08 Nov AOPA: Thousands Converge on Sleepy St. Simons for Final Fly-in
Pilots joined more than 1,800 of their closest friends Nov. 8 at beautiful St. Simons Island, Georgia, for AOPA’s last Regional Fly-In of the year. The day was filled with hours of seminars, great food, and some incredible airplanes.
The fun started Friday evening with the Barnstormer Party. The scene was framed by campfires and a Great Lakes biplane as the party goers made s’mores, enjoyed fantastic pulled pork sandwiches, and listened to a local bluegrass band.
Saturday dawned with an unseasonable chill in the air, especially so for the hardy campers. From Bonanzas to Cherokees to a Wilga, pilots and passengers of 17 airplanes pitched a tent and enjoyed the great outdoors. “It’s always a good night’s sleep when it’s outside,” one camper said.
But as the sun rose higher in the sky it beckoned the airplanes in. That’s when they heard the friendly voices of Nan and John Walsh, a husband and wife team who helped guide the 543 airplanes in as the “Air Boss.” “Cessna turning downwind, keep it in tight,” Nan said over and over. John yelled out airplanes he spotted so Nan could hear through her headset. “You have two on final. Bonanza and Cessna,” he said. Hour after hour they brought them in safely and made sense of the dozens of airplanes in the air surrounding the airport.
Once they arrived, pilots were treated to seven hours of seminars, including a rousing presentation from Retired Navy Commander Kirk Lippold. As the skipper of the U.S.S. Cole during the attack in Yemen, Lippold knows a thing or two about maintaining cool in times of crises. Hundreds of pilots flowed in to the Gruber Aviation hangar to hear how keeping a ship from sinking after a terrorist attack relates to times of urgency in an aircraft. The crowd gave Lippold a standing ovation for his insight and his service.
If they weren’t in a seminar or shopping, attendees walked around and did what comes natural for pilots—they checked out other people’s airplanes. There were helicopters, floatplanes, a mint condition Lockheed Electra, traditional four-place single engine family haulers, experimentals with turbine engines, and even a pink Velocity XL. Hot pink.
Other airplanes may have been more prominent on the static display, but Ray Watkins’ Velocity XL was the talk of the show. Watkins is proud to say that his wife chose the color. “She said ‘You can’t match your socks. You can have the airplane but I’m picking the color.'” What started as almost a fun joke has turned in to a serious mission for Watkins. “Kids are just so drawn to this airplane,” he says. “If we’re not bringing kids in to this, we won’t make it.” It’s what he’s passionate about. Watkins is from nearby Jacksonville and he said the fly-in was a great opportunity to simply get out and fly. “AOPA has supported us so much over the years,” he said. “I was happy to support them.”Also among the attendees was newly elected South Carolina Rep. Greg Duckworth. Duckworth, who will represent the Grand Strand region of North Myrtle Beach, is an AOPA member. He met with AOPA Southern Regional Manager Bob Minter, with whom he had worked on an issue at North Myrtle Beach airport a few years ago, and AOPA President Mark Baker before signing AOPA’s third class medical reform petition.
The unofficial end of the day came from AOPA President Mark Baker at his town hall presentation. Baker spoke on the pressing issues in Washington, D.C., and in the states. Members took particular interest in AOPA’s third class medical petition. Baker said progress is being made, and he promised to cover the FAA senior management’s walls with signatures of support collected on massive banners at the AOPA Fly-Ins. He also stressed the need for an affordable solution to ADS-B, and reaffirmed that AOPA is focused on growing general aviation through its You Can Fly program.
That program, the idea of which is to promote that GA is a strong community that can be fun and affordable, speaks to the nature of the AOPA Fly-Ins. Members applauded the announcement that they will continue next year, maybe even at your home airport. We’ll see you there.