There are flying clubs and then there are flying clubs. For Congressional Flying Club’s aviation aficionados, the social scene and the journey, rather than the destination, are paramount.
Operating in the shadows of the nation’s capital, Congressional Flying Club’s founding members staked a spot for fellow Washington, D.C.-based aviators to explore inexpensive flying opportunities in the late 1940s.
The club has been operating at Gaithersburg, Maryland’s Montgomery County Airpark for almost 60 years, ever since the club moved from Congressional Airport when a shopping center replaced the airfield in 1956.
Club participants say that Congressional embraces its community and its flying members but provides much more than monthly board meetings, aircraft scheduling, and budgets. Though the club meets weekly and has a governing board that meets on the first Tuesday of the month to handle business, it's the “after meeting” meetings that are legendary—the group shares camaraderie and tall tales at the nearby Growler’s Brew Pub where half-priced hamburgers are a favorite.
“This was founded as a club of cheapskates and we never compromised safety,” said Piotr Kulczakowicz, the club’s current president. “But when it comes to burgers, we look for the best deals around.”
“We’re kind of well-known there because we leave a good tip for the waitress and we’ve even taken her up in an airplane,” said Ruth Hornseth, who joined the club in 1999.
Hornseth said she came for the meetings and stayed for the show. “People just started talking about flying and really let their hair down. As a student pilot, I found those stories most helpful. I wasn’t really frightened away but I wanted to know more about the reality of flying and joining the club was reasonable in cost.”
Kulczakowicz said Congressional cultivates a strong pilot community a stone’s throw from Washington, D.C., but the club prides itself on its social get-togethers and fly-ins as much as it does the nuts and bolts of aviating.
“I’m happy for members to come fly airplanes, but we emphasize the social aspects,” said Kulczakowicz. “We have a Civil Air Patrol and a Congressional Flying Club trailer that is full of history with pictures of past presidents. At our weekly Tuesday night meetings we talk about safety and what we learned from flying. We have short training sessions, ‘What if?’ sessions, and then afterwards, from eight to 12 of us will go out and continue socializing over beer and burgers.”
Founders of the flying club also supported the Civil Air Patrol’s search-and-rescue, training, and leadership roles. The Montgomery Senior Squadron’s Maryland Wing is co-located with the Congressional club and nearly seven decades later, although the airspace, the aircraft, and the original venue have changed, the club’s founding principles remain its key cornerstones.
Kulczakowicz said one of Congressional’s founders started a fund to help the Civil Air Patrol cadets “that we still have going and we use it to help worthy, passionate youth pursue their private pilot certificate.”
Taking a cue from the late club president Bob Hawkins, a larger-than-life instructor who died in 2012, club members encourage young people to learn to fly. Kulczakowicz said Hawkins could spot a young aviator a mile away, and the club’s long affiliation with the Civil Air Patrol paved the way for many young people to gain a foothold in aviation.
“If the cadets showed continuing passion, we made it easier for them to join the Congressional club by waving their initiation and only paying 50 percent of the monthly dues,” said Kulczakowicz. “Often, one of the club members would provide continuing instruction for free, but we’d only do it for the teenagers who went through the hoops and showed that passion.”
When one young man showed great promise, members went out of their way to encourage the youth as he gained experience behind the yoke of the club’s Cessnas.
“The biggest success we had so far was Todd O’Brien, who is now in the U.S. Air Force and assigned to fly C-17s,” said Kulczakowicz. “We sponsored him to go to the CAP’s national flight academy and in the case of Todd, when he was accepted to the international cadet exchange, we gave him a few hundred bucks for pocket change. Then, when he was accepted into flying school, we helped him afford additional training.”
Kulczakowicz, a certificated flight instructor, explains how club members pooled their resources to surprise O’Brien early in his flight training. “So I’m preflighting the Cardinal and Todd was coming out to fly the plane with a friend and I told him, ‘Hey Todd, here’s another $1,000 for your training.’ He could not believe it.”
Hornseth soloed years ago, but she hasn’t taken the FAA private pilot checkride; she said she is happy to be “a perennial student” and an active Congressional club member. Her husband, Geoff, said he has seen more of the United States from the back seat of a general aviation aircraft than many pilots do from the front seat. Together, the Hornseths sang the praises of the Congressional Flying Club as a catalyst to good times, good friends, and fun flying adventures, no matter the destination.
“The best trip ever was our Coast to Coast trip. Geoff and I went from Gaithersburg, Maryland, all the way over to California and back. It took us a month,” Hornseth said. “We had a lot of camaraderie and met some of the most wonderful people at airports.”
She said four aircraft began the trip west and three continued all the way to California. “In Memphis we had some aircraft problems, but a couple of guys we called the Blues Brothers helped us out because we made a bet with club members back home. We had to get airborne by 5 p.m. or we’d lose, so they got us a starter and we were on our way.”
The couple’s cross-country adventure went through Arkansas, over the Grand Canyon, and around the Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River and into Arizona. “From Page we flew on to Tucson and stayed with a former club member who put us all up in her house,” Hornseth said. “We had adventures all along the way. The whole idea was to take off early enough each day to end up having beers or wine at night but we were really careful. We still keep that map in our hallway.”
Hornseth said she enjoys the social aspects of Congressional Flying Club, explaining, “I love to just be part of the whole crew.” She later added, “The best flights are when we leave for a fly-out trip, have campfires, and tell tall stories. It’s hard to put it into words, but I’m having such a marvelous time. It’s a real friendly club.”