Petit Jean

This small fly-in has what it takes to become the next big thing.

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On top of a little bluff in Arkansas, there has been a recurring fly-in for the last seven or eight years, and it just seems to keep getting bigger and better—in a good way, in my opinion. We all know that the big granddaddy of all fly-ins worldwide is AirVenture, still reverently referred to as “Oshkosh” by most of us. Change the name if you will, but a rose by any other name is still a rose. Now, I might be convicted as a heretic for saying this, but I sometimes wonder if Oshkosh is now just too big.

Sure, it is the destination to go to get all of your shopping done in one place if you are building, and being able to touch and compare all of the different vendors’ wares really does help in the final decision-making. Oshkosh is for everyone and everything aviation, from Light Sport to warbirds and even certified jets. But, and perhaps it is just me, at the end of a week at Oshkosh I am exhausted. The grounds are huge, which certainly allows more elbow room, but you end up walking eight to 10 miles per day or taking the trams. It seems like everyone is in a mad rush to get to the vendors, make a deal, catch a forum or two, and then get to the movie or the nightly dinner. It seems as though we are trying to catch up with friends through a quick lunch or ice cream, all the while paying attention to the clock so we don’t miss the next event.

Jerry Homsley (left) and Bill Schlatterer work hand in hand to ensure that everyone has a great time. Both are very entertaining, extremely focused, and clearly great organizers.

What’s really ironic to me is that some of the best pilots in the world are right out in show center putting on some excellent demonstrations of their skills, and a good portion of the attendees miss most of it. So, it begins to beg some “What if?” questions, such as:

  • What if there weren’t any vendors?
  • What if we could all sit down and have breakfast/lunch/dinner at the same time, in the same place?
  • What if we made time for each other without distractions?
  • What if there was some entertainment that was engaging for the attendees?
  • What if you could hear “When are we coming back, Daddy?” on the day of departure?

Now, to be clear, I am not saying that Oshkosh should be changed (except perhaps for some of the food pricing!). It’s an Icon, and has taken a generation to get where it is. But what if we actually had time to spend with our fellow aviators in a relaxing environment and went home from the event refreshed? Well, I think some of the regional fly-ins are beginning to capture the magic of a vendor-free, shorter-duration fly-in, and they are growing at an amazing rate.

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You couldn’t tell from dinner attendance on Friday night that the field had been closed all day due to low ceilings and only had six airplanes on the ramp. Many pilots wisely landed their airplanes at VFR fields and continued via car or shuttles.

Triple Tree in South Carolina, which is historically known for hosting RC events on their pristine, golf-green-like runways and grounds, is one example in the Southeast U.S. We have gone there a few times over the past few years, and it is truly a family-oriented event. The most recent fly-in we attended, an RV gathering, is known as Petit Jean, and it is just 40 miles from Hot Springs, Arkansas. In 2016 it was the fly-in that almost wasn’t, due to weather (see sidebar), but by midday Saturday things were gaining momentum and all who attended had a good time.

The main difference between the two fly-ins is that Triple Tree is a much larger general aviation fly-in, and Petit Jean is clearly smaller and RV-centric, although there were also a few GA and non-RV Experimental aircraft in attendance. Due to Stearman airshow commitments in previous years, we have been unable to attend Petit Jean, so this was our first year. And while we had an absolutely wonderful time, it was clear that the camaraderie at this event was very special. And it isn’t very hard to understand why.

Mya Crabtree hit the big time at the N-number bingo on Friday night, winning three times. She had flown to Petit Jean with her dad Andy in their RV-7. Have you seen a bigger smile on an 8-year-old?

A Fly-in Done Right

The whole event is hosted by EAA Chapter 165 from North Little Rock, with assistance from EAA Chapter 1590 from Conway, Arkansas. Jerry Homsley and Bill Schlatterer lead the organizers, supported by a host of other volunteers from local EAA chapters—they call themselves the Petit Jean Team. The accommodations include camping right off of the runway, or a choice of rooms and lodges at the Rockefeller Conference Center, with shuttles running almost continually back and forth throughout the day. The food includes breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and yes it is at the same time for everyone. It is either under a huge tent in the campground or in one of the large halls at the Rockefeller Center. Bill and team have a goal to make it “RV easy,” such that all of the food, drinks, and transportation are included throughout the weekend, including nametags of pilot/spouse/friend and home field. The breakfast on the day of departure was cooked up hot on the grounds by Marvin Homsley and Richard Moore and was large enough to last the whole day!

By 4 p.m. at least three of us had made the decision to land at Russellville Regional Airport, just a short distance from Petit Jean. The GPS LPV approach was much safer than the LNAV approach with higher minimums at Petit Jean. Here is the author’s wife Carol, with Dan and Karen Weyant, and Jen Ragusa and Nick Bachert. We had a great trip over to Petit Jean in the shuttle van and picked up our airplanes the next morning.

Dinner the first night includes some activities that are fun and icebreakers. A game is played called “tail number bingo,” in which a numbered ball is drawn from a container and you stand up if your N-number begins with that particular number. Pilots remain standing as long as subsequently drawn numbers are in their tail number. Rarely is there a tie. The neat thing is that some of the pilots have their kids in attendance, and the kids end up winning some of the prizes, all of which have been donated, and all of which are very nice. One particular father, Andy Crabtree, happens to alternate bringing his daughters each year, and this year it was 8-year-old Mya’s turn, and boy was she lucky. I think she ended up winning three times at the first dinner, and her precious smile and laughter all weekend ended up with her being crowned as the Petit Jean Princess! Personally, I thought it was very deserving for the little girl who sat next to me during the 1-hour shuttle van ride with her dad, along with the other pilots who got stranded at the nearby airport, unable to make it to Petit Jean on Friday due to the low ceilings and fog. Did I tell you I had the comfortable seat, while she sat on the baggage? Couldn’t get her to trade places—she wanted to be with her father!

Air boss Bob Connor, along with his wife Linda, performed a stellar role as air boss at the fly-in. Clearly, this wasn’t Bob’s first gig, having recently graduated from Air boss Academy at Miramar. At times Bob could be heard calling the pilots by name.

Weather Woes

The fly-in usually starts on Friday, and usually there are 80 airplanes on the ramp by 4 p.m. The weather this year precluded that, with only six airplanes on the ramp by Friday evening, while the rest of us were scattered around at various airports, some close and some not-so-close, depending upon which direction you were coming from. Initial thinking was that the scheduled 6 p.m. dinner was going to be very lightly attended. Well, it was pretty clear that weather might get in the way of reaching the destination via airplane, but it wasn’t going to stop everyone. Many of the pilots landed at outlying VFR airports and rented cars to continue the rest of the way. Dinner was postponed until 7:30, and there were over 72 attendees! Then we found out that about 130 RVs had pre-registered. Wow! If the weather broke, then Saturday should have quite a turnout. By 6 p.m. Friday night it was pea soup at the airport, so clearly nobody else was arriving by plane. Allegedly it was 300 overcast, and the approach into Petit Jean was only good down to 800 feet. Most of us didn’t bother with even trying the approach, as the math didn’t work out.

Tanya Card, who had flown in with her husband Scott, was there cheering every participant in the beanbag toss. Her antics were almost as much fun as watching everyone give it their best shot at 4 for 4.

Well, even though the forecast predicted otherwise, Saturday morning arrived with the same low ceilings as Friday, not clearing until mid morning. Those of us with airplanes at the closer airports transported some of the other pilots to get their airplanes, myself taking Jen Ragusa and Nick Bachert (who are building an RV-10 together) back to Russellville, Arkansas, and then continuing on with Sterling Langrell from Van’s to Clinton, Arkansas, to retrieve the factory RV-14. Yes, I know I said there weren’t any vendors, but Sterling and Adam Burch were there from Van’s, and you would have thought they were just regular fly-in participants. No booth or display—just good old-fashioned conversations around the RV-14, much like any of the other conversations happening around all of the other airplanes. I took Bill Schlatterer up flying in the RV-10 so he could get some airborne pictures of the event.

By lunchtime, the arrivals were in full swing, coordinated by a trained and experienced air boss, Bob Connor, along with his wife Linda. In all of the years I have been going to fly-ins, I have never heard a more friendly, cool-headed, and informative air boss than Bob. He not only acknowledged your N-number, but he usually knew who you were and could be heard calling you by name! He has been a part of Petit Jean for a while, and recently graduated from Air Boss Academy at Miramar. Between 11:30 a.m. and 1:00 p.m. 48 airplanes landed, with a total of 94 by day’s end.

Could there be a more scenic location for a fly-in? Petit Jean airport is located at Petit Jean State Park, about 40 miles from Hot Springs, Arkansas. (Photo: Bill Schlatterer)

Good Food, Great Fun

Lunch was really delicious, again made by the EAA chapter volunteers, and watching all of the arrivals was icing on the cake. Of course, after lunch it was time for friendly competition, mostly against yourself, playing beanbag toss for a pick of the donated prizes. It was fun to watch almost everyone participate and get into the action of cheering each other. The games went on for most of the afternoon, and we had a few winners who were able to get four bags out of four attempts into the bull’s-eye!

Normally, Saturdays are full of activities for both the pilots and the family members, including photo shoots of the airplanes. Petit Jean sits on a small bluff, which is about 900 feet higher than the surrounding airports and terrain, and then has another hill on the north side, which is about 300 feet higher. It’s very scenic, and on one end there is a scenic overlook from which you can have a picture of your airplane taken as you fly by below the edge of the hill. This time, the low clouds prevented that activity from occurring.

What’s more fun than sitting and watching airplanes land with family and friends after lunch? This group came together to just hang out and have fun at Petit Jean. (Photo: Bill Schlatterer)

The other activity that is quite popular is hiking some of the trails to see the waterfall and Bear Cave (minus the bears, hopefully!). My wife Carol and I had signed up for the hiking adventures, but the fly-outs to retrieve airplanes cut into the available time. Besides, we were having so much fun there with everyone it didn’t seem necessary. However, from some of the pictures we saw from others who did manage to go, we really missed out and can’t wait to go back. No doubt what makes it so nice is that the whole event is really inside a state park. The web site www.petitjeanflyin.com has lots of information about the park, as well as the fly-in.

The food served by the EAA chapters was delicious and efficiently served, allowing everyone to eat together. New friends were made and old acquaintances reconnected.

As the afternoon came to a close, we were treated to some formation flying by five of the Bulldog Flight Formation Team from Arkansas. The low rays of the sun made for some very breathtaking views of the airplanes, and their smoke trails silhouetted against the clear blue sky. The very precise formation flying was a real treat to see as well.

Saturday night’s dinner was catered barbecue, and it was absolutely delicious. But the real highlight of the dinner is the raffle, as there were some nice prizes to be won, including an autopilot from TruTrak and an ICOM handheld radio. All of the prizes are displayed on Friday and Saturday for everyone to see, along with some silent-auction bidding forms. This allowed for some interesting choices at the raffle for the winners: You could keep the prize, you could sell it to the highest bidder on the silent auction form, or you could donate it to the fly-in, wherein it was immediately auctioned to the highest bidder at dinner. That really made for some fun. In fact, the winner of the autopilot donated it to the fly-in, whereby some of the best auctioning occurred, eventually raising over $600 for the event. Given the low attendance due to weather, coupled with the fixed costs of the meals, the timing was perfect. And as luck would have it, the raffle MC is a real live auctioneer, Jerry Homsley, who also happens to be Chapter 165’s president and an RV-9A builder. All in all, it was very entertaining.

As Saturday evening came to a close, we were treated to some fantastic formation flying by the Arkansas Bulldog Flight Formation Team. The low rays of the evening sun made for some beautiful views of their airplanes against the now-clear sky. (Photo: Dan Valovich)

Saturday night’s festivities included a lot of story telling and camaraderie in the campsites next to some roaring fires. Even the supplied firewood was trimmed and stacked neatly, ready to be burned. While temps were just right for sitting around the fires this year, I heard that in years past, the campers had water bottles freeze in their tents. There also seems to be some debate as to whether the local geese or the campers make the most noise!

Sunday morning dawned clear and beautiful, and as I mentioned, breakfast was absolutely wonderful. We departed early Sunday morning, as we wanted to beat some weather back into Atlanta.

Sunday morning greeted us with a spectacular sunrise and the smell of a homecooked breakfast wafting through the woods. Clearly the fun was coming to an end way too soon, and that sentiment was echoed throughout many conversations, along with a “can’t wait to come back” proclamation.

We’ll Be Back!

All in all, the event felt too short. We are really looking forward to attending again this year. When Bill and I were flying around, he mentioned that of the 60 airplanes parked on the field, 20 of them were unregistered for the event. If all of the 130 pre-registered airplanes had been able to show up, there would have been close to 200 airplanes in attendance. If that trend continues, Petit Jean may become one of the largest RV fly-ins around—with no vendors.

We hope to see you there, even if you don’t fly. Friday night we were all jokingly calling it the Petit Jean drive-in because from the attendance at dinner, you couldn’t tell the airport had been closed almost all day due to weather. Watch for this year’s date, and if you want to stay at the Rockefeller Center, I advise you to make reservations early, as it fills up very fast. By the way, unlike hotel accommodations at some of the larger fly-ins, the Rockefeller rooms were very reasonably priced. So, no excuses for not taking the better half of the family.


Special thanks to the Arkansas State Parks Commission and the Rockefeller Conference Center for their help with this event. For photos and videos of past fly-ins, visit www.PetitJeanFlyIn.com.


Vic Syracuse is a Commercial Pilot and CFII with ASMEL/ASES ratings, an A&P, DAR, and EAA Technical Advisor and Flight Counselor. Passionately involved in aviation for over 39 years, he has built 10 award-winning aircraft and has logged over 8000 hours in 70 different kinds of aircraft. Vic had a career in technology as a senior-level executive and volunteers as a Young Eagle pilot and Angel Flight pilot. He also has his own sport aviation business called Base Leg Aviation.

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