“Anyone who can look at a sailplane and not see a thing of beauty hasn’t got a soul.”
That’s what a well-seasoned crop duster pilot told me years ago when I mentioned my love of flying sailplanes to him.
He understood the essence of natural, soaring flight and the requisite skills and techniques that make soaring such a rewarding and fulfilling form of flight. There are coveys of sailplane pilots throughout the country who enjoy this serene and exhilarating type of flying.
In middle Tennessee, Eagleville Soaring Club (ESC) operates from Puckett Field (50M), about 30 miles south of Nashville. ESC members are a gregarious group of folks whose enthusiasm for the sport is virtually tangible.
Though the gliders, towplanes, and pilots have changed through the years, the glider operation has been steadfast at Puckett Field since 1967. The landmark cinderblock office building and long narrow hangar have weathered the years and acquired the homey patina of an old love, but have otherwise remained virtually unchanged.
Solo shirt tails adorn the walls, along with framed photos of the legendary characters who have kept the soaring operation thriving throughout the decades. The turf runway has also remained much the same since it was first established as a privately-owned public airport in 1952.
Back in 1938, Russell Puckett started an airfield on his property along the east side of Highway 41A just south of Eagleville, Tennessee. He gave rides and tried to become a Piper dealer, but the market gave way right after he bought a handful of Piper Cubs. In 1952 he created a new turf runway on the west side of Highway 41A.
ESC’s current president, chairman of the board, and chief tow pilot, Ron Tuttle, is quite familiar with the history of the field.
“Russell had asked the CAA to come over and ‘bless the field,’ but on the appointed day, Russell couldn’t meet the CAA fellow because his grocery store in Eagleville had burned to the ground,” says Ron. “But amazingly, at the end of the day, the CAA guy walks up to him and says, ‘here’s your license.’ He had measured the strip and done everything by himself.”
“The interesting thing about this is that Puckett Field, from what we can tell, is the oldest continually-operated airport in the state of Tennessee,” he adds.
Puckett Field is now owned by Russell Puckett’s niece and her husband.
“We’re grateful to have a 30-year-lease on the airport, and we also bought the property on the south end of the field,” says Ron.
It was Garland W. Pack who brought gliders to Puckett Field. He started a sailplane operation in 1961 at Murfreesboro, then moved it 30 nm southwest to Lewisburg for a year, and then 14 nm northeast to Puckett Field in 1967.
He designed and built the small office and the nearly 400′ cantilever hangar. He operated Eagleville Soaring School with World War II army surplus Schweizer TG-3A gliders and Piper J-3 Cub towplanes until 1982.
Garland was an aviation luminary. Born in Dickson, Tennessee, in 1912, he taught himself how to fly and became an aviation pioneer and 1930s barnstormer. He earned his pilot license (signed by Orville Wright) and mechanic license at Clyde Schockley’s school in Muncie, Indiana.
During World War II, Garland earned the Distinguished Flying Cross for flying “The Hump” on numerous supply missions from India to China.
He was passionate about virtually every aspect of aviation, including designing, building, and racing airplanes, teaching others to fly, and soaring flight in particular.
Garland passed away in 1986. The Dickson airport (M02) was named after him in 1999, and in 2016, he was posthumously inducted into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame.
Garland was oft quoted as saying, “When you have flown in a glider, you have flown. You are in the air, you’re not beating against it with propellers or burning it with jets. You just sit in it and ride with it.”
One of Garland’s numerous students was Bill McFarlane, who became an avid pilot and honed his skills to become a competitive sailplane pilot, as well as an instructor and tow plane pilot. In 1982, Bill bought the commercial operation from Garland, and facilitated the transition from the old fabric-covered TG-3As and Cubs to modern fiberglass sailplanes and more powerful tow planes.
Bill continued to operate Eagleville Sailplanes until he became ill in 2009.
Eagleville Soaring Club
Bill’s inability to continue the glider business was a wakeup call to a group of nearly 20 local glider pilots, many of whom owned their own sailplanes. They realized if they didn’t do something quickly, they wouldn’t have a place to soar.
So they banded together and bought the operation from Bill and founded Eagleville Soaring Club, a chapter club of the Soaring Society of America. Ten years later, the club is flourishing with about 60 members — and there’s a waiting list to join. The current fleet includes a couple of tandem Schleicher ASK-21s and a single-place ASK-23, and a 235-hp Piper Pawnee towplane.
“We don’t want the club to grow so large that it loses its charm,” Ron says with a laugh. “Half the fun for our members is flying and the other half is just being here. We always said that we’re a social club with a flying problem.”
Ron started soaring at Puckett in 1974 when he was in his early 20s. Garland taught him to fly and Ron soloed in a TG-3A.
“I have been involved here ever since, flying gliders and towplanes. I also restored a 1942 TG-3A as close to original configuration as I could, in honor of the men who trained in these gliders during World War II. At the time, it was the last known airworthy TG-3A, and we used to fly it a lot here. Now it’s at the Western Antique Aeroplane and Automobile Museum in Hood River, Oregon,” Ron says.
“The best air forces in the world used to train their pilots in gliders,” he says, adding, “there’s something about gliders, not just the way they fly, but the pilot in a glider thinks totally different from an airplane pilot. You always, always have your Plan B and sometimes your Plan C. There’s no such thing as a ‘go-around’ in a glider. You get it right 100% of the time, period!”
Sharing the Joy of Flight
ESC enjoys embracing the local and regional community. It offers commercial rides to visitors in Schleicher ASK-21s, promotes the sport of soaring at regional air shows, makes educational presentations at local schools, and sponsors unofficial cross-country contests for competition pilots from Georgia, Tennessee, and Alabama.
Additionally, members encourage teenagers to experience soaring flight by awarding scholarships.
“Last year we sponsored two 14-year-old kids from first flight through private pilot’s certificate, paying all their expenses. They’re fantastic pilots today. We’re on our fifth scholarship kid now,” shares Ron. “We look for capable kids who have that burning passion for flight, the ones with big glowing eyes who really want to be around airplanes. We highly encourage parental involvement, and we want it to be a work scholarship because we feel that it means more to the kids if they work their tails off!”
ESC also collaborates with the Arnold Engineering Development Complex (AEDC) Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Aviation Program near Tullahoma.
“We give the kids who complete the STEM program a ‘graduation’ glider ride,” says Ron. “We’ve done that for dozens of young students in recent years.”
Every now and then ESC helps facilitate special soaring flights. For instance, when Don Alexander wanted to celebrate his 50th birthday by making 50 glider flights, ESC made it possible. Members opened the gliderport on a weekday, and several tow pilots took turns towing Don Alexander aloft in the ASK-23 for one pattern flight after another.
“He made it a charitable event by having people raise money for a charity,” recalls Ron. “We had the press out here and he about wore out the tow pilots that day. It was a bitter cold day, but we knocked all 50 flights out!”
Scott Myers decided to view the total eclipse of the sun from his Schleicher ASW-24 (N3LX) on Aug. 21, 2017. Ron towed him aloft to 5,000’ agl over nearby Murfreesboro, right in the path of totality. After release from tow, Scott serendipitously found a cloud base to “park” underneath, allowing him to maintain altitude until just a few moments before totality.
Donning his protective eclipse viewing glasses, he emerged from under the cloud to behold the entire event, basking in the surreal twilight of the eclipse until it was over. With altitude to spare, he soared silently back to Puckett Field and celebrated the success of his mission with a couple of low passes before landing.
ESC is staffed by volunteer members, which include about half a dozen each of flight instructors, tow pilots, and commercial pilots.
“This is a very eclectic group and we’ve got a little bit of everything as far as people’s backgrounds and skill levels,” Ron reports. “For some, all they’ve ever flown is sailplanes. Others, including myself, are old fighter pilots or airline pilots. In short, this is everything a flying club should be, and it’s just fun being here.”