Sept. 19 Fly-In For Air Fans

Sept. 10, 2009


Sep. 10--RURAL RETREAT, Va. -- If you've ever wondered about the low flying prop planes hovering above Interstate 81 in Southwest Virginia, you might consider the Mountain Empire Pilots Association's Fifth Annual Fly-In.

On Sept. 19, the 20-man association will haul the 30-some personal planes from the hangar, set them up on the runway and let people poke around. They're also bringing in celebrity aircraft: antique and current military planes and helicopters for display at the Mountain Empire Airport straddling Smyth and Wythe counties.

Last year, 3,000 visitors came.

But the event is not a money-making venture. The grassroots, 8-year-old organization pays up to $4,000 a pop to bring in the military machines, and charges $2 for admission. They plan to break even at best.

"We want to show the public that a lot of business goes on here," said Curtis Pennington, one of the founding members of the association and owner of Hangar 7, the on-site maintenance operation. "It's not just for pleasure planes."

Jeff Jones, the treasurer of the association, said many in the area don't even know there's an airport at the doorstep.

It's used for many things, he said: from corporate jets to emergency medical transports.

A Marion-based doctor who is an association member operates Angel Flights from the runway; he flies sick patients to hospitals around the county for free so they don't have to endure long car travel or the hassle of commercial airports.

One of his cohorts called his six-seater plane the "station wagon of the sky."

The planes kept at the hangar, and those that will be on display, range from $10,000 homemade jobs to quarter-million dollar antiques.

There are aircraft with fold-up wings, a trick plane that "does everything but fly backwards" and a Jetsons-looking motor glider that uses its engine to get into the sky, then turns it off and floats around on hot air.

Several of the aircraft will be available for rides next Saturday.

Pilot Bob Harrison, the proud owner of a war bird named Nancy, will haul one passenger around in his two-seater vintage trainer for 15 minutes for $100.

But, that's the top of the line.

For $25, visitors can catch a ride in a Cessna or a helicopter.

They'll also give away four free rides, door-prize style.

The association is made up of local flight enthusiasts, some who own planes, some who just borrow the others. They mostly have day jobs teaching school or keeping the airport in order. Their unwritten motto is "Let's go fly!"

"Other than being just a bunch of pilots getting together for burgers, we do stuff to help the airport that the airport could not afford," Pennington said.

They're proud to have the longest runway in Southwest Virginia: just shy of a mile at 5,260 feet.

The association thinks of the event as something of a recruitment day for the future flyers of America. Children are endlessly amazed by planes, they said, and the airport often hosts Boy Scout Troops and head start classes that stop by for tours.

The association members wish more people would stop by to check things out, and said they've never had a surprise visitor they haven't found the time to show around.

They've even hung little model planes from the terminal ceiling.

"When I was 10 years old, my uncle brought me to this very airport," Pennington said. "I've been in aviation every since. Since I took that first plane ride, it's all I've ever done."

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