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Better together

Flying is even more fun with friends

As a new pilot in 2002, I was proficient at takeoffs, cruise flight, and landing—but I wanted more. I wanted to go places, fulfill some of the goals I’d made for myself as a student pilot.

Photography by Chris Rose
Photography by Chris Rose

At the same time, I was hesitant to plan and execute one of these adventures. Panel-mounted GPS units were not as plentiful as they are today, and my pilotage and dead-reckoning skills were, um, lacking. I was intimidated at the thought of leaving my well-flown patch of airspace in the Mid-Atlantic. So, I poked around the pattern and kept proficient—and waited.

In July 2004 my local flight school announced an ambitious fly-out—a group of pilots would fly up the East Coast, stopping at Nantucket, Massachusetts; Portland and Bangor, Maine; and finally Burlington, Vermont, before heading back to our home base in Maryland. Flight instructors would be available to ride along in the right seat for anyone who needed or simply wanted a helping hand. I signed up.

At the annual Lone Pine Backcountry Fly-In, you can meet up with other pilots—with the added challenge of flying out to other destinations near Death Valley.On that four-day trip, I did real-world flying and experienced more types of weather than I previously had. I worked through a directional gyro malfunction and sharpened my communications skills at a Class C airport as well as a very busy Class D. The experience was priceless, especially the evenings we spent together as a group, going over what we’d accomplished and what we would likely encounter on the next leg of the trip.

Group flying—where you fly with other pilots, or you fly to a place where other pilots will congregate—provides that kind of fulfillment, the sense of adventure that often fades from the routine of weekend flights to the nearest airport.

It’s not a new concept. Pilots have been flying in flocks for decades, well before the internet made it so simple to connect with so many. Overnight group fly-outs such as the one I joined in 2004 are guaranteed to expose a new pilot to a lot of learning, but they require an immense amount of planning and resources. If your flight school sponsors one, investigate it.

You can always start smaller by meeting up with others to experience the rapturous tradition of $100 pancakes or hamburgers—but with friends.

“It’s all about fun, camaraderie, a reason to get out and keep yourself current,” said Stoney Truett, president of the South Carolina Breakfast Club, who flies a Rans S–6 based at Jim Hamilton/L.B. Owens Airport (CUB) in Columbia, South Carolina. The SCBC, started in 1938 and one of the longest-running groups in general aviation, gets together about twice a month and flies somewhere in South Carolina “and a few surrounding states” to meet up and have breakfast. That’s it.

Well, almost. “When you come to a breakfast club [get-together] you are a member for life,” Truett said. “There are no dues.” Hats are awarded to the pilots who’ve flown the longest distance. A tradition that dates to the group’s inception involves signing a ball that is brought to each event. Once used to celebrate bouncy landings, the ball now is signed by pilots in taildraggers, or just whoever is deemed worthy. “Last week we had a breakfast club in Greenwood, South Carolina,” Truett said recently. “It was a marginal weather day. We didn’t have anybody to sign the ball who had flown in, but one of the waitresses had just soloed, and she signed the ball.”

The Smokehouse Pilots online group recently held a fly-in, with live music, food trucks, and a static display (David Tulis).Attendance varies, depending on the weather or the size of the airport. Triple Tree Aerodrome (SC00) in Woodruff, South Carolina, is a popular yearly destination, and once attracted 110 airplanes to a breakfast (see “Road Trip,” p. 16). But on average, the SCBC sees between 25 and 50 aircraft. The group posts its schedule online (southcarolinabreakfastclub.com) and has Facebook, Instagram, and YouTube accounts.

Similarly, the Smokehouse Pilots Club holds monthly fly-outs for lunch. Gabe Muller, based at Leesburg Executive Airport (JYO) in Virginia, is a founding member. Many members live in the region, but others come from all over the United States. The monthly lunch flights give members a chance not only to stretch their wings and fly to a different airport, but also to meet the people they’ve been chatting with on Facebook. The largest such gathering attracted 44 airplanes and 80 people, Muller said. Like SCBC, Smokehouse has a website, Facebook group, and Instagram and YouTube accounts.

Often the camaraderie and community become intentional. The Smokehouse Pilots recently hosted a fly-in to Leesburg Airport, with food trucks, an aircraft static display, and sponsors that were able to defray much of the cost of putting on the event. A 50/50 raffle raised $2,500 for a flight training scholarship that will be awarded in November. The Smokehouse Pilots are already planning their next fly-in, with many of the sponsors ready to jump back in.

“It’s all about creating community around this common thing of aviation,” Muller said. “If we do it the right way, for the right reason, and right intent, it can create a lot of opportunities and impact for people.”

Such is the notion behind another annual fly-out tradition, the Tangier Holly Run. Held annually in December, the Holly Run draws dozens of airplanes and pilots who descend on Bay Bridge Airport (W29) in Stevensville, Maryland to eat pancakes. They then fly bags of holly, greenery, and school supplies to Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, a community accessible only by boat and aircraft. A white-bearded guy in a red suit has been known to fly in with them bearing gifts for the island’s youngest residents. Apparently, he’s a pilot who likes Van’s Aircraft RVs. The event is so popular that organizer Helen Woods, owner of Chesapeake Sport Pilot flight school at W29, limits attendance—the nontowered airports at Stevensville and Tangier Island can only handle so much traffic.

Lone Pine attendees watch a landing.The groups’ administration of these events is so smooth as to make it seem effortless. Truett, Muller, and Woods would be the first to tell you that the get-togethers require a lot of hands-on effort. Volunteers choose locations, put together schedules, coordinate arrivals and departures at airports, and the other myriad tasks that make these events so much fun.

Large-scale airshows such as the Sun ’n Fun Aerospace Expo in Lakeland, Florida, and EAA AirVenture in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, qualify as fly-ins on a macro scale. Because of their size and tendency to draw aircraft of many different types, these events publish their own arrival and departure rules, and pilots are required to follow those rules. Indeed, some groups sponsor fly-outs to fly-ins, giving pilots a chance to experience this type of high-volume aviation activity with lots of education and support. In fact, type clubs host annual pilgrimages to AirVenture that enable dozens of airplanes to arrive at the show in loose formation. Such groups include Bonanzas to Oshkosh (b2OSH.com); Cessnas 2 Oshkosh (cessnas2oshkosh.com); Cherokees to Oshkosh (cherokees2osh.com); and Mooney Caravan (mooneycaravan.com). These groups hold formation clinics and conduct lots of safety training before their pilots take to the skies for the big show.

Helen Woods welcomes pilots to the annual Tangier Island Holly Run at Stevensville Airport in Maryland (David Tulis).The ultimate fly-in-to-fly-out experience may well be the Lone Pine Backcountry Fly-In at Lone Pine/Death Valley Airport (O26) in Lone Pine, California. Somewhat of a newcomer to the tradition, at this annual October campout pilots congregate at Lone Pine and then divide into groups to spend the next few days exploring the backcountry region by air. The Lone Pine organizers place a high emphasis on safety, and pilots are encouraged to build in extra layers of safety, such as carrying extra water on board, as much fuel as weight and balance will allow, personal locator beacons, and making sure other pilots know each group’s planned route.

If that sounds like a lot for a new pilot, join one of the many Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) local chapter breakfasts held at airports around the nation. With more than 1,000 chapters around the world, there’s guaranteed to be one within reasonable flying distance, and the pancakes and hangar talk are always fresh (eaa.org/eaa/eaa-chapters).

Finally, consider creating your own fly-out group. With all the social media tools at your disposal, it’s easier than ever to make new friends and create your own brand of camaraderie.

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Jill W. Tallman

Jill W. Tallman

AOPA Technical Editor
AOPA Technical Editor Jill W. Tallman is an instrument-rated private pilot who is part-owner of a Cessna 182Q.

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