a way to balance their desire to be with families who do not get as excited as they do over a slip to landing on a clover-scented grass runway on a summer evening and their own very primal need to engage in flight. They will get up early on Sunday mornings to spend a hundred dollars to fly with like-minded friends to an airport restaurant for food of indifferent quality, often suppressing a bit of guilt over raiding the family treasury to do something they alone enjoy. Almost all would like to combine their flying with things the rest of the family likes, but given the varied tastes of family members it is exceedingly difficult. Those who have flown to some of the large amusement parks that are located close to airports have become heroes to their kids, although the flying part may have only been tolerated because it would have taken too long to make the trip by car. Even those heroes are looking for something better.

Linbergh Story in Newspaper
Display in the Lindburgh Suite
(click for larger view)
A few entrepreneurs have recognized that Americans really do have a love affair with aviation and space; they are aware that the Smithsonian's National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world and that air shows outdraw all other sporting events every year; there is a level of demand to be tapped.

Over the years I've watched various aviation-themed entities come and go and have formed some general conclusions as to why they make it or not. First of all, there are not a heck of a lot of pilots, so marketing directly to them as an exclusive group, given that pilots are notorious tightwads, can be the kiss of death. The appeal has to be to a wider audience. Pilots will go someplace once because it is a pilot thing and they are curious about it; but will not return unless it is cheap (despite the stack of money they dropped just flying there) or there is some other, strong attraction to it. I keep thinking of Old Hack's comment during that discussion here in the Lounge. He muttered, "Yeah, the poor schmucks who try to set up stuff for pilots break their backs to do so, and then the cheapskates either won't go because it isn't free, or once they get there, they find out the attraction is so tacky that they never return."

Kitchen
Kitchen
Bedroom
Bedroom

Even when something is very good, the fickle pilot community may not support it and it may not be able to successfully market itself to a wider audience. We as pilots can only blame ourselves when the good opportunities disappear. One absolute treasure was the EAA's Family Flight Camp at Oshkosh. I wrote about it after my family spent one of the best weekends we ever had at the camp. It wasn't expensive even though it costs money to put on a high-quality event. Pilots stayed away in droves and the EAA dropped the program. Frankly, those of you within flying distance of a weekend at Oshkosh during the year really blew it. By sitting on your hands, you wrecked a chance to share your love for aviation with your family in a setting that was about perfect.

With the Alexis Park Inn, you've got another chance. If you blow this one, I don't want to hear any more complaints about no place to go with your family.

After I heard about the Alexis Park Inn, I made a reservation via the Internet and spent the night. Yes, I paid for it, and in the interest of full disclosure, I received nothing from the inn or its owners, other than some enjoyable conversation. I'm enough of an aviation cynic that I expected tacky. It isn't. The suite I stayed in was large, comfortable and tastefully decorated. I particularly enjoyed the fact that part of the deal you get with a suite is that a Continental breakfast is a part of the price and it is delivered to your room. No, they don't barge in on you, it is discreetly left outside the door at the time promised.

The inn is about as close to the Iowa City Airport as it can be without being on Airport property, which allowed me to engage in one of my favorite sports, watching airplanes. The gift shop proved to be not only a place where I could stock up on pilot supplies I usually have to order, but had some clever items for those who sort of like airplanes as well as lots of aviation related stuff for kids. Having proven over the years I am shopping-impaired, I nevertheless had fun looking at the selection because it was airplane stuff and I'm hopelessly addicted to that sort of thing. I even bought some items as gifts.

There is a fitting symmetry to the location of the Alexis Park Inn because the Iowa City Airport is the oldest airport west of the Mississippi, and was the scene of one of the more dramatic incidents in aviation history, worthy of some digression. On February 22, 1921, the Post Office engaged in an effort to operate its airmail planes on the transcontinental route at night, something it had not done. Congress was about to cut off funding unless the time for transcontinental mail cut be cut significantly over that of sending it by rail, something "day only" operations in 100-mph airplanes simply couldn't do. Unfortunately, winter weather was present on that first day, and of the four mail-loaded airplanes that started out with the mail early that morning (two from New York and two from San Francisco), by evening only one batch of mail was still on its way. The two westbound flights had stopped east of Cleveland due to a gigantic snowstorm. An eastbound plane had stalled after takeoff, either due to shifting cargo impinging on control cables or the inexperience of the pilot, and stuffed itself into the Nevada scrub, with fatal results. In late afternoon, one Jack Knight, who had already made a trip from North Platte, Neb., to Cheyenne, Wyo., and back, waited for the 400-hp Liberty-powered DH-4 that he was to take eastward to Omaha. It arrived on time, but required three hours of maintenance before he could proceed. He departed after dark, flying low over western Nebraska in that unheated, open cockpit biplane, in bitterly cold weather, relying on bonfires that the enthusiastic citizenry had built along his route to aid his navigation. Fortunately, there were no towers to hit back then.

Stained Glass Airplane
Stained Glass Window
(click picture to see more)
Knight arrived in Omaha to discover that the snowstorm east of him had precluded the Chicago-based pilot from getting in, so there was no one to take the mail on east. He had never flown the route. As if stumbling into the plot of a cheap novel, Knight agreed to continue because the mail absolutely, positively had to go through in order for funding to continue. He sat down with a road map to figure out the way while the airplane was being serviced.

The flight Jack Knight made that night was the stuff of legend, particularly his arrival in Iowa City. Following the Rock Island railroad tracks, Knight pressed eastward. Near Des Moines he flew into the snowstorm. Those who have had the massively unpleasant experience of trying to fly VFR through snow in the daytime have the visceral understanding that one's life expectancy in doing so may be measured in minutes. Knight was doing it at night, in a biplane that was nearly blind forward, without instruments, and which had two sets of wings that effectively reduced his field of vision to something akin to peering through Venetian blinds.

The folks who had stayed up to build bonfires had given up and gone home. Knight followed the rail line and somehow made it to Iowa City, arriving over the general area of the airport with only a few minutes of fuel remaining. Naturally, because of the delays, everyone had gone home save one watchman. He heard Knight's airplane and rushed out with a flare to show the location of the field (this was before runways) and light what oil-burning boundary lights as he could. Knight landed successfully. The sound of his plane circling Iowa City had alerted the remainder of the ground crew, who arrived in short order to service the airplane, pull the mail for that stop and load the Iowa mail to go east. Again despite not having ever flown the route, Knight took off. Shortly after sunrise he landed at Chicago's airport, Checkerboard Field (now the site of a huge hospital complex) in Maywood, Ill. There Knight finally was able to take a rest while another pilot flew the mail to Cleveland and the final one pressed on with it to New York, history and a congressional appropriation for the postal service's air mail.

If Jack Knight can fly an airplane nicknamed the flaming coffin due to its propensity to catch fire in flight, through a blizzard to Iowa City, at night, the least you can do is take your family to an aviation-themed motel, let them splash in the pool and then entertain the kids with the story of Knight's heroics as you tuck them into bed. If nothing else, you will remind them that aviation has bred more than its share of heroes. In a suite decorated in an aviation theme, the Alexis Park Inn is the perfect environment for you to help keep the memory of people like Jack Knight alive.

Mary and Jay Honeck

When you land at Iowa City, a call to the Alexis Park Inn will bring a car or van to the terminal in minutes. Jay and Mary Honeck own and run the inn. They also own and run a Dakota, Piper's follow-on to the Cherokee 235. I've always felt that motels are best operated by the people who own them, rather than by hired management for absentee landlords. My visit to the inn confirmed my prejudice. Mary and Jay are determined to make everyone's stay enjoyable. The lobby is decorated in a flight motif and includes some stained glass windows depicting various aircraft, including the United DC-3 that was the Mainliner Iowa City. (Jack Knight went on to fly for United, retiring before World War II.) The stained glass creations are the product of Gary Elshoff, who has been in the stained glass business for some years, and result from a meeting Jay and Mary had with Gary at Oshkosh. Jay and Mary were wise enough not only to add the stained glass windows to their inn, but to put up a few up for sale.

The inn has some 28 suites and 100 rooms. When given a tour, I was struck by the fact that the suites were unusually large; some have two or three bedrooms. I think all have hot tubs. Little by little, Jay and Mary are creating a specific theme for each suite. I was assigned to the Memphis Belle Suite. Inside, I discovered that there were some framed photographs and posters depicting the B-17 that was the first to complete 25 missions over Europe and then was flown around the States to support the war effort. There was also a notebook that had more detailed information on the airplane and the two movies made about it, something I liked. It was enjoyable to be in a suite that was comfortable, tasteful and rather than having some generic wall art selected by a soulless MBA, the artwork consisted of attractive photos and posters, all framed and placed carefully. My reaction was to wonder why more hostelries couldn't be done as well, no matter what the underlying theme.

Each suite includes a small kitchen, so long-term stays mean not having to eat out all of the time. Hear that pilots? You can take the family there for a weekend and still be a tightwad by bringing your own food. This is a good thing.

Pan Am Suite
Pan Am Clipper Suite
(click for larger view)

Most of the suites I saw had a balcony. There is a nice-sized pool, so the inn can be a most satisfactory weekend destination for the family as the kids can swim until suitably wrinkled, while you and the spouse can watch them from your balcony (a number of the suites do face the pool, but not all, so be sure and specify when you make a reservation) while sipping something that means you won't be flying for several hours.

If it is just you and the significant other, try the Pan Am Clipper Suite. It was the honeymoon suite, and has a waterbed and a bigger hot tub. The décor reminds one of flying aboard the big Boeing 314 flying boats that Pan Am operated around the world in the early '40s. Mary and Jay did a very good job of creating the mood of Pan Am in the South Pacific.

Shortly after the inn reopened under Mary and Jay's careful eyes, the MATS Lockheed Constellation visited Iowa City and the crewmembers were guests of the inn. They provided some items that became the foundation of the Constellation Suite. Other suites are dedicated to the Wright Brothers, Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart and the Red Baron. Coming in the next few months are suites portraying the Boeing Stearman, Beech Staggerwing, Oshkosh, Apollo, Reno (and its air races) as well as one dedicated to their community, Iowa City. Given the location, I'm going to suggest a suite dedicated to Jack Knight.


View out of a Connie
View of Hotel from a Connie
(click for larger view)

Even in someone's most optimistic delirium Iowa is not ever going to be considered a major tourist destination. Yes, I believe every city kid should see a working farm, and there is no richer farmland in the world than that in the state of Iowa. Yes, there are good reasons for folks to go to Iowa City, largely because the University of Iowa is one of the better institutions of higher education in this country and the "Field Of Dreams" baseball field isn't all that far away. However, let's be realistic: Most of us aren't going to load the kids in the airplane and fly them to Iowa for a week's stay so long as Disneyworld exists. But, if you are in the Midwest and you have ever taken the kids to a motel for a weekend of swimming and running around, you've got a new destination that you and the spouse will probably like more than where you've been going. If you are flying across the country, you now have a perfect place for your overnight stop. Not only is it reasonably priced and incredibly convenient to the airport, you can fall asleep under the eyes of Charles Lindbergh. If you are worried about your airplane in the night, there's a fair chance you can see it from your room. On top of that, you can use the computer in the lobby to get your weather briefing.

Don't let this one get away. You owe it to yourself and your family. The Alexis Park Inn can be reached at 319/337-8665 or on their Web site.

I'm planning on returning.

See you next month.