KENAI — Each year, pilots drop Kenai’s ugliest pumpkins, some of which ooze furry white deposits of mold from their stems, from 200 feet above the ground in a lively round of target practice.
Below, spectators laugh as the gourds explode on the ground seconds later.
Kenai Aviation’s third annual Chili Cookoff and Fly-In took place last weekend, in part as a way to get members of the aviation community together and celebrate what they do in Alaska, said Kenai Aviation co-owner Joel Caldwell.
Caldwell — who owns the flight school and air charter business with his sons, Jacob and Caleb Caldwell — works full time as a captain for Alaska Airlines. When he’s not flying Boeing 737s, he helps with the charter side of the business and acts as “dad to the flight school.”
Saturday’s event brought pilots from Kenai and around Alaska, Caldwell said. The day started with a safety briefing as pilots discussed strategies for hitting the orange cone sitting on top of a 10-by-12-foot blue tarp positioned at the end of the Kalifornsky Meadows Condo Association Air Park.
“Here’s my secret,” Caldwell told the group. “You get over (the tarp) and you drop it.” Laughter filled the room as people reviewed the flight route.
After taking off from the Kenai Municipal Airport, pilots flew their planes along the beach from the mouth of the Kenai River south to the mouth of the Kasilof River and then circled back toward the grass-on-gravel airstrip.
On the ground, some kids played football while another played with a toy airplane in the dirt. Adults swiveled their heads and watched as small planes whizzed by and pumpkins fell from the sky.
“This is the craziest thing I’ve ever seen,” said Ron Limes, a Seattle-based chief pilot with Alaska Airlines. Limes and a flight instructor from Horizon Air flew up to Alaska for the day to participate in the pumpkin drop and announced a new partnership between Alaska Air Group and Kenai Aviation.
Randy Smith, a first officer with Alaska Airlines and friend of Caldwell’s, has been volunteering to work the drop zone for two years. After each splat and thwap, Smith walked the distance from the impact zone — where seeds and gooey pumpkin guts spilled onto the earth — to the target and quietly counted his paces.
Joel Caldwell spent part of Saturday flying people in his orange Piper tailwheel tri-pacer, fittingly known as “the Pumpkin,” so they could participate. The end-of-autumn brown foliage and Cook Inlet’s pale blues contrasted with the orange pumpkin Austin Levy held as he sat shoulder-to-shoulder with Caldwell. Brisk air filled the cockpit as Levy opened the door and dropped the gourd.
Back at the airport’s small hangar, the only evidence of the day’s adventures was a bright orange streak that stained the inside of Joel Caldwell’s eggshell-colored aircraft door.
He described how he used to take the back door off his plane to drop off buckets of ice cream for his sons halfway through their weeklong camping adventures.
“So, I’ve always dropped stuff out of this airplane,” Caldwell said.
After the pumpkin drop, people gathered inside the hangar and waited for the results. Ten or so different kinds of chili sat bubbling inside slow cookers as the tangy, hearty smell of onions and seasoned meat filled the warm room. Chili-caked spoons and ladles rested on paper plates after people went back for seconds.
Pilot Matt Landry placed first, missing the center of the target by 48 feet. Pilots Luke Clements and Bill Wilcox tied for second place with a measurement of 99 feet.
Marie Smith’s sirloin chili took first place in the chili cookoff. Second place went to Natalie Levy, and Marshall Paulson finished in third place.