Labor of love: Sugar Valley Airport unveils fire circle

April 24, 2012

Photos by Ferdi Mack.

Thousands of bricks and many hours of sweat equity went into the construction of a fire circle at Sugar Valley Airport in Mocksville, N.C.—but the result is a work of art that is meant to be enjoyed by everyone.

Dedicated on April 21 at the airport’s spring fly-in, the fire circle has already drawn visiting pilots as well as groups of Boy Scouts and others. Situated a few hundred yards from the runway and overlooking a small lake, the fire circle is a serene and welcoming space. Airport Manager Thomas White said the construction took 7,000 bricks and hundreds of hours of volunteer labor.

White credited John Wells, president of the Honda Flying Club, with the original concept for the fire circle. Wells, who is manager of logistics and materials construction at Honda Aircraft Co. in Greensboro, is a former Eagle Scout and veteran of many camporees. He’s also a pilot who enjoys backcountry flying in Idaho and other remote areas. A campfire circle at scenic Sugar Valley seemed like the perfect addition, and the Honda Flying Club donated $1,000 toward the project up front, he said.

The Honda Flying Club and Sugar Valley “kind of adopted each other,” said Wells. “This has become our get-away airport.” Wells said Honda colleague Mike Smith brought his construction knowledge to the project and devoted every weekend from November to April, working alongside volunteers who laid each of the bricks by hand—and then had to replace 300 bricks that were washed away by a spring rainstorm. “This airport has the most amazing volunteers I’ve ever seen,” Wells said.

The fire circle is just the latest in a series of improvements made since the airport was acquired by a local nonprofit group in April 2010. Volunteers for the Human Service Alliance Inc. paved and widened the runway, cleaned up the grounds, and repaired doors and windows on hangars and other buildings.

“People ask, ‘Why would a nonprofit own an airport?’” White said. “The answer is organically evolving.” Sugar Valley’s new owners have had community service at the front and center of their goals for the airport. Aviation programs for young people include low-cost flight training and free ground school classes. What’s more, the airport hosts a group of local craftsmen who hold free classes in pottery, silk painting, woodworking, and more.

“All services will be provided for free,” White said. “Anything we do will be offered to the community.”

Sugar Valley put out the welcome mat for the community on April 21. While an early-morning fog layer pushed the day’s activities behind schedule just a bit, fly-in visitors still got to watch pilots compete in a spot-landing contest—made even more tricky by trees at the approach end of 2,424-foot Runway 20. They saw a Seabee do a “splash and dash”—the floatplane equivalent of a touch and go—on the lake adjacent to the airport. They watched radio-controlled airplanes perform loops and dives. And they enjoyed a hearty Southern-style lunch.

Zahra Khan of China Grove, N.C., was helping children put together paper airplanes at the fly-in. Khan, 17, is one of Sugar Valley’s newest private pilots—she got her certificate on her seventeenth birthday, in March. Two other up-and-coming pilots have soloed. Learning at Sugar Valley, they don’t have to pay a rental fee for the aircraft, which has cut their costs in half, White said. “We want to support the development of aviation,” he said.