Florida Panhandle fly-In fulfills RAF Mission

Two years ago, Drew Hatch and Gary Brooks planned a flight into a state-owned airstrip in the Florida Panhandle. Imagine their disappointment when they were denied permission to land and and use the airstrip to access the nearby campground.

When Drew then turned to the Recreational Aviation Foundation, it had never heard of the Blackwater Airfield (8FD3), located within the 210,000-acre Blackwater State Forest.

The RAF is a national organization whose mission is to preserve, maintain and create recreational airstrips nationwide. Prior to the Blackwater project, most of the foundation’s work had been accomplished with federal land managers including US Forest Service, National Park Service and Bureau of Land Management.

High Wire ActDrew and Gary finally got their wish this March as the RAF hosted a weekend gathering at 8FD3, in hopes of permanent aviation access to the Blackwater Forest.

“This is our first time working with a state forest,” explained RAF director and Central Florida resident Tim Clifford, “and while it has taken some time, the Florida Forest Service has maintained a ‘let’s find a way’ attitude throughout the process.

The 4,000-foot grass strip was originally constructed for firefighting, forestry and law enforcement use. It’s ideally situated for recreational use, located within 100 yards of the Krul Lake Recreational Area with a campground, swimming lake and shower and restroom facilities, RAF officials said.  Surrounding the area are numerous recreational opportunities including fishing, hiking, canoeing and horseback riding.

“I think it’s safe to say that no more than a handful of recreational airstrips in the country offer the amenities of the Blackwater,” Clifford said. “If you were to define the ideal recreational aviation destination, this would be it.  Every kind of activity imaginable is either here or a short hop away, including some of the world’s most beautiful beaches and, of course, the National Naval Aviation Museum.”

The RAF weekend saw more than 60 guests arriving in aircraft, ranging from a Champ to a Swift, Cessnas, RVs, Stinsons, Maules and a Piper Cherokee.  A well-organized volunteer work party performed maintenance, including painting runway markers and wind indicators, filling potholes and knocking down ant hills.

Friday arrivals were treated to Drew’s “not” world-famous chili, and Saturday featured cook-your-own steaks and a wide selection of guests’ potluck favorites.  Each evening, folks gathered around a robust campfire to share the day’s events and flying adventures.

Sounding a bit like a proud parent, Gary Brooks observed, “we’re sure glad we found the RAF. This is going to be a great place for folks to visit for years to come!”

RAF member Pat Lee summed up the success of the weekend in his thank you email: “I hope we (RAF) have blazed a trail for others. I am proud to be a member.”

The RAF is in final discussions with the Florida Forest Service to secure ongoing aviation access to the Blackwater and hopes to announce that the airfield is open to the public within the next few months.

The RAF is a non-profit 501(c)3 organization headquartered in Bozeman, Montana

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