Gauging the Wind with the Flying Hoffmans

gplaneOne of the nation’s best-known manufacturers of windsocks is based in Spencer, Neb. Don’t look for a sprawling corporate headquarters – Huffy’s Airport Windsocks are made on Main Street… and in the hog barn. By Curt Arens

“According to the windsock, we’re looking at winds around 20 miles per hour,” our pilot, Gary Hoffman, told us through the headset. Sitting at the north end of Hoffman’s farm airstrip, the 300-horsepower engine in his six-passenger Piper Cherokee hummed just below our voices. Gary went through his preflight checks. “Everybody ready?” he asked.

I nodded. Gary reached over and locked the door on my side of the cabin. “Here we go,” he said.

Gliding down the strip of mowed grass and alfalfa, we rose into a bright blue, late summer sky, above a myriad of windsocks floating out in the breeze. Cows, houses and farmsteads below became small.

On that breezy morning, we had come to see the Hoffmans, their airplanes and their unique family business just east of Spencer. Not only is Gary a pilot and farmer, but he – along with his wife, Karen, and their family – is one of the nation’s leading manufacturers of airport windsocks. Much of the work is done in their old hog barn and farm shop.

“We could get a smoother ride if we went higher, but you wouldn’t see as much,” Gary said. The winds bumped the plane around a little, but no matter. As we looked down, the terrain changed from drying fields of corn and soybeans to the rugged ridges and wooded ravines surrounding the Missouri River at Nebraska’s northern border. Gary pointed out the striking blue-green water of Lake Francis Case, just above Fort Randall Dam.

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After turning back for a quick aerial view of the hamlet of Gross, Neb., we flew back toward the landing strip we’d left about an hour earlier. Because of the myriad of [cut?] large windsocks marking the field, the Hoffman place is easy to spot from the air. Gary advised us that if the winds weren’t quite right, he might have to pull up and take another run at the landing strip. He checked the windsocks waving along the strip and headed down, setting us gently on the grass.

It had been a short, ordinary flight, but as we taxied back to the hanger on the farm, I couldn’t help but wish that we could have stayed up there.

So did Gary. “Karen, we have to find an excuse to fly somewhere this week,” he told his wife after the flight. “Once we were up there, I just wanted to keep going.”

The rest of the Hoffman family knows the feeling. The first time that daughter Julie left the farm, it was in their airplane. “She’s really proud of that,” Karen said. Their other children – Tony, Mike and Andy – all love the air.

Earlier that morning, we had worried that gusting winds might spoil our proposed air adventure. Nebraska wind is legendary. Pioneers joked of measuring wind speed with a log chain attached to a solid wooden corner post. If the chain rattles, they said, it’s a mild breeze. If the chain is whipping and standing straight out from the post, it’s a light gust. Only if chain and post are ripped away entirely would you say it’s windy.

weldingSince 1985, the Hoffmans have sold windsocks under the name Huffy’s Airport Windsocks. In addition to airports, customers include hospital helicopter landing pads, port authorities, harbors, state departments of transportation, farm chemical applicators, oil rigs and aviators with private landing strips.

The business started unexpectedly when Karen brought a homemade windsock to a convention of the Nebraska Flying Farmers and Ranchers in Kearney. The Hoffmans had been buying windsocks from other suppliers, but each one only lasted about six months on their windy farm airstrip. So Gary asked his wife if she could make one as a convention door prize. By convention’s end, Karen had orders for 11 more. Twenty years later, the Hoffmans sell thousands of windsocks a year.

As important as the windsock itself is the bracket that holds it open and keeps it from blowing away. An accomplished welder and designer, Gary developed his own bracket and now markets them in several different sizes.

While Gary welded an eight-inch bracket in the farm shop, I found other examples of his inventiveness. He also makes airplane lawn ornaments, and invented a rear-wheel dolly for his airplane, allowing one person to easily maneuver a small plane in and out of a hangar. In some ways, he is working in the tradition of farmers everywhere, finding new ways to make his work a little more efficient.

“Gary can make anything,” Karen said.

In the early days, Karen did all the sewing of windsocks at home. Today, employees sew, grommet and prepare windsocks for shipping at a shop along Main Street in Spencer. Part-time and seasonal employees help with sewing and with manufacturing brackets for big orders. Gary and Karen use their former hog barn for custom screen printing of logos and lettering on the material. To reach their markets, they travel to aviation trade shows around the country.

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Gary didn’t always love airplanes. When he was three years old, his Dad and brother went for an airplane ride near Lake Andes. When Gary’s mother tried to coax him into a family photo by the plane, he was scared to death. “I was afraid they were going to throw me in that plane and take off,” Gary recalled.

But he outgrew that fear. As an adult, Gary took flying lessons from Roger Wolfe of Lynch, an accomplished World War II pilot instructor and flying farmer. When the Hoffmans bought their first plane in 1975, they too became flying farmers. Years ago, Gary said, “nearly every farm had a landing strip.”

Karen’s father, John Rustemeyer, also had something to do with their passion for aviation, Gary admits. As a belly gunner and photographer, Rustemeyer flew 36 bombing missions in the Pacific during World War II. “He still has shrapnel in his leg,” Karen said. “And he tells stories about scooping shell casings out of the plane with shovels after a mission.”

These days, the Hoffmans own two planes, the Piper Cherokee 6 we flew in that morning, and a 1953 Super Cub two-passenger. The Cub’s low-flying capabilities make it the perfect plane for checking cows in the pasture, Gary says. Son Mike is a certified pilot and daughter Julie received an aviation degree from the University of Nebraska-Omaha. The family even hosted a couple fly-ins and impromptu air shows at their farm.

“I even started taking flying lessons when the kids were little,” Karen said, though she was too busy to finish them, and “never had any desire to be up there by myself anyway.”

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Whether it is flying, farming or making windsocks, the Hoffmans work together as a family, even now that their children are grown. Tony and Mike still return home to help weld windsock brackets for their parents. “I hear people say that children cost money,” said Gary. “Not for us. Our children worked alongside Karen and I all those years. They are a great asset to us.”

The Hoffmans are a family of entrepreneurs. Gary and the boys worked in partnership with John for three decades, mowing Corps of Engineers land all across the upper Great Plains. They worked contracts for roadside mowing with state road departments. The family even owned a variety store in Spencer. “One summer, we had 48 people working for us,” Karen said.

“Our boys ran crews of workers when they were home, so they knew how to work hard,” Gary said.

The family still runs a cow-calf herd, but mostly they stay busy with windsocks. Sometimes it’s difficult to keep up with orders. In 2002, for example, the New York City port authority ordered windsocks for the Lincoln and Holland tunnels. The call came on December 30, and port authority officials – fearing a chemical attack and needing something to gauge the wind – wanted to install the windsocks before New Year’s Day. The Hoffmans filled the order in time. The windsocks are as large as 36 inches in diameter by 144 inches long, and as small as windsock key chains and desk ornaments. They show up from time to time on television shows and in movies. Gary recently recognized one of their desk ornament windsocks sticking out of a pencil holder on a desk on TV.

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For the Hoffmans, the most rewarding part of the business is dealing with people in the aviation industry. “We are overwhelmed with that group of people,” Gary said. “When we go to these shows, folks stop by our booth and everyone has a story.”

“Many of them dream of owning their own airstrip, but land in most places is so high priced,” Gary said. “I flew into Yellowstone National Park one time and two guys were eating lunch under the wing of their plane when I landed. They noticed that I had a little alfalfa wrapped around one of the wheels of my plane.” When one of them asked if Gary had been flying really low, “I told him that it was probably just a little hay from my airstrip on the farm back home,” he said. “They were floored. They were doctors in San Francisco. They couldn’t believe that I had my own airstrip at home.”

“I tell folks that I can walk out my front door and to my own hangar and fly off my own airstrip,” Gary said. “I guess we’re living an aviator’s dream.” As we departed from the Hoffman farm, Gary and Karen headed back to work. But after the plane ride and visit we’d had, I couldn’t help but think that he was right.

About the author – Curt Arens and his wife, Donna, farm near Crofton. Curt wrote about the loss of a neighboring farmstead, “Ab’s Place” in the November/December 2005 issue.

Reprinted by permission of Nebraska Life Magazine March/April 2006 www.nebraskalife.com