Skyline Soaring Club in the Twentieth Century
By Jim Kellett, August, 2004
Chapter V -- Skyline Soaring Club, Front Royal
However, when one door closes, often another opens. That was certainly true in this case, since we actually wound up a rather nice airport, and one that shortened the drive for many Club members. The Club had, in its collective wisdom, already done a survey of alternate sites, so that study was dusted off and quickly led to the decision to relocate back to FRR. As it turned out, the management at FRR, Cass Aviation, and the Warren County Airport Commission had made it clear that they wanted us back, and the case was clinched when we learned in 1998 that FRR had hangars available. The airport (above, right) has a 3000 paved runway and a clear sod safety area 1700 feet long immediately adjacent. As you can see, there is also reasonable room for staging and parking areas. It's located just 4.4 NM from Signal Knob, the northern tip of the 45 mile long Massanutten range (left). This is a textbook ridge, and constitutes a 90 mile freebie on just about any cross country flight out of FRR.
The Airport Commission, then chaired by the same man (Charlie Brown) who used to operate a commercial glider program at Winchester, and the airport's management (Reginald Cassagnol, who used to have a commercial glider operation at FRR) were both experienced with gliders and their operations, so there were no surprises among the other users when we moved in.
We promptly rented five of their T-hangars (half of their total!), and the Commission promised to work with us by building, or allowing us to build, a new hangar more suitable for gliders. In the winter of 1998-1999, the Club enjoyed a sharp increase in membership and a huge increase in the size of the member-owned fleet of gliders, apparently a result (at least in part) of being closer to the Washington DC metropolitan center.
In the summer of 1999, the Club began to implement the provisions of the Civil Air Patrol - SSA Memorandum of Understanding. Under the leadership of Fred Hayman, a CAP Senior Member, a M-ASA towpilot and ex-WSC towpilot, the first orientation flights with cadets were made. I joined the CAP and by 2004, the Wing had obtained a brand new Blanik L-12, a USAFA surplussed SGS 1-26, and a Maule towplane. Several Skyline members became very active in the CAP, including Eric Litt (the Wing's Operations Chief and, later, Wing Commander), Steve Lander (Director of Glider Operations), Dave Dawood (towpilot/CFI), Greg Ellis (O-ride pilot), and myself.
Skyline's involvement with the Civil Air Patrol continued with great success until the summer of 2008 when what appeared to be a microburst destroyed several aircraft, one of which was the Virgnia Wing's Blanik, on the ramp at the Culpeper airport. The Air Force refused to replace the glider, and even sold off the one-of-a-kind Maule with a Tost internal reel in it. With this major setback, CAP glider operations in Virginia ceased until, in 2012, a group of CAP glider enthusiasts in the Danville area obtained the resources to start up a small operation. Unfortunately, there was no involvement by members of the Club.
From time to time, the growing Club had re-visited the question of whether or not to buy more sailplanes. The Board steadfastly refused to consider purchasing additional gliders, although it encouraged members to purchase their own, either for their personal use or to lease to the Club. However, by 2002 member satisfaction with our aging 2-33 finally got to the point that it was replaced with a G-103, giving the Club two glass trainers. In 2004, the Club also purchased the SGS 1-36 that it had been leasing, and in ???? purchased a Cirrus from a retiring Club member, bringing the Club's fleet up to four - two trainers and two single place machines.
In 2006, the Club upgraded the engine in the Pawnee an installed a Hoffman four-bladed propeller. The resulting combination sharply reduced the noise (which had become a source of complaints from airport neighbors) without diminishing the performance. The towplane fleet also grew in number. In 2009, the Club purchased an Aviat Husky as a backup to the Pawnee, and to be used to train new towpilots. (It's ironic that, having made a large investment in reducing the noise in the Pawnee, that, three years later the much noiser Husky went unnoticed!)
The fleet of member owned some gliders continued to grow - to twenty-two by 2014 - some based at Front Royal, and some based at other airports or stored at home.
It appears that this policy, often a difficult one to sell to the membership in the past, was beginning to pay off. The success of this policy illuminated the continuing shortage of hangar or storage space, and that had been exacerbated by the Airport Commission's reneging on it's original promises to build our own hangars, or to make additional hangars which they might build available to us. In fact, the Commission announced in 2002 its decision to build a large T-hangar complex! We worked with them to have added a larger hangar on one end, but were not involved in the final design, resulting in 2004 in the construction of a hangar that was quite inappropriate for gliders!
The Club was fortunate in 1999 to receive a lot of favorable publicity, some of which derived from a most unexpected (and tragic) event - the death of Bill Ivans and Don Engen in a glider crash. The Washington Post published a rather complementary article on July 21, 1999, and the Winchester Star did a similarly nice article on its front page that same week. The Northern Virginia Daily did a nice piece during the summer, and the star also did a very long and nice article on Club member Bela Gogos' life, including his ordeal as a Russian prisoner.
In late 2003, political differences between the Airport Commission and the political body (the Warren County Board of Supervisors) which appointed them reached a crisis. One of the Commissioners, Charles Brown, actually ran against one of the Supervisors, and lost. Within about six months, over half of the Commission, including its Chairman, which had actively sought our presence at Front Royal, had been replaced! The new Commission set out to meet the political agenda of the Supervisors, and held out considerable hope to the Club that we would finally be able to construct suitable hangars. However, that turned out to be a misplaced hope, since they proceeded to impose increasingly restrictive and costly changes in the airport's operation, making it clear that gliders - or at least the Club - were not seen as a part of the airport's future. The honeymoon was over.
There followed about a year of turmoil. The policies of the new Commission not only adversely affected the Club, but outraged the other tenants a the airport to the extent that an "Airport Users Community" was organized to lobby against the policies. After the community began to rally publicly for the tenants (including the Club), the Commissioners resigned, the Supervisors curtailed the authority of the Commission, and peaceful coexistence once again settled on the airport. By 2012, a Club member was actually appointed to the Airport Commission! What a dramatic change.
Our accident record also took a hit. In 2001, the beloved ASK-21, our workhorse primary trainer, was destroyed in a crash on the Massanutten ridge. Fortunately, neither the pilot (the aircraft's owner) nor his passenger were seriously injured, and we eventually got a brand-new ASK-21, but it was a clear wake-up call. Three other members damaged their own gliders in the first few years of the 21st century, two in the vicinity of Front Royal. Again, we were fortunate in that no one was injured or killed, but it was frustrating that all involved experienced, skilled pilots.
After ove twenty years, we still struggle to reach consensus on "why we are", for example, just as the Warrenton Soaring Center did over two decades ago and M-ASA did four decades ago. Are we a training organization or a support organization for glider owners? Should we buy more equipment or encourage members to buy their own?
We face a more crowded airspace environment and a regulatory agency that continues to squeeze recreational aviation. Our membership is growing, and the percentage of soaring graybeards is shrinking. Glider ownership is growing very rapidly, putting pressure on the club to provide adequate services for this component, and the political leadership of the Airport Commission had dramatically changed.
We have a strategic plan - actually written down - for the first time, and we have an organizational structure that has served us well during our formative years. We are located in an area proximate to a very desirable population base for a soaring Club, and with excellent soaring weather to boot. And, best of all, our accident/incident record remains one admirable within the soaring community, and the safety of our procedures has won accolades from the FAA and others.
We're still working hard to expand to other sites, and to eventually find a soaring site which we can own outright so as to develop it into a full-service soaring Club.
What happens in the twenty-first century, as soon as it happens, will be history. . . . "make it so"!