Last weekend the SouthEast Alaska Aviation Association (SEAKAA) hosted their second annual Panhandle Fly-In. The two-day event, held at Sitka’s Rocky Gutierrez Airport, included activities for pilots as well as the public, and brought over 600 people to see what happens “behind the fence” at an airport. Saturday turned out to be a dreary weather day (at least by my interior Alaska standards) that kept pilots from other parts of the the region from flying in, but that didn’t keep the local community from turning out to look at an array of display aircraft and a number of classic cars, courtesy of a local auto club. Guardian Flight generously provided the use of their hangar to host the event.
Burgers and hotdogs fueled the participants, as they studied the display aircraft. Inside the hangar Civil Air Patrol opened the doors of their Cessna 172, allowing kids to sit inside, manipulate the controls and get what for many was the first taste of sitting in the pilot’s seat. Larger aircraft on the ramp were also open for inspection. Perhaps the aircraft that drew the most attention were the Search and Rescue aircraft provided by the Coast Guard and the Royal Canadian Airforce. Air Station Sitka provided a Jayhawk helicopter which complemented two aircraft from the Canadian Search and Rescue counterpart from Canadian Forces Base Comax, on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. The Canadians flew a Cormorant helicopter and de Havilland Buffalo almost 600 miles to take part in the event, and participate in joint exercises with the Coast Guard (more on that later). On Saturday, the public was welcome to come aboard all three of these aircraft, and visit with flight crews and SAR Techs. It was a great way to become acquainted with the folks who are will fly out and save our bacon if we have a problem.
Sunday brought a welcome commodity to Sitka—sunshine! Activities begin with a breakfast for SEAKAA members at the airport café, followed by a presentation on survival signaling conducted by the Coast Guard. Shortly after noon the flying activities got underway, with the start of the second annual flour bombing contest. As the participants had their pre-flight briefing, community members began to arrive at a viewing area, just outside the fence at the airport. A few miles to the east, we watched the Buffalo and the rescue helicopters orbit in a joint training exercise where Coast Guard crew members got to ride with and observe the Canadian procedures, and visa-versa.
Each flour bombing crew got two tries to hit the target, an orange basket just off the edge of the taxiway. The first few attempts were a little wide, but slowly they begin to find their range. About that time, the Buffalo landed, and picked up their flour bombs… Just watching the big STOL transport aircraft land, with a decidedly nose-down attitude on short final, is enough to get your attention. Having it pass in front of the crowd at a few hundred feet above ground to deploy an 8 oz flour bomb is just plane exciting! At that point in the contest, the Canadian bombs were closest to the target, but that must have challenged the civilian entrants to new heights, who in the final runs of the day edged the Canadians out of the top positions. In a show of good will and appreciation coming to the event, the Canadian team was awarded a much appreciated prize—a keg of locally brewed Sitka beer from the Baranof Island Brewing Company.
Following the contest, several local volunteers fired up their aircraft, and provided short flights to members of the public for a small donation, which gave a number of Sitka residents a chance to see their community from the air. The smiles and comments from the passengers, young and old, as they left the airport made it clear that they enjoyed the chance to experience a ride in a general aviation aircraft.
Events like these take a lot of work to plan, execute and clean up after. My hat is off to SEAKAA for undertaking this effort. President Bill Lantz and Treasurer Jeannie Frank are but two of the team that devoted their time and talents to make this event a success. The Civil Air Patrol Cadets and their leaders provided a lot of the people-power during the Fly-In, and a long list of sponsors donated hangar space, door prizes, display aircraft and much more. The exposure to aviation that these events allow goes a long way to put a face on what some members of the public see as a “just a noisy airplane.” The expression on the faces of the youngsters as they sat in the pilot seat of the Buffalo or the helicopters suggests that we are looking at the pilots of the future.
Think about what you can do to help organizations like SEAKAA, or a group in your area, to share the joy of aviation with the members of your community. As security procedures make it harder to get on an airport or close to an airplane, the importance of these events increases. AOPA has a guide on how to organize an airport open house, which helps get started. We need to help ourselves by inviting the public to have a glimpse of the world that we so proudly enjoy!