An iconic flying club at March Air Reserve Base may be permanently grounded because of financial and operational concerns that came into focus following an airplane accident that happened a year ago Saturday, but the club’s administrators and supporters say it’s an asset to aviation and deserves another chance.
“I hate to see the club go. A lot of people want it,” March Aero Club Manager Bob Pearce told City News Service. “We were going like gangbusters until we got shut down.”
The club, which has been part of the base since March 1960, was placed on indefinite suspension immediately after the Sept. 12, 2019, accident at Hemet-Ryan Airport.
Brig. Gen. Melissa Coburn, commander of the 452nd Air Mobility Wing and overseer of many March ARB components, decided to halt club activity until the accident was investigated and other issues were scrutinized.
At the time, several airplanes were down for maintenance, and the associated costs to put them back in airworthy condition evidently caught Coburn’s attention, along with the organization’s financial position.
“What we look at is consistent aircraft availability, fiscal solvency and competing investment priorities,” the general told City News Service in an email. “Revenue generation does play a factor in the decision-making process, but it is not the sole decisional element.”
She said the loss of the T-41 trainer a year ago was not the driving issue behind her decision to padlock the Aero Club, in what its administrators and members now perceive as an inevitable permanent closure.
According to the National Transportation Safety Board investigation, the loss of the single-engine plane was precipitated by “improper” decision-making on the part of the 63-year-old flight instructor, identified as “C.S.”
The instructor, whom the NTSB said had logged over 11,000 flight hours, was giving lessons to a 37-year-old student pilot with near triple-digit heat in Riverside County, making the air thinner and thus impacting airplane performance. C.S. and the student were over Runway 23 at Hemet-Ryan when they ran into trouble.
“What he did was have the student make a low approach, and then another low approach, to give him perspective in the windscreen of what the setup for landing should look like, because the student was having trouble with landings,” Pearce told CNS.
The NTSB said the instructor took control when he spotted dust devils at the west end of the airfield, creating a potential hazard. According to the agency, he began a shallow turn to the south and then noticed power lines at the slow-climbing plane’s altitude, “so he decided to initiate a precautionary soft field landing to a plowed field adjacent to the runway.”
“During landing, the nose gear touched down (striking a berm), and the airplane nosed over (onto its back),” the NTSB stated. “The airplane sustained substantial damage.”
Neither of the trainer’s two occupants was injured. However, Pearce said both wings on the T-41 were irreparably damaged.
Coburn and her staff put the Aero Club’s safety procedures, finances and maintenance history under review. There were eight other planes listed, on paper, as available to members at the time, though only one was immediately available to fly, according to Pearce.
The club’s Korean War-era T-34 Mentors, routinely used for ceremonies and shows in the region, were down for service needs, while two popular single-engine models all had wing flaps go bad.
“When it rains, it pours, and the spotlight turned on us,” Aero Club Assistant Manager Roger Mann said. “But all of the airplanes are repairable.”
The cost to repair and return all of the planes to airworthy condition, as well as pay debts that have accumulated since last fall, range from $150,000 to $200,000, but that can be amortized in future years, Pearce said. He noted that maintenance problems have mushroomed because the planes have been idle for a year, leading to corrosion, dead batteries and related problems.
The club’s roll numbered 186 at the time operations were stopped. Members reside throughout Southern California. According to Mann, monthly dues payments and plane rentals are the primary income streams for the club, and they had been healthy. The year-to-date revenue accumulated in 2019 prior to the shutdown was $215,000, and in 2018, a banner year, $256,000, he said.
All of the club’s planes rented at advantageous rates, and the primary trainers, the T-41s, offered perhaps the cheapest option in the region for student pilots starting from scratch, with an hourly rate of $85, fuel included.
“There’s really nothing equivalent to what we offer in terms of costs,” Mann said.
Riverside City Councilman Chuck Conder, a retired USAF colonel whose last duty station was March just before it converted to a reserve base in 1996, expressed optimism that the club’s problems could be solved without a permanent closure.
“I’m sure they can be mitigated and corrected,” Conder told CNS. “I hope that is something the general will look at, and people can continue to fly at the club. I hate to see that history go away. Plus, it’s a great way to fly relatively inexpensively, and it’s a means of exciting people about aviation. It can excite young people about joining the Air Force and being part of the defense of our nation.”
According to Pearce, in 2019 alone, two women and seven men obtained pilots’ licenses thanks to training at the March Aero Club, and all have since transitioned to flight careers in the Air Force.
“The Aero Club at March is one of the oldest in the Air Force,” former Riverside County Military Affairs Commissioner Tom Freeman told CNS. “It has been a great asset to the military and civilian community. Young ladies and men have learned to fly there for decades. I’m hopeful this historic club and its members can work with General Coburn to address any concerns.”
Coburn told CNS that she is “definitely a supporter of General Aviation,” but she declined to drill into specifics on why phasing out the club would be a preferred strategy.
There has been no word on a possible timeline for closure.
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