Photos by Chris Eads
A cannon fires after Pat Derrick makes a low pass over the grass strip in a Vultee BT-13 Valiant. Derrick is the unofficial alarm clock for hundreds of pilots, their family, and friends, camping under the wings of their aircraft at the 400-plus acre Triple Tree Aerodrome in Woodruff, South Carolina. It’s almost 7 a.m. as pilots wearily emerge from their dew-covered tents after late-night talks, karaoke, and other entertainment. Time for another day of flying, fishing, relaxing, and catching up with old and new friends.
The annual Triple Tree Fly-In, held this year from Sept. 3 through 7, grows year after year, as pilots spread the word of this peaceful, almost-too-good-to-be-true oasis just outside of Greenville. The privately owned, private-use facility was created in 2000 and boasts a 7,000-by-400-foot grass strip—pristine golf-course-style grass that’s cut twice a week with a custom-built 36-foot-wide tractor-pulled mower. It also has a lake for seaplanes with a 4,000-by-200-foot landing area, a fishing pond, gazebos, a bath house, a tower, and a hangar filled with rare aircraft. An outdoor seating area behind the hangar features a large outdoor fireplace to keep visitors warm on chilly evenings.
The event, now in its eighth year, has become so popular that organizers created fly-in procedures for attendees. Those who failed to follow the procedures had to put a dollar in a two-quart mayonnaise jar at the bottom of the 1940s-style tower. Nina Marousek of New York wasn’t one of those. She studied the procedures, loaded them into ForeFlight, and flew the procedures precisely. Marousek said approaching the strip felt like a “homecoming” even though it was her first visit.
Marousek camped with fellow members of the Cessna Pilots Society. The group circled their Skyhawks and Skylanes, pitched their tents underneath the wings, and set up a canopy in the middle for them to gather and chat. Nearby, a group of RVs circled like Conestoga wagons (early arrivals get their pick of camping locations and buddies). Other aircraft pushed back to the woods along the grass strip.
Triple Tree Aerodrome, along with its 501(c)3, is the masterpiece of Pat Hartness, associates, and volunteers, according to the facility’s website. The aerodrome is built “to ignite and expand the passion for aviation,” and is operated under the “Triple Tree golden rule”: fun, fellowship, and hospitality. All three were aspects of the mission evident upon touchdown in AOPA’s Reimagined Cessna 152.
Pilots pull out their camping chairs and handheld radios to listen to traffic calls and watch aircraft—or perform a fly-by. Others get out their fishing poles. Some walk through the parking and camping areas to check out all the aircraft. When the pattern isn’t busy with traffic, you might to see two Cubs flying circles in formation over the field at sunset, or three Cessna 150/152s performing formation fly-overs, or an RV making a low approach with its smoke on, or even a P-51 strutting its stuff.
Southern hospitality overflows at Triple Tree, inviting everyone to slow down and enjoy their present company. Each night, different meals are offered that encourage mingling, whether it is grilling your own steak or a enjoying a “taste of Triple Tree” that features different food tables with meat, pasta, salad, fruit cups, vegetables, chips and dip, and dessert.
Saturday offers a host of activities, including workshops and safety seminars. There are plenty of outdoor activities every day, including fishing for bass and bream in ponds; kayaking or tubing down the Enoree River; and walking and hiking on trails (there’s nothing quite as peaceful as a walk of the grounds under the stars and moonlight). Campers offer endless entertainment, as well, including karaoke.
The Harntess family and volunteers ensure that every detail is tended to. Volunteers drive golf carts around the camping sites offering endless supplies of ice for coolers. Others offer concierge services. Forget something? Let them know—they’ll take your order and money, put it in a plastic bag, purchase your order, and return. Plus, a small general store near the main hangar has flip flops and other small items. Triple Tree school buses run regularly around the property to take pilots to and from the camping area to the main hangar where large meals are served.
The facilities are immaculate (as one could guess just by the runway’s condition). The gazebo by the bath house has Wi-Fi for pilots to stay connected and ease flight planning. Outlets are plentiful for charging phones, iPads, etc. The bath house features granite sink counter tops and complimentary hair dryers. The spacious shower stalls have slatted wooden floors so the water doesn’t pool around your feet. Shower heads fit for a high-end hotel deliver hot water and fantastic water pressure. And, at least in the women’s side of the bath house, the shower curtains are trimmed with lace. Port-a-potties are located throughout the property, but the bath house also has toilets.
The fly-in is open to pilots and their guests who are members of an aviation association (you’re asked to show your membership card). But the fly-in isn’t the only opportunity to enjoy the aerodrome. General aviation and remote-controlled aircraft events are offered throughout the year. Two RC events are scheduled for Sept. 19 to 21 and 24 to 28 this year. Events for GA pilots pick back up in 2015 with a Chilly Chili Fly-in Feb. 7 and a Fabric & Tailwheel event June 6. The Triple Tree Fly-In is set for Sept. 9 through 13. So mark your calendars, and pack your sleeping bag and a fishing pole. This is one of the best-kept fly-in secrets you won’t want to miss.