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Finding A Diamond In The Rough
By Chris Sims, EAA 321696
January 2021 – It seems to me that most pilots are easily bored. This observation, as unscientific as it may be, is based on conversations overheard at chapter meetings, social media postings, hangar flying, etc. Everyone wants to fly someplace new and, hopefully, exciting. Distance also comes into play. If you're hungry for pancakes, or a $100 hamburger, one typically doesn't want to spend 2 hours flying to satiate your appetite.
And that is how this story got started.
EAA Chapter 34, based at the Arlington, Texas, Municipal Airport (KGKY) is an active chapter, with an emphasis on building aircraft, fly-outs, and youth education. Besides promoting aviation for adults, we're also concerned with opening the eyes of young people to the world of flight and guiding them down pathways that may lead to the greatest joy of their lives — flying! We've already had three Ray Scholarship recipients pass their private pilot checkrides, so attracting young aviators and keeping them interested and engaged has been essential to our success. Chapter 34 makes it a priority to include space for our student members when flying to a pancake breakfast aviation tour opportunity, or other interesting destinations.
As our chapter vice president, I was looking for new fly-out destinations that could accommodate camping, fishing, and hiking. That meant there needed to be a lake nearby. I opened up Google Earth and began looking for possible candidates that met the criteria within a reasonable flying distance. Limiting the distance to 100-150 miles allowed for a decent cross-country that would take most pilots about 45 minutes to an hour to reach. I came across the Marlin Texas Airport (T15), with its lake making it a strong candidate. It was also a great flying distance, at 100 nautical miles, south of the Arlington Airport. The Google Earth image was of a very neglected and unused airport. Two of the three hangars had rusted roofs, and vegetation had overtaken the airport. Even the access road to the airfield was rough and overgrown. I decided to fly down and take a look.
Upon arriving and overflying the field, the airport looked to be in poor condition. Not being sure of the runway's actual state, I just made a low pass and flew home. The next day, a call to the city of Marlin allowed me to speak with the city manager, Cedric Davis. Cedric was excited that someone was interested in the airport and its potential. Because he was excited, I felt there was a good opportunity to create a great fly-in destination that would include nearly everything aviators like in a rural airport. I reported this conversation to Jerry Ritchey, EAA 527720, Chapter 34 president, and it was decided a road trip to Marlin was in order.
A few days later, Jerry and I made the two-hour drive and met with Mayor Carolyn Lofton and Cedric. We discussed the airport, EAA, and our chapter. Then we all drove out to survey the airport and see what its real condition and potential were. We spent an hour at the airport and talked about what needed to be done to make it attractive to pilots, as well as the things that Chapter 34 could do to help them. Upon closer inspection, it was discovered that the adjacent New City Lake, just a few hundred feet from one end of the runway, had a boat ramp that could be used by seaplanes. There also appeared to be enough room for primitive camping, which intrigued me as well. Who wouldn't like to fly in, camp, and go fishing?
By the time the visit was over, it was decided this diamond in the rough would get some much-needed attention from both the City and Chapter 34, to prepare for a November fly-in and Young Eagles rally. To make this work, and to help get the needed funding, Jerry put Cedric in touch with the Cleburne, Texas, Airport Manager, Sharlotte Wright. Sharlotte is a wealth of knowledge on airport needs and funding, due in part to her also being the president of the Texas Airports Council. With her guidance, Cedric learned to apply for grants and other funding for the Marlin Airport. He also leveraged the seaplane base aspect of the airport, and found that the State of Texas was very happy to help establish its third Texas seaplane base. Yes, right now, Texas has only two seaplane bases!
The lone tenant at the airport, John Stem, also wanted to improve his home base. He was very interested in helping, and he participated in the cleanup and maintenance of T15. This included mowing, fencing, weed control, and helping Chapter 34 clean up the segmented circle, which was overgrown with trees and snakes to the point one could barely see the windsock! He also took on the additional duty of becoming the airport's AOPA Airport Support Network representative. His job is to be a liaison between the airport's pilots and the city, help resolve issues, and assist in promoting airport activities.
In August, the City of Marlin and Chapter 34 approved a joint proposal to have a fly-in pancake breakfast and Young Eagles rally at T15. Cedric would organize the preparations for the lake and airport while Chapter 34 would prepare for the Young Eagles rally, as well as get the word out to the aviation community to come check out T15. Our chapter members were very excited to be involved in bringing the joy of flight to an underserved city and the folks who live there. In fact, well over 20 people from Chapter 34 drove to Marlin for the event and many more had flown or driven there numerous times in preparation for the fly-in.
Extensive planning had to be done to: 1) create enough space on the small ramp for 40-50 airplanes to park; 2) determine how to handle the traffic on the single narrow taxiway to the ramp; 3) run a remote Young Eagles rally for 40 kids; 4) make the lakefront appealing to the seaplane pilots; and 5) clean up all the overgrown trees and brush. Chapter 34 also committed to an aviation presentation for the Marlin High School in October to spark interest and possibilities for these young people. The presenters at the school were Chapter 34 president Jerry Ritchey, American Airlines Chief Pilot Captain Charles Wheeler, and me, who also happens to fly for American Airlines.
The month of October saw dramatic changes in the lakefront and airport. Two weeks prior to the fly-in, six aircraft from Chapter 34 flew down to inspect the progress. We found that the City of Marlin had met and exceeded our expectations. They were even painting the hangars, installing LED lighting, and re-striping the runway! Now all that was needed were lots of airplanes, and for the citizens of Marlin to come and discover their airport.
Saturday, November 7, the weather was perfect. Everyone was in place. Local businesses, including McDonald's, WalMart, Ace Hardware, and Apple Chevrolet contributed raffle prizes, resources, and people to make this a great event. At 8 a.m., the loudspeaker system crackled with the voice of the first pilot reporting he was inbound to T15. Soon after, the familiar sound of an airplane engine was heard, followed by the first arrival, a V-Tail Bonanza. Minutes later, a Piper Cub landed. Within an hour there were more than 35 airplanes parked around the ramp and four Sea Rey floatplanes on the lake! Everyone enjoyed their pancakes and coffee and the chance to explore this previously unknown destination.
Airplanes continued to come and go as we began the Young Eagles rally. About 45 airplanes made the trip, and 12 stayed to fly Young Eagles. Kids from age 8-17 were given the opportunity to experience flight on a 30-mile circuit around the city, and many were given the chance to fly the planes they were in. The vast majority of the kids had never been in any type of airplane. Parents were beaming with joy upon seeing the excitement of their children when they returned.
Several fortunate kids got to fly their flight in a seaplane which would simply taxi up the boat ramp and park! In the end, Chapter 34 flew 43 kids in 12 airplanes with no issues. By 2 p.m., all the Young Eagles were flown, and it was time to pack up for home. Marlin had had a very successful fly-in with more than 45 airplanes in attendance from all over Texas, more than 100 takeoffs and landings, and hundreds of local people seeing the value of their airport and lake.
To continue moving forward, Marlin will need to keep adding amenities for pilots and the local citizens. Bathrooms are a must, since there are none at the airport or at the lake. Short term, making a courtesy car available and adding hiking trails with primitive campsites on the airport and along the lakefront would encourage pilots to plan weekend trips. Next, they need to add several fly-in events to the calendar, while working on other enhancements such as a pilot shack, enlarging the ramp, fencing the airport, creating a true seaplane base, selling fuel, and enticing an airport business to open.
Was the effort successful? Judging by the smiles of the kids and the proud parents who watched their sons and daughters experience the gift of flight, the Marlin fly-in was wildly successful. Mayor Lofton expressed her "gratitude to EAA 34 and the aviation community for all the joy and happiness the citizens of Marlin experienced." Chapter 34 is planning to continue this relationship and offer once-inconceivable opportunities to Marlin's youth. With continued support by the aviators, the City, and the amazing members of EAA 34, this little gem has the potential to grow into a fun place to fly and maybe a larger regional fly-in destination.
Local TV coverage of the event may be found at KXXV's website.