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Volunteers Made it Happen: EAA 105 Garden Valley Solar Eclipse Fly-In

By Sandra Thoma

September 2017 - Bruce Eichers’ brother Bill lives two counties away from Garden Valley, U88, a prime grass strip in Garden Valley, Idaho. Bill loves rafting the Payette River and camping in some of Idaho’s most pristine backcountry. Bruce and his wife, Katie, built an RV-8 and, true to the spirit of general aviation, love camping out of their plane. Garden Valley, it turns out, not only has a well-maintained grass airstrip, but also has a campground. “You all should fly over and go camping with me,” Bill said to Bruce over beers one afternoon.

The opportunity presented itself with the news that there was going to be a total eclipse of the sun. Some quarter of a million people were predicted to stream into the Pacific Northwest to witness the event. Bruce realized that Garden Valley was right in the path of totality for the eclipse. Bruce, Katie, and Bill blocked out the time on their calendars for a family camping trip, and Bruce sent an e-mail to the Idaho Department of Aviation requesting to reserve the group campsite. Bruce may have neglected to tell Bill at first that he’d decided it would be great to invite some friends — the entire membership of EAA Chapter 105 based in Hillsboro, Oregon.

The book Fifty Classic Destinations for Pilots by Ney Grant confirms Bill’s belief that U88 is premier Idaho backcountry camping. The runway has a straightforward approach and landing. The campground features such plush accommodations as a covered group picnic area, flush toilets, and showers. There are well-maintained lawns for pitching your tent near the clear waters of the Payette River. U88 offers easy access to hiking, swimming, and fishing. A rafting company will pick up pilots and their crew for full-day or half-day thrilling white-water expeditions, and a horseback riding company offers trips into the surrounding hills.

A hitch in the giddy-up was that the Idaho Department of Aviation did not realize at the time when Bruce made his reservation that the date coincided with the solar eclipse. A couple of months later, they called Bruce to express their concern about possible crowds, with all the media hype. No other Idaho airstrips were allowed to be reserved for the event.

The Idaho department of Aviation agreed to honor the reservation when Bruce assured them our group would take only a small footprint. Bruce had reason to expect a small attendance. Recent chapter fly-in events had been canceled due to weather or forest fires plaguing the Northwest. The people who had organized events for many years have gone on to other things in life, and younger members would be busy with college.

Concerned there wouldn’t be enough people to fill the 30-35 camping spots, Bruce expanded the invitation to include other chapters. Planes from across Oregon and some from California joined the group.

It was a definite hitch in the plans when people realized the fly-in coincided with the solar eclipse. When they did, the responses came streaming in. Before you could say “clear prop,” 30 airplanes with some 60 pilots and crew had signed up. What started out to be planning a fun camping trip turned into a huge organization task for Bruce.

Not to be deterred, Bruce enlisted help from Katie, Bill, and his friend Paul Grimstad, who is an RV-12 pilot. They coordinated with the rafting and horseback riding companies, sent out instructions for arrival, and handled a plethora of e-mails. Katie took on the monumental task of planning and shopping for supplies for three days of breakfasts, two dinners, and campfire s’mores. Katie even drove the eight hours from Portland to Garden Valley to bring the supplies to the event. Concerned about how they could keep people and food cool, Bruce and Katie bought a chest freezer from Costco for $130 and stocked it with water bottles for attendees to use for cooler ice and cold water. The cooler was donated to U88 at the end of the event. Creative EAA member problem-solving!

Once on the ground, Bruce and Katie found no end of enthusiastic volunteers to help with food prep, serving, and cleanup. The chapter even fed some pilots and crews from other campsites.

As planes arrived during the four days before the eclipse, colorful tents sprung up in a semi-circle along the bluff over the river and around the big campfire pit. Camping chairs gathered and there was chatter and laughter among friends old and new. Children played in the soft grass. Pilots and crew gathered in the group shelter, sharing the details of their flights. It was a gathering of our airplane tribe, and on the runway above our campground, our planes were lined up, glinting in the sun.

Over the next few days, attendees explored the area and went rafting, swam in the chilly river, took horseback riding trips, visited, shared food and drink, napped in the sun, or sat on a warm rock over the river with a good book. The pilot of a beautiful Cessna 195 brought a 5-foot-4-inch homebuilt telescope, and in the evening we admired the rings of Saturn. At night, our entire tribe gathered around the campfire for the ritual toasting of marshmallows and swapping of airplane tales tall and true.

People started breaking camp early the morning of the eclipse. Tents were folded and chairs, coolers, and camp stoves were packed. I sat near the row of planes, glancing at the disappearing sun and watched pilots and crew trek back and forth from campsites, prepping for their flights home. Would our gathering be only a transitory event, like the eclipse?

Activity on the field quieted as the sky grew dark. People gathered in close circles, donned their eclipse glasses and watched the sky. The temperature dropped. The birds stopped singing. Sunlight no longer reflected off the wings of the planes. Soon we were all in the eerie darkness of totality. There was a collective holding of breath — then hugs all around with the flash of the diamond.

Daylight returned. The field buzzed with activity. Planes lined up for departure. Gabby Helmos, 10 years old, settled into the right seat next to her father and waved goodbye to her new friend, Kelly Reid, also 10 years old. For both young ladies, it was their first father-daughter airplane trip — a wonderful bonding experience between father and daughter, and the beginning of a fast friendship between the girls.

It was a first for many: their first time river rafting, their first time horseback riding, and for some their first time camping from their airplanes. For at least two pilots, it was their first grass (non-paved) landing, and they found it to be “no big deal.”

“What an epic long weekend,” Bruce said. He was standing near my husband and me, waving goodbye and watching the light return to the sky. “Truly wonderful,” he said. “My least favorite part is saying goodbye to everyone. Sappy, but true.” There was a tear in his eye.

I thought back to a conversation I’d overheard one night outside my tent. Several of the young pilots were camped nearby. Two were graduates of the first Teen Flight program and now are Teen Flight mentors; another took a Young Eagles flight when he was 12 and is now scratch-building a CH601HD. They were sitting on the grass, talking about the freedom of flight, how great it was to be there, how airplanes enabled it all, and what an awesome time they were having. “We should go airplane camping more often,” they said.

Perhaps that’s what it takes: a special, transitory event, the connection of family and friends and shared interests, someone to have the idea, to want to share in the joy of flight, someone to spread the word, someone to say, “Sure, I’ll help.” It’s a truly special thing when we get in our planes, travel to new places, and share it with friends old and new. Perhaps all it takes is someone to get it started.

Bruce, Bill, Katie, and Paul — from the bottom of our hearts, thank you so very much for being those special people. Thanks as well to all the other volunteers who stepped up to make it such an epic weekend. Where shall we all meet next?

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