Lake Country Flying Club members share their love of the skies with students and the community through the Greene County Regional Airport.
All work and no play can make for a very dull pilot.
After the arduous hours of training and required testing for flight certification, new pilots are often ready to take to the skies with a newfound freedom and have a little fun. That passion for freedom and adventure was usually what got them started in the first place.
Mark Hall began his journey in aviation 35 years ago while living in Delaware, but on his way to the 70-80 hours he needed for a private license, life intervened. “I got 28 hours into it and got transferred to Chicago, we were pregnant with our second baby, and it just got put off for 30 years,” he says. After moving to Lake Oconee, he decided to pick it back up and began renting a plane in Thomson for his remaining training. When his wife asked him what he was going to fly when he finally got his license, he told her they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. Little did he know, fellow Lake Oconee resident, Terry Winn, was crafting an idea and beginning to put feelers out for anyone interested in starting a flying club.
Winn got his license in 1977, but when he retired in 2008, he reluctantly cut his love of flying from the budget. It’s an expensive passion, after all. But after about ten years, he was dying to get back into it and saw a local flying club as a viable option.
“Being a member of a club helps defray the costs,” Winn explains. “It’s very expensive to fly if you’re renting planes, so having the club really cuts down on the price of flying because you’re sharing a plane with ten other people and can spread the costs out.”
So, two years ago, Winn and Hall teamed up with a couple of other interested pilots, bought a 4-place, single engine, Piper Archer, and created the Lake Country Flying Club at Greene County Regional Airport.
Hall was able to finish up his remaining hours on his very own plane in his own backyard.
And that’s when the fun began.
Today, Hall says he and his wife enjoy taking small weekend jaunts to nearby destinations like Hilton Head, South Carolina, Callaway Gardens in Pine Mountain, or Asheville, North Carolina.
A few weeks ago, they flew over to Hilton Head just to have lunch.
“Everyone jokes about the $100 hamburger,” says Hall, “and it’s a real thing.” He says sometimes they just hit the “runway restaurants” at nearby airports like The Flying Machine on Briscoe Field in Gwinnett County, Barnstormer’s Grill at Peach State Airport in Williamson and the Runway Café in Greenwood, South Carolina.
Winn frequents Charleston with his wife who likes to jump in the plane to visit her family there.
Mostly, the members take the plane for these types of short side trips – family weekends to the coast, or husband and wife date nights – but sometimes, the members travel together. Hall, Winn, and fellow member, Gary Sims, attended the “Fly-In” at Gulf Shores, Alabama, last fall and joined around 500 other planes and 2,000 other people for the event. “It was like an air show without the aerobatics,” says Hall. They plan to attend the upcoming Fly-In in Tennessee this September.
Since its inception two years ago, the Lake Country Flying Club quickly grew to eleven members – seasoned pilots, new students, and husband and wife teams – who conveniently coordinate their flying schedules with an app.
“It sounds like a lot of people flying the plane, but not everyone flies every week or even every month,” says Hall. “It works out great.”
He explains that each member has a share in the plane and pay monthly dues to cover the hangar, insurance, and other fixed costs. “We also charge ourselves an hourly rate for the airplane, which is still much less than renting one – if there were rentals. There are no rentals close by,” he says.
But, he goes on to explain, the main advantage over the financial partnership is the social aspect of being a part of the Lake Country Flying Club.
“Number one, it’s a social club, so it’s more than just a shored ownership,” says Hall. “We have our regular business meetings, but also club dinners where the family is invited, and ‘open hangar’ events for anyone interested in becoming a member.”
Winn says they’d love to see the club grow even more and eventually purchase another airplane to serve more members. The only problem, he says, is there is no more hangar space at the Greene County Regional Airport. That’s a good problem to have, according to Winn who also serves at the Chairman of the Greene County Airport Authority.
“We’re wanting to grow the airport,” says Winn. “It would benefit the airport and the county to have more hangars and more planes.” He says a lot of people don’t realize how important the airport is to the local economy. “We get a lot of jet traffic in here and we get a lot of prominent people coming in and out. The economic impact to the county is significant,” he says.
Connecting the community to its airport is a cornerstone of the club’s mission.
“It’s important for the community to know what they have out here,” says Hall. “A terminal like this is a jewel for the county. We’re in and out of a lot of little airports and this is like a Taj Mahal compared to some others.”
The club has begun several community outreach initiatives to involve the community or introduce them to the Greene County Regional Airport. They hope to hold an “Open Hangar” event later this summer, complete with a “Barnstormer” to give visitors short flights on a vintage bi-wing airplane.
Last month, Hall and another member who is studying aviation at UGA, collaborated with a local Boy Scout troop in the “Young Eagles” program, a nationwide initiative to introduce youth to aviation. “It’s all about introducing kids to flying and often taking them on their first flight,” says Hall. “There’s been 2 million kids in 20 years that have flown under this program.”
Hall brought his flight simulator and virtual reality headset for the scouts waiting their turn while they walked them through pre-flight checks, strapped them in took them on short flights over the lakes.
“When we’re out over the lakes and everything is straight and level, we let them take the controls and turn a little bit,” says Hall. “There are plenty of airline pilots that their first experience in an airplane was just that – fifteen minutes in the air as a kid.”
It’s just another part of the club’s mission, he says – to promote aviation to young people.
It’s a mission shared by the larger national organization, Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association (AOPA) and this fall, the Lake Country Flying Club is partnering with Lake Oconee Academy to bring a curriculum developed by AOPA into the local school system.
“The AOPA has always been a huge promoter of general aviation and they come out with different programs from time to time,” says Winn. “In fact, when I got back into flying, I went through their ‘Rusty Pilots’ program before getting back in the seat.”
Within the last five years, AOPA has begun the “You Can Fly” program, promoting flying to school systems using a STEM curriculum. Winn pitched the idea to Dr. Otho Tucker of Lake Oconee Academy who moved forward with the idea after gauging interest in the program from parents.
Winn says the AOPA provides the programming, supplies the curriculum, and even has training session to prepare him to teach the course this fall to ninth grade students, hopefully growing into a full four-year program for all students in the future.
“The program is not just about being a pilot,” says Winn. “It’s a STEM program that happens to use aviation in general, so it includes controllers, mechanics, technicians, and drone aviation, along with introducing students to flying.”
For Winn and Hall, they say this type of community involvement is one of the most exciting parts about being a member of the Lake County Flying Club. It might be hard to beat the adrenaline rush found in a cockpit, but introducing new, eager learners to a life-long passion they’ve worked so hard to achieve might just win in a dogfight.
Photography by Dennis McDaniel