Bombing in Valkaria

Valkaria Airport (X59) lies on the eastern coast of Florida, south of the much larger Melbourne International, and north of Vero Beach Municipal, the home of Piper Aircraft. The non-towered, sleepy airport at Valkaria has no self-esteem problem, however. They’re small and casual and friendly and they like it that way.

Social and civic organizations like EAA Chapter 1288 thrive at Valkaria, and it is these grass-roots, general aviation pilots and aviation enthusiasts who keep this former World War II auxiliary field open, operating, and available to the public. Yet even with all that going for it, it wasn’t the history of the field, or the EAA, or even its ongoing battles with non-aviation friendly neighbors that drove me to visit over Memorial Day weekend. I came to see the bombs fall.

The bomb drop contest in question was sponsored by AeroValkaria, a flying club modeled, at least loosely, on a more nautical type of organization. It is the brainchild of Frank Gallagher, a tall, silver-haired, almost impossibly energetic individual who is as comfortable in a helicopter as he is in an airplane. Frank’s background includes Annapolis, the U.S. Marine Corps, test piloting for various helicopter manufacturers, and a long history of general aviation entrepreneurship. He’s one of the true believers who sees aviation as a real benefit to the world at large.

Derrick Stillwell (foreground) and his father Ron (A.K.A. “Crash”) are a confident team as they get set to participate in the AeroValkaria Bomb Drop Contest at Valkaria, Florida, over Memorial Day weekend.

Somewhere along the way Frank noticed that sailing clubs tend to be well populated, even though many of the members do not personally own a boat. So he set to thinking and developed an interestingly social flying club model that he has put into action on the field at Valkaria.

Memberships are broken into two groups: Flying memberships and non-flying memberships. The annual dues are $600 and $100, respectively. Flying members have access to either of two aircraft, a very clean and well cared for 1964 C-172 or an immaculate 1947 Piper PA-12. For a few dollars more per year, members can have access to both aircraft, which can be flown for a nominal hourly fee, plus fuel. The club provides flight instruction at market rates, as well.

The Memorial Day weekend bomb drop contest was open to anyone who wanted to attend, not just club members. And so it came to pass that seven airplanes and a helicopter were in the air, attacking a 20-foot by 30-foot blue tarp with bags of flour, which were aerodynamically stabilized with several feet of yellow “caution” tape that trailed behind them as they plunged earthward.

A mandatory pilot briefing was held in the pilot’s lounge. It was well attended, with standing room only by the time the briefing got underway. Gallagher ran the meeting with humor, but as he established speed limits, pattern altitudes, and bomb run hard decks, he made it clear, “Safety is number one in all this.”

In typical military fashion each pilot/bombardier team was given a call-sign. And in typical military fashion, the call signs were not particularly flattering. “Duster,” “Crash,” “Ugly Plane,” and “Lost,” were prime examples — which led to interesting radio call-outs during the contest such as, “Crash, inbound on the bomb run.”

The man behind call-sign, “Crash,” was Ron Stillwell, who flew a red, white, and blue Cessna 172 with his son, Derrick. Asked about the origin of his inauspicious nickname, Ron laughed and said simply, “You make one bad landing…” the rest of the story is apparently immaterial. The humor of the introduction is enough.

There are real friendships being forged and reinforced on the field in Valkaria. This field has embraced the best aspects of general aviation’s social and familial benefits. And it shows.

In the end, knowing who won, and who dropped their bomb the farthest off target, was of no great significance. The magic was in the fact that dozens of people gathered by the taxiway to watch their friends and family members fly for fun, for proficiency, and make a new friend or two in the process. And it was that friends and family were climbing into cockpits to participate as teams.

The youngest bombardier was 13-year-old Grant Triestman, who was careful to point out that he will be turning 14 in a month. More to the point, he described his reaction to the contest with a bright smile. “It was a challenge, and I got to drop stuff out of an airplane.”

Father/daughter teammates Brad and Avery Sinclair prepare to load up with their ordnance for the AeroValkaria Bomb Drop Contest.

Fellow bombardier, Avery Sinclair, a 20-year-old private pilot who flew with her father, Brad, put it succinctly when she described the experience, saying, “It was hard.” She was smiling when she said it, however. And she was apparently having a good enough time that it didn’t bother her that she was late for a date with a non-flying boyfriend.

Afterward, with the aircraft put away, a pile of hot dogs hit the grill, picnic tables were filled with food, smiling people, and cold beverages, then Frank and his cohorts introduced their latest invention — a workbench with a removable top. With the work surface gone, a granite countertop was exposed, complete with storage space for ice and drinks.

It’s not all fun and games at Valkaria, but that’s a big part of the charm, no doubt.





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