“Before you crank the prop make sure you’ve got the chocks in place and the throttle 1/10th opened or otherwise you’ll be chasing the airplane down the field.” So were the words of advice from my Dover Aero Club instructor, a C-124 pilot with the 15th Air Transport Squadron. He and I would be crewmates on the historic C-124 non-stop flight from Hickam AFB, Hawaii to Dover AFB in February 1960 logging eighteen hours and forty minutes.
Back in the 1950s and into the early 60s, Dover AFB’s Aero Club was near where the Dover Mall and Dover Downs are now located and adjacent to the Delaware State Police Barracks on the DuPont Highway, Route 13. The field was called Dover Airpark and the property was owned by U.S.A.C. Trucking Company (U.S. Aeroplane Carriers, Inc.). According to George Frebert’s book “Delaware Aviation History,” U.S.A.C. truckers could be seen anywhere in the 48 states and Alaska during the 1940s in support of the war effort. Following the war, U.S. Aeroplane Carriers was changed to U.S.A.C. Transport to better define its operation in moving more than just airplanes. Dover Airpark closed in 1964 to make room for Dover Downs.
At the time of my involvement, the mid 50s to 1960, the Aero Club had a Piper J3 Cub and another, that I do remember, an Aeronca Champ. Others may have been available for use; however, time dims the memory. I was checked out in the J3 Cub.
There were only a few times I left the boundaries of the Eastern Shore. There was no need to go anywhere else as Delaware, Maryland and Virginia were awash in beautiful landscapes before the influx of housing developments that claimed much of the forests, farm land and grass-strip airfields.
Some may think flying the Piper Cub was routine and most of the time it was. However, on one occasion it got a bit hairy. For the private pilot a lot of the flying was VFR and the J3 was not radio-equipped and contact with the tower, if there was one, was made with a signaling light gun. Green from the tower if cleared to land, Red – do not land. Well, on one occasion, intending to land at New Castle Airport, I was given the green light. On approach and without any warning a B-57 Canberra flew over me with what seemed just a few feet to spare. Well needless to say that was it for the day!
Emergency procedures were practiced during most every flight. It was very important to have a section of the landscape laid out just in case the single engine was to call it quits. Stalls were also practiced. Didn’t like those too much, but the J3 was very forgiving and did not require any extreme stick movement to recover.
The Aero Club continued to operate from Dover Airpark until around 1961 when it was moved to Milford Airpark where six aircraft were available to its members. Milford was known for its “Fly-In, Drive-In” Restaurant, with curb service. The “Great March Storm” of 1962 flipped two of the Club’s aircraft on their backs: a Cessna 172 and an L-17 Navion. Both aircraft were rebuilt and returned to service. Later in 1962, the Club moved to Dover AFB where after a short time it went into hiatus. Milford Airpark closed in 1989.
Following the Aero Club’s reopening in 1987 membership has changed year to year from as few as seventy enthusiasts to more than 200 and has held at about 160 for the past few years. The Club has an exceptional safety record with over 25,000 accident free hours. Eighty-five percent of all of the Club’s flying is for training and more than 200 members have received a new certificate or rating since 2002. Thirty Air Force pilots have received their initial flight training through the Dover Aero Club.
The Club moved into its new dedicated building in 2009 and has allowed, for the first time, all of its operations to be in a single location. It was also recognized as a five-star facility for six years.
How much longer the Air Force will have aero clubs is an open question. At one point there were around 120 (sanctioned and unsanctioned) clubs, but with base closings and other issues as of 2015 the number is now down to 17. Both the Navy and Army have closed most of their clubs. People may eventually need to find other places for flight training or return to the unsanctioned aero clubs of the past.