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First Person: EAA Southwest Regional - The Texas Fly-In

Traffic at the light-sport aircraft exhibitors was constant during the fly-in. Photo by Scott Spangler

Just about everyone stopped to read the note on the glareshield, which read: This is an Aerosport Quail. All-aluminum construction. Designed by E.F. Woods in the '70s. Built by Jack Turner, Ohio, 1977. Owned by Dave Baker, San Geronimo Airpark, San Antonio, TX 210-410-9235. Power: VW 1600. Fuel: 3.5 gph. Holds 11 gal. Photo by Scott Spangler

After a sumptuous dinner, roughly 200 people were mesmerized by Gene Krantz's 50-minute history of the U.S. space program, with details of the Apollo 13 mission. Photo by Scott Spangler

As seen from the air, Hondo Municipal Airport during the 2007 Texas Fly-In. Photo by Marc Bennett

August 16, 2007 — In June this year former Sport Aviation Editor Scott Spangler attended the Southwestern EAA Regional Fly-in (the Texas Fly-In) at Hondo Municipal Airport where he found a well-run event with all the pieces in place: organization, location, support, and program. Scott recalls the unique aircraft and friendly folks he experienced there, as well as reflextion of SWRFI?s special guest (an American hero), great food, and, of course, the early summer Texas heat (??when Texans grumble about it, rest assured that it?s really hot??)

Scrubbing away the crust of dust and salt happily earned during a 90-degree day on the flight line at the EAA Southwest Regional- The Texas Fly-In, an overheard conversation between two other campers revealed the true measure of any fly-in?s success.

?It seems like they had more people and airplanes last year, and an hour-long air show,? said one voice on the other side of my shower curtain.

?Maybe,? said the other guy, ?but I got answers to all my questions.?

?Did you go to the seminars??

?No, just the one on covering an airplane,? he said, explaining that he?d spent most of the day on the flight line, talking to other builders ?about engine choices and instruments, and the Dynon [Avionics] rep in the exhibit hangar answered all the rest.? His tired voice grew animated as he shared what he?d learned about electronic flight instruments. He never did say what he was building, but it was clear that what he?d learned at the Texas Fly-In helped him move his project to the next level, and one step closer to flying.

Later, sitting on the grass outside my tent in the cooling evening breeze, I thought about this conversation. It brought to mind others like it I?d heard during my explorations of the Hondo Municipal Airport on June 1 and 2. Passing observations of the relative number of people and planes were rare. More important were the unique airplanes they?d seen, and others within earshot were not hesitant to ask where they were tied down, so they could see them for themselves.

Four airplanes stand out. First among them was the JD Special, an open cockpit single-seat monoplane designed and built by John Dormer, an artist from Kerrville, Texas, and member of EAA Chapter 747. ?I?ve designed a lot of airplanes, but this is the first one I?ve designed and built,? he said, adding that he first sketched the Special when he was in high school. Now semi-retired, he finished it in July 2001, after eight years of on and off work.

?It?s not a showplane,? he said, ?it?s a flyer.? With a steel-tube fuselage, wood wings, fabric covering, and fiberglass cowl, wingtips, and turtledeck, the Special has a 20-foot-6 wingspan, weighs 659 pounds empty, and has a maximum gross weight of 959 pounds. Powered by a Continental C-90-12, it cruises at 140 mph and lands at 40 mph. And it?s not the first airplane he?s built. The first was a Mong Sport.

A bit farther down the line was a homebuilt I?d never seen before. Thankfully, the owner, Dave Baker, who lives at San Antonio?s San Geronimo Airpark, left a handwritten note on the glareshield: ?This is an Aerosport Quail. All-aluminum construction. Designed by E.F. Woods in the ?70s. Built by Jack Turner, Ohio, 1977... Power: VW 1600. Fuel: 3.5 gph. Holds 11 gal.?

On Saturday a glorious red VP-1 Volksplane trimmed in purple and yellow took its place on the line. So did an immaculate yellow Corvair-powered Pietenpol Air Camper. Around noon Greg Beckcom flew in from Gaspar, Texas, with his son Luke in the right seat of his pert, V-tailed Davis DA-2. ?I?ve had it going since 1999,? he said. Building from plans, it ?took about three years to build.?

Like most fly-ins, the EAA Southwest Regional draws most of its fly-in traffic from 300 to 400 miles away, and many fly in for the day. Walking the flight line (or getting on and off the trams that ran nonstop) in the morning and after lunch was the only way to avoid missing something interesting. This provided a perfect balance to the day. Walk the line after breakfast, go to a forum held in the large air conditioned briefing rooms in the U.S. Air Force hangar, and visit the exhibitors afterwards.

Lined up outside the EAA hangar, local food venders served three meals a day. Not in the mood for more Mexican, I went with the Lion?s Club, which for $4 served a 1/3-pound cheeseburger with all the trimmings, lettuce, tomato, onion, mustard, and mayo. No ketchup must be a Texas thing, but on Saturday the Lions set out several bottles of the red stuff for us out-of-towners. Port-A-Cool fans covered the tables and chairs in the EAA hangar with a cool breeze, preparing all for the afternoon flight line inspection.

We flight line explorers returned to the EAA hangar for the social hour, which started at 5 p.m. on both days, to compare notes and cement new friendships with a cold beer or glass of wine. On Friday night, McBee?s Bar-B-Que set up a $12 all-you-could-eat buffet. Diving into my second helping of mesquite smoked brisket and sausage smothered in McBee?s famous sauce, I took a second to toast the fly-in?s balanced layout.

The lay of the land

Covering more than 2,500 acres, Hondo Municipal started life as an World War II Army Air Force base that trained navigators, and later the Women Airforce Service Pilots. With a crew of 3,000 workers, the H.B. Zachery Company of San Antonio built the base in 89 days. Almost all of the base?s original 600 buildings are gone now, but the five runways, three of them 6,000 feet long, and the two ramps that form a concrete L that stretches roughly a mile in either direction are still on duty.

At the end of the east-west ramp, beyond the ultralight area where the powered parachutes played all day long, was the motor home and camper trailer area (with electricity available at 53 sites). Airplane campers set up in the grass off the north edge of the ramp, west of the RV campers. Tent campers lived just a bit to the south, in a big grassy field. In between them was the shower facility, with men and women each having six stalls fed by separate 80-gallon hot water heaters.

The Air Force still conducts some T-6 training at Hondo, and its hangar is at the corner where the ramps meet. The Texas Fly-In has secured a long-term lease to use the facility for indoor exhibitors and forums. Just outside the hangar, outdoor exhibitors, such as Van?s Aircraft, RANS, and Avery Tools, set up under the shade hangars that once protected the fleet of T-3 Firefly screening aircraft, until the Air Force scrapped them a few years ago.

Exhibitors with tents, like SkyTec/Plane Power and ECI, set up just around the corner on the north-south ramp, in front of the EAA hangar and adjacent food court. Aircraft parking stretched to the south in this order: homebuilts, antique/classics, warbirds, and, finally, contemporary aircraft. And no matter where you were on the line, you were never far from a porta-potty or the armada of tractor-drawn trams that circled the site.

Loudspeakers stretched the length of aircraft parking so you?d not miss any of the commentary for the afternoon?s fly-bys. Everybody got a turn. Lancair?s Legacy and IV-P showed their speed. Three T-6s and four Nangchang CJ-6s, the majority of the fly-in?s warbird presence, demonstrated their formation flying ability, as did a group of RV pilots, who honored veterans with a missing man formation. Light-sport aircraft were well represented by a pair of CTs, a pair of SportStars, and eligible homebuilts like the VP-1 and Pietenpol.

With parallel north-south runways, the fly-bys didn?t interfere with the normal coming and goings of the fly-in participants. This provided an extra challenge for the aircraft judging crew, led by Fred Ramin. ?We work the field all day, trying to keep up with the airplanes as they come in,? he said. ?I have another judge who?ll be here in about an hour, and we?ll put him on the ground running.? The judges must finish their work by 3 p.m. Saturday, in time to have the awards ready for the Saturday night banquet.

An American hero

According to the schedule, the banquet, held at the air conditioned Lutheran Church Banquet Hall, ran from 7 to 8:30 p.m. In that time we were to eat dinner (green salad, large rib eye steaks grilled on site, baked new potatoes, green beans, and dinner rolls for $24), hand out door prizes and aircraft awards, and listen to guest speaker Gene Kranz talk about his years as a NASA flight director, where ?failure was never an option,? especially during Apollo 13. Having attended a number of similar banquets with ambitious schedules, I was, to say the least, a bit skeptical. At least the Texas Fly-In provided transportation to and from the banquet for campers.

Kranz thanked the audience of roughly 200 people for its attention at 8:35 p.m., and many said afterwards that we would have happily listened to him for another hour or more. For 50 minutes he held us rapt with his hands-on history of the U.S. space program. In the Mercury program the computers were the 100 female mathematicians who performed complex calculations as a team using mechanical calculators. When two Gemini spacecraft rendezvoused we caught and surpassed the Russians.

Apollo spanned the U.S. space program?s lowest point, with the deaths of Grissom, White, and Chaffee on Apollo 1, and highest point- the lunar landing. In discussing the Apollo 13 mission, Kranz illustrated his clipped simple sentences with stark black and white photos taken in mission control. The tension on those young faces- the average NASA controller was in his mid-20s, and Kranz, the flight director, was the old man at 37- soon permeated the room. It broke when Kranz cracked a joke about the car alarm that started honking away in the parking lot. We laughed, and started breathing again.

Leaders who listen

Texas Fly-In CEO Stan Shannon concluded the banquet the same way he started it at 7 p.m., by asking the audience for our comments - then or submitted later - about the fly-in and its activities. In the next breath he confirmed that the officers did more than listen to comments, they act on them.

The heat was everyone?s primary complaint, and when Texans grumble about it, rest assured that it?s really hot. Changing the fly-in?s date is the only real way to deal with it. So, the 2008 fly-in will be held October 10-11, offering ?the nicest weather the Texas Hill Country has to offer,? Shannon said.

With other changes, such as not having an air show, changing the dates is another example that the officers take seriously the fly-in?s mission: ?To bring together present and future EAA members to experience the love of aviation that we share and to learn more about aircraft building, restoring, flying, and safety issues. To inspire the next generation of aviation. To encourage the fellowship that is unique to our organization. Let us promote the basics and build on the foundation that Paul Poberezny and Tony Bingelis created.?

It?s clear that every aspect of the Texas Fly-In is filtered through this mission, from the forum topics and Saturday Young Eagles rally that flew 38 kids to the tables and chairs and social hour in the EAA hangar. Citing the air show, Shannon said, ?The fly-in is for aviators; they?ve seen air shows and don?t want another one.? Not having one saves a lot of time, money, and effort that the fly-in can be better-invested elsewhere, he added. To spread the word about recreational aviation, the EAAers participate in the annual air show at Randolph AFB on the east side of San Antonio, which draws a large public audience.

Hondo looks like home

In 1963, Tony Bingelis spearheaded the effort by a handful of EAA chapters that joined forces to hold the first Southwest Regional EAA Fly-In at Georgetown, Texas, north of Austin. Moving to Schreiner Field at Kerrville, northwest of San Antonio, in 1975, the fly-in began to grow. More chapters volunteered manpower, but turnover provided no continuity, said Shannon, who?s been involved with the fly-in for 15 years and its leader for the past 10.

After a debate about the ideal fly-in size, the volunteer leaders agreed that with the growth of Mooney Aircraft, they?d run out of room at Kerrville. In 1998 the fly-in moved to Abilene, north of Kerrville and San Antonio. At the same time, the leadership reorganized with a director from each chapter. Even with a smaller board, participation was inconsistent and continuity continued to suffer. This led to the creation of an executive committee that actually ran the fly-in.

Five years of poor weather and declining attendance led the fly-in to return to the Hill Country, moving to New Braunfels, northeast of San Antonio, in 2003. The fly-in?s leaders reorganized as a self-perpetuating corporate board where current members elect other members. Structured like most business corporations, the new board is ?providing year-round continuity and depth,? Shannon said. More important, the board has elected younger members, ?new people with new ideas?people who will take charge and take care of an area.?

After heavy rain identified drainage problems at New Braunfels, the Texas Fly-In moved to Hondo, population 7,897, in 2005. In addition to providing a near perfect site, Hondo warmly welcomed the fly-in.

With all the pieces in place - organization, location, support, and program - for sustaining its success in the 21st century, Shannon said he plans to ?hang in there for two more years; that?s what I?ve been telling [his wife] Nan.? And Norris Warner will only serve one more year as president, when it will be time for a younger volunteer to step up.

In terms of planes and people, Shannon said Hondo could easily park 5,000 aircraft on the ramp and serve the needs of 30,000 to 40,000 people. Taking a long-term view of achieving growth, he said the key is an efficiently run volunteer-run event that fulfills its participants? essential fly-in needs and desires with class and quality.

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