Weather grounds airport celebration
Attending flight safety classes as part of Sylacauga Airport’s 50th year of aviation were Tuscaloosa couple Heinrich and Ulrike Franz. The couple comes to Lee Merkel Field almost every weekend to glide.

SYLACAUGA — Dark clouds and the threat of rain didn’t dampen the spirits of 30 plus people attending the Early Bird FAA Safety Seminar at Lee Merkel Field in Saturday.

The safety class was part of the activities scheduled for Saturday’s observation of Sylacauga Airport’s 50th anniversary of aviation.

A forecast of a low ceiling and rain necessitated calling off all other activities scheduled for the day’s events, but Central Alabama Soaring Association members along with other aviation enthusiast met with FAA representative Billy Hattaway for the safety classes.

Hattaway, a member of the FAA Safety Team (FASTeam) for the Alabama and Northwest Florida district, covered a variety of safety issues but narrowed down two chief concerns to be “human factors” and “currency.”

“Human factors – fitness and well-being,” Hattaway said,” are important, as is currency.”

Hattaway defined currency as pilots keeping their skills current, skills that deteriorate with lack of continuous training.

“It is a skills-based occupation,” Hatttaway said.

Unlike commercial or military pilots, private pilots don’t engage in reoccurring training. Hattaway said the FAA has developed an online training program that is available at FAA.Gov at no cost to encourage continuous training.

Pell City resident Roger Lewis is member of CASA. Lewis said CASA was formed though the merging of groups from Birmingham and Sylacauga. Lewis said they have 25 members.

Lewis is also a flight instructor and said safety is a priority. The meeting Saturday was the first with an FAA representative.

Alabaster’s Stan Murrell is president of CASA and said the group sponsored the safety classes. Murrell said the purpose of CASA is bringing together pilots from different aviation communities and to use Sylacauga’s airport.

Murrell has been flying since 1982 when he started flying while attending Delta State University in Mississippi. Although offered scholarships at other colleges, Murrell said he chose Delta because it had an aviation program.

Murrell continued his enthusiasm for aviation as an Army pilot and said he began flying gliders because he liked the challenge.

“I enjoy all forms of flying but flying gliders is challenging,” Murrell said. “The challenge is learning to fly by managing (air) lift rather than depending on an engine.”

Two gliding enthusiast traveling from Tuscaloosa almost every weekend are Heinrich and Ulrike Franz. The couple met at a gliding club in Germany 30 years ago. “We’ve been a couple ever since,” Ulrike said.

Ulrike said the couple enjoys gliding at the Sylacauga airport because there are fewer restrictions because of the air field’s location.

“There is more freedom here,” Heinrich said.

The couple both said that Sylacauga’s location was ideal because there are no large airports nearby to restrict flying.

“The weather is wonderful,” Ulrike said.

Also taking advantage of the safety classes was Sylacauga resident Tiffany Gaston. Gaston is 15 and a student at Sylacauga High School.

Gaston said she started taking flight lessons from Sylacauga resident Tommy Dobson last September after a trip to Canada on which a guide let her fly the plane they were using.

Gaston said flying is exciting but it did make her parents a little nervous.

“I like to fly,” she said. “Everything looks very different from a plane.”

Dobson, chairman of the Sylacauga Airport Board, said he was disappointed other activities had to be cancelled. He had hoped the radio controlled demonstration could have performed but the place they selected for them to present their demonstration is a “mud field.”

The airport has come along way in 50 years Dobson said. It began as a dirt field and now provides at 5,200-foot runway that can accommodate a variety of aircraft whether for sport, personal travel, or corporate travel.

Its central location also serves as a base for the Life Saver helicopter service that provides emergency transportation to four area hospitals.

Contact Mark Ledbetter at

© 2013