Ron Alexander knows that you’re excited about flying. He and his volunteers plan to keep you that way.
How they do it is no mystery: Give a weary pilot a friendly welcome. Give a ground visitor a taste of aviation’s thrills with a period aviation museum and some country-airstrip ambience. Give a student pilot great airplanes to fly, grass to fly them from, instructors with unmatched experience, and lots of variety to turn out a well-rounded, confident pilot. Surround the trainees with living aviation history. Nourish their bodies and imaginations in a restaurant with a barnstormer’s theme.
Sound like someplace you’ve been? Check your logbook. You probably landed at Peach State Aerodrome in Williamson, Ga., (slogan: Where Old Aeroplanes Never Die), topped off your aircraft at the self-serve pumps, and met a few of the student pilots training there as members of the Candler Field Flying Club.
Alexander, a retired Delta Airlines captain, is proprietor of the 3,000-foot airport (with a displaced threshold making 2,400 feet available for landing) located just inside the 29-nautical-mile ring around Atlanta’s Class B airspace. It is home to the nonprofit Candler Field Museum, whose building design re-creates a portion of the Atlanta airport as it appeared in the 1930s, when it was named after Asa Griggs Candler, an early 20th century entrepreneur who held the first aerial event on the site in 1911. The museum currently houses several antique autos and aircraft, including the only flyable 1931 Stearman Model 6 in the country, said Alexander. The field is also home base to Chapter 468 of the Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA), which holds its meetings in the museum.
Lunch—and if you can’t pry yourself away, supper—is served at the Barnstormers Grill, where the aviation-standard $100 hamburger is offered for much less than that legendary price, as the EAA chapter’s page on the airport website assures its viewers. The restaurant serves about 1,000 customers a week, many who come in by road to enjoy a good meal and a side order of general aviation.
Thirty percent of the club’s students are under age 21.
Hop a sightseeing ride in the Waco YMF. If you checked the schedule of events before heading for Peach State, you may get to participate in one of numerous aviation and social activities and speakers’ programs held there throughout the year. The monthly newsletter will help you plan ahead. A benefit dance with a big-band sound was scheduled at the museum for March 19; EAA President and CEO Rod Hightower was scheduled to visit April 5.
On any given weekend, it’s likely that 30 or 40 antique or classic aircraft will pay a drop-in visit. Ground-level visitors are encouraged to mingle; with the Atlanta area home to so many retired and still-active airline and corporate pilots, a visitor, especially a young person with eyes on the sky, can count on a warm Williamson welcome—and tons of support.
“They want younger people to get enthused about it. They’re very open about it,” Alexander says of his airport regulars.
That supportive environment—for instance, everyone who works at the aerodrome is a volunteer except for some restaurant staff—is what quickly turns Alexander’s conversation about his homemade aviation nirvana to teaching young people to fly.
Whether a student flies with Alexander or one of the other mostly volunteer flight instructors, he or she will learn the fundamentals and receive the first 10 hours of instruction in the flying club’s tailwheel-equipped Citabria, including spin training. Then, the student moves over to one of the club’s two Cessna 172s to complete the private pilot course. Both types of aircraft rent for $85 an hour wet. The retired pilots giving instruction donate their time; younger working CFIs charge a nominal hourly rate. If it sounds like an unusual formula, Alexander says it’s the way to take the next step beyond promotion and recruitment campaigns that don’t address the tough question of costs.
“We just believe in going back to the basics of aviation and flight instruction,” Alexander says.
It must be working. In a little over a year the club’s eight instructors have soloed six students and turned out three new private pilots. “That’s not bad for one year,” Alexander said. Thirty percent of the club’s students are under age 21.
There’s a designated examiner available nearby for checkrides. And Peach State’s grass strip ambience notwithstanding, there’s the ever-present reality of Atlanta’s Class B airspace, the floor of which is 8,000 feet mean sea level directly overhead the strip, keeping trainees sharp on airspace and situational awareness.
Education programs engage area scouting and Civil Air Patrol organizations. The Museum of Aviation at Robins Air Force Base, in Warner Robins, Ga., is a nearby field trip attraction.
The flying club’s young student members get to pitch in; they can also learn about their flying machines’ inner workings by helping to maintain their training aircraft. A current restoration project at Candler Field Museum is bringing a Curtiss JN-4 Jenny back to life; it may fly by summer.
An AOPA member who visited Peach State Aerodrome captured the feel in a comment submitted to AOPA Airports.
“The airport and the Barnstormer Restaurant is a true nostalgic aviation gem,” the member wrote.