By ALLISON LEEWARD
I’m awoken on a cool Georgia morning by the sound of a shiny blue beauty buzzing my tent only 50 yards away. Long-time friend and fellow aviator Rocky Driggers enjoys waking us all up with a dawn patrol, whether it is in his pristine V-tail Bonanza or with the grumbling radial of a Stearman.
At 7 a.m. when most people my age are sleeping, we young aviators are waking each other up with high speed passes eager for another day of formation flying, short-field takeoffs and landings, aerobatics, and trading rides to experience new airplanes. These are just a few of the reasons grassroots fly-ins have stolen my heart (and weekends) and I always keep coming back for more.
I have been going to Thomasville Fly-In in Georgia for as long as I can remember. It has always been one of my favorite places because of the cool weather and abundance of airplanes flying around.
When we were quite young there were plenty of other young kids who loved aviation to interact with, but as the years went by and the kids of Thomasville grew up, more and more found “better” things to do than camp in a Georgia field for the weekend.
In 2007, my freshman year of high school, the number of young people had dropped considerably. It was just me and Rocky, a die-hard supporter of general aviation, Young Eagles, and an annual Thomasville attendee for 22 out of 22 years.
My parents continued to participate every couple of years, but came back with reports that there were not many kids there — they even stopped having the legendary T-ville bonfire!
I returned in 2012, but there were still only a few plane-crazy young adults attending. I couldn’t understand why there were so few people my age there. Small fly-ins bring the promise of slow-cooked soul food, plane spotting, new friends, rides in airplanes, and community with like-minded people.
I made it my mission to invite as many friends as I could for the next year, and to convince the Thomasville Flying Club to bring back the Saturday night bonfire.
In 2013 we had about a dozen young adults at Thomasville, five of which have families in aviation.
I have my family to thank for many of my friends in the aviation industry. I am a fourth generation aviator whose family has built a close rapport with many aviation families around Florida and the United States. I had known those five since we were young.
It was the first Thomasville for three of them and one of them, Travis Sherman, just attended his third consecutive year and plans to be back in 2016, hopefully with a Super T-6 he has been restoring. It would make his 375 mile trek from Palm Beach, Florida, to Thomasville a lot quicker.
That year I made six new friends, including Phil Herrington, co-founder of the Lakeland Aero Club. We all promised to bring even more people we knew next time. Phil more than kept his word in 2014. The Lakeland Aero Club alone brought up six airplanes and 15 aviators.
I have made an effort to convince friends and even social media strangers to come to aviation events, but I think some of this influx of young aviators at local fly-ins like Thomasville has come about organically.
We’re at the age where we can bring significant others and, more importantly, fly ourselves around. We can bring friends for a weekend of fun, who in turn bring more friends the next year. That is one of the main ways this fly-in has grown. We all make an effort to bring friends from far and wide.
Social media is considered an afterthought by the aging aviation community, but I’ve found it’s one of the greatest ways to connect with young people who share my passion.
For example, my boyfriend Michael Marco and I met Alain Aguayo and Bobby Breeden via Instagram, even though they both live primarily in Florida, less than two hours from where we live. Alain is an aspiring unlimited aerobatic pilot and instructor at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Bobby is four-time consecutive Valdez STOL champion and one of the most capable Alaskan bush pilots flying now. Though we have been flying with each other for years and get together at the large airshows, it was their first time to Thomasville and they each brought a friend with them.
Tim Fonseca, founder of Millennial Wings, flew all the way from Ft. Lauderdale and brought nine young aviators. Derek Sherman, a third generation pilot that I have known since we were toddlers, is a student at Florida State University and he brought his flight team up with seven aviation enthusiasts this year.
Michael, a third generation pilot, piles as many friends as possible into his family’s airplanes on every occasion we can find, to take to aviation events. He’s a FAST formation qualified pilot who brings us together to brief us for each formation flight, an accomplished aerobatic competitor and instructor who enjoys teaching a young pilot the ropes every chance he gets, and as a skilled Alaskan bush pilot that has flown from the wild mountains of Denali to the coastal scenes of the Prince William Sound, he is well equipped to giving advice to young aviators about flying in Alaska.
Michael’s dad, David Marco, and my dad, Dirk Leeward, generously allow us to take their airplanes out for adventures in Florida as often as the weather cooperates.
November in Central Florida is a prime time to go to grassroots fly-ins. Just this year, there were too many options for small fly-ins during the second week of November to make it to them all. I was aware of six through word of mouth and checking Social Flight, a social event tracker for aviation enthusiasts at SocialFlight.com.
Michael and I took two non-aviation friends in his deHavilland Beaver and our friend Matt Grossberg brought down a Super Decathlon. We met my dad and his friends to form up into a three-ship formation to head down to Lakeland for the Pigs Fly South annual BBQ. After eating BBQ all day, we sure felt like pigs!
The last couple years, in addition to Thomasville, we’ve managed to gather a substantial crowd at the big airshows like SUN ‘n FUN and Oshkosh.
The younger generation is important for the survival of general aviation. There are many sanctioned Experimental Aircraft Association (EAA) events to make young people pilots, but not much to keep them flying in a recreational capacity.
Small, local fly-ins like Thomasville allow us to meet and fly with extraordinary young pilots who are FAST certified, aerobatic proficient, STOL champions, or just have sexy warbirds. I could be flying wing to wing with the next president of EAA.
Big airshows have their own positive qualities, but a small grassroots fly-in is the only place where you can go to learn from other pilots and get to experience other planes. The people at these local events are eager to share what they know and encourage a greater participation in general aviation from youths.
Get out there and find one near you!
Special thanks to Travis Sherman and Mathew Grossberg for their guidance in writing my first magazine article and their input on content. They are die-hard grassroots fly-in fans and annual Thomasville Fly-in participants.
Allison just graduated from the University of North Florida with a degree in communications and is pursuing a career in public relations in the automotive or aviation industry. Follow @AllisonLeeward on Instagram to see her daily adventures in aviation.