The new executive director at Triple Tree Aerodrome has a mission: Make the dreams of the aerodrome’s founder come true.
Triple Tree Aerodrome, in Woodruff, South Carolina, was founded by Pat Hartness, whose fierce passion for aviation and hospitality is well-known in the general aviation community.
Fear not, Pat is fine. He’ll continue in his leadership at Triple Tree by serving on the board of directors.
“Pat will always remain in the day-to-day operations,” said Robb Williams, the former executive director of the Aerospace Center for Excellence (ACE) on the SUN ’n FUN campus at Lakeland Linder Regional Airport in Florida. “Pat is our founder and our visionary. He is the one to plot the course and I’m the one to make sure that course is followed up on.”
Williams notes that the folks at Triple Tree have been doing very well up until now, creating a welcoming atmosphere for general aviation.
“But as their organization is growing, they need someone who has more of a background, like I’ve done at SUN ’n FUN, to cross the Ts and dot the Is, to find the dollar bill hidden under a rock that wasn’t there before to fund the program,” he said. “Pat is our visionary and our dreamer, and I’m here to make sure those dreams come true.”
It all began back in 1983 when Hartness and his college roommate and lifelong friend Joe Nall started organizing radio-controlled (RC) aircraft events. That led Pat to buy 440 acres of land and, with the help of hundreds of volunteers, clear enough of the land to create a 7,000’ grass runway, along with roads, a 10,000-square-foot hangar that houses Pat’s collection of radio-controlled aircraft, his Spartan Executive aircraft, and other aircraft.
Over the years, volunteers have built bathroom and shower facilities of spa quality, with granite countertops and all.
Next purchase: A World War II control tower that was installed on a hill overlooking the runway.
In 2000, Pat donated the property, creating a non-profit organization. More than 100 volunteers maintain the grounds and facilities and run the many events held here. The runway, for example, is mowed every two days.
The largest RC gathering in the world is Joe Nall Week in May with 15,000 participants, as well as the Triple Tree Fly-In every September for general aviation aircraft, warbirds, helicopters, and seaplanes. Yes, there are two lakes on the property, and one is large enough for seaplanes.
As he assumed his new role, Williams hit the ground running. He spent his first week on the job selling his house in Florida, moving his family and pets into a hotel room near Woodruff, South Carolina, and closing on his new house. His wife, Miranda, and daughters Brinlee and Hadleigh shared the adventure. Next: Meeting all the volunteers and seeing the many events at the aerodrome first hand.
“I’m taking it all in,” he said. “Like ground school in flight training, taking it all in is like drinking from a firehose.”
Williams is accustomed to taking on challenges.
So far in his 40 years, he has distinguished himself in business, education, and aviation as a man who gets things done. After earning a Bachelor’s Degree of Business Administration from Florida State University, he graduated from Flight Safety International. He worked in training and development and flew for Air Midwest in the Beechcraft 1900. For Mesa Airlines, he flew the CRJ Series 200, 700, and 900. Later, he served as a Boeing 737 pilot and program manager for corporate training and development for Sky King.
For the last four and a half years, he was an adjunct aerospace professor at Polk State College and the executive director at the Aerospace Center for Excellence in Polk County, Florida.
Planning for the Future
Like SUN ‘n FUN, Triple Tree Aerodrome wants to encourage more youth participation in general aviation.
It hosted its first-ever Young Aviators Fly-in in June, bringing in 500 people and 200 aircraft, including many young people from the Lakeland Aero Club at SUN ’n FUN. The next Young Aviators Fly-In is scheduled for June 21-23, 2019.
“SUN ’n FUN is a huge supporter of Triple Tree,” said John Leenhouts, president and CEO of SUN ’n FUN. “Pat has been here to see what we’re doing. I give him credit for choosing Robb. Robb helped us from ground zero to develop our youth aerospace education program into what it is. And he made our scholarship program more efficient. The way I look at it, we haven’t lost an employee, we’ve sent a missionary to spread the knowledge of aerospace education.”
“Any synergy between our organizations benefits us all,” Williams added.
“This is a year-round aviation facility,” he continued. “Every dollar that we make here goes back into the infrastructure and our educational programs. We want to keep this community growing, and I think Pat has found the secret sauce on how to do that. I hope someday everyone gets a chance to come out here and experience it. It’s like no place I’ve ever seen before.”