Texas Parks & Wildlife Magazine   


Sky Campers

Flying Clubs Zero In on Texas State Parks.

By Rob McCorkle

Recreation halls, bunkhouses and other group facilities at Texas state parks see a steady stream of use from people gathering for reunions, weddings and other activities. And, while most groups arrive at park gates in campers, buses, vans and autos, others choose to access the parks from the air.

Several flying clubs have discovered that state parks, such as Lake Whitney and Big Bend Ranch, have airstrips that make flying in for a weekend rendezvous a snap for their members who live in far-flung locations.

Lake Whitney State Park, between Waco and Fort Worth, offers a convenient and scenic place for North Texans to hook up for some flying fun and socializing. Its runway, especially in spring and early summer, becomes a popular landing strip for groups like the Experimental Aircraft Association.

Park manager Jeffrey Towers says the park gets two or three landings a day and up to a dozen aircraft on weekends during nice weather.

“People just fly in, go down to the lake and kick a few rocks, and fly out, or they practice landings and takeoffs,” Towers explains. “A few fly in and camp overnight.”

Lake Whitney State Park is ideally suited for flying campers or the regular kind, with 159 total sites spread out in six separate camping loops. The group camp goes for $200 a night, and it features a dining hall and eight screened shelters. Or folks can rent the recreation hall, which has a commercial kitchen and can accommodate 72 people for day use. Overnight occupancy is limited to 30 people, who need to bring their own cots or sleeping bags. Rental is $100 per day.

President George W. Bush’s purchase of a nearby Crawford ranch has put a damper on fly-in events at Lake Whitney State Park over the past four years. A 30-mile no-fly zone in the airspace around the ranch has limited activities at the park airstrip.Towers says that although aircraft can still fly into and out of the park’s airfield, planes are no longer permitted to fly over the park and lake on leisurely sightseeing flights when the president is at the ranch.

The Experimental Aircraft Association specializes in home-built aircraft, including small ultralights and powered parachutes. The group traditionally flies into Lake Whitney State Park on a Friday, joins with member families for the weekend and heads back home about noon Sunday. On a good weekend, some 50 to 60 planes may land at the park, according to John Taylor of Alvarado, activity coordinator for Chapter 34 of the EAA.

Glenn Chiappe of Austin looks forward each spring to flying as part of a group to Big Bend Ranch State Park, near Presidio. The park welcomes fliers with a paved, mile-long runway stretched across the Chihuahuan Desert floor between the creosote, prickly pears and ocotillo.

The 100 MPH Club members typically fly in to the ranch during a Saturday afternoon, where they can cruise over the 300,000-acre park to take in the mountains, mesas, waterfalls and notable geologic features such as the Solitario, a rugged mountain range formed from a collapsed caldera, or volcanic cone.

This year marks the ninth consecutive year that the club has done a Big Bend flying sojourn, says Chiappe, who pilots a red, white and blue Decathlon, an aerobatic plane. The club is hoping to fly more than a dozen planes and even a helicopter for an overnight stay in the bunkhouse at Sauceda, the ranch headquarters. The airstrip, which became operational in 1985, sits a mile from Sauceda. Pilots pay only the park entry fee to use the airstrip.

“Our favorite, number one event each year is Big Bend,” says Chiappe. “We love to hopscotch through the Big Bend region, landing at various ranches and end up at Big Bend Ranch State Park. There’s just something about the desert, that Terlingua sky.”

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