In a far corner of the Charleston Air Force Base, pilots have been learning to fly recreationally for decades.
Their hangar was easy to spot, marked by a weathered plane mounted on high poles at the entrance.
But now the mission is coming to an end.
The Charleston Air Force Base’s leadership has decided its Aero Club — one of multiple Pentagon-sanctioned clubs created to teach propeller flying after the Air Force was founded — will be disbanded at the end of this month.
Base commander Col. Richard McComb said the club has become too costly to operate in a period of shrinking budgets, losing more than $100,000 in the last two years. The red ink shows that the group isn’t in a position to generate “the flying hours necessary to overcome this deficit,” he said.
“I cannot in good conscience continue an activity that serves such a niche population at so great a loss, without absolute assurance of its future profitability,” McComb also said in a letter this summer.
One of the club’s 100-plus members said the move is short-sighted.
“It’s real sad for me to see this,” said Mike Stittler, who has been a part of Charleston Aero since 1981. “It’s like not having a sailing club on a Navy base.”
As the story goes, Aero Clubs date to 1948 when feisty, cigar-chomping Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay found a group of airmen rebuilding a small airplane in a hangar. “If we are going to do this, we are going to do it right,” LeMay said.
From there, the Aero Club system was born as a way of giving military members, veterans and civilians who work on U.S. bases a dedicated club to learn about aviation through lessons, camaraderie and renting planes.
Systematically, the clubs were placed under the military’s Morale, Welfare and Recreational heading, putting them on par with base golf courses, bowling alleys and swimming pools as amenities meant to be mostly self-sustaining. Just like a library, the club’s aircraft could be reserved and checked out for use.
Charleston’s club started in 1958, with just two aircraft and 50 members. Today there are more than 100 members with about six planes or so available, Cessnas and Pipers.
In recent years, though, Aero Clubs nationally have begun to grow out of favor of military leadership. Everything from tire and engine maintenance costs, insurance risks, competition with the private sector and the limited number of people who use the clubs have been cited as reasons to let them go.
Eric Treland, program manager for all the Air Force Aero Clubs worldwide, said there are 18 Air Force Aero Clubs left after at least 39 were in service as recently as the early 1990s.
The Charleston club began getting hints this year that it was subject to closure after drawing attention for failing to keep the operation profitable.
Members responded with a recovery plan that included increasing monthly dues and instruction and rental fees, some of which run to $300 an hour, depending on the plane. The idea was overruled by the base.
McComb said a portion of the base’s activities already had to be scaled backed after Charleston saw a $1.3 million reduction to its Morale, Welfare and Recreation funds because of the sequestration.
“These hardships are not limited to the Aero Club,” McComb said of what the reductions have meant. “A number of community programs have been consolidated or scaled back. Joint Base Charleston patrons may have noticed that the pool season was shortened, the libraries are closed an additional day during the week, the base auto hobby shop has been closed and several other adjustments were driven by budget reductions,” he added.
Eventually, all the club’s planes and equipment will be auctioned. The hangar will become the responsibility of the base’s real property office. The site could potentially be valuable, with its close access to the nearby Boeing plant.
Wouter Sijtsma, a captain in the Royal Netherlands Air Force who currently is teaching at The Citadel, is one of the club members who will lose flying privileges with the closure.
“It’s sad,” he said. “It took decades to build up to what it is, and it gets torn down in a couple of months.”