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Chilly Chili Fly-In kickstarts 2022 fly-in season

Like most pilots, my friends and I are always searching for a fun destination to fly to on the weekends. More times than not, the destinations might involve a small fly-in or a simple meal at an airport diner, but we count ourselves especially lucky when we get to combine our two favorite activities: flying to meet friends and eating great food. Therefore, Triple Tree Aerodrome’s annual Chilly Chili Fly-In is one event that always ends up on our calendars.

Flying to Triple Tree from the Peach State Aerodrome in Georgia is usually an easy hour-and-a-half flight in the CubCrafters Carbon Cub EX–2. However, this flight to Triple Tree was anything but easy. With direct headwinds ranging from 30 to 40 miles per hour, groundspeeds as low as 50 miles per hour, and temperatures hovering in the 20s Fahrenheit, I was inclined to turn around, put the airplane in the hangar, and sit in front of a warm fire. But the thought of seeing long-lost friends and enjoying a warm bowl of chili at Triple Tree kept my eyes on the prize.

After nearly two and half hours of flight time (and plenty of shivering), we lined up for Triple Tree’s arrival procedure. The first landmark to spot is a Walmart distribution center, the second a vermiculite plant, and the third a red-roofed church that leads you to the 7,000-foot grass runway.

Triple Tree’s volunteer controllers sit atop a reconstructed World War II control tower to monitor the traffic pattern and ensure each aircraft lands without a hitch. In addition to granting permission to land, the controllers also suggested touching down as close to abeam the tower as possible to avoid touching down in areas where the grass was wet from rainfall. Taking their suggestion in mind, I still felt a slight squish as the 35-inch Alaskan Bushwheels settled on the turf abeam the tower. Although it was a long, drafty flight in the Carbon Cub, I was relieved to be touching down in a light aircraft.

Aviators from Georgia elected for Zaxby’s chicken instead of chili due to food allergies, but that didn’t keep them from partaking in the fun. Photo by Cayla McLeod.

As I climbed out of the airplane, I stared in amazement at nearly 200 other airplanes whose pilots had also braved the cold, wet, and windy conditions for a bowl of chili. Triple Tree’s patriarch and founder, Pat Hartness, was just as surprised as the rest of us. “Can you imagine people coming out on a day like this to fly? But… people are cooped up, and they are ready to get out… We quit selling [meal tickets] at 400 because we knew we had enough chili for 400… We went way over [that].”

After securing our ticket and spot in the lunch line, I began taking notice of all the people gathered in the heated hangar. Hundreds, maybe as many as a thousand, sat among friends and family at dozens of rectangular tables carefully situated among vintage airplanes and warbirds. The moment took me back to 2020’s Chilly Chili Fly-In, where everyone was kicking off another fly-in season, only to see it scrapped by the coronavirus pandemic one month later.

Although slightly spicy for my taste, the chili was just the warmup we all needed after the cold flight. The homemade recipe—made by the gallon—seemed to please everyone.

Student pilots Adam Sarsfield, left, and James Frank, both 15, flew their family Super Cubs to Triple Tree. Sarsfield flew with his instructor, Jacob Gates. Frank flew in with his father, Jim Frank. Photo by Cayla McLeod.

Hartness and others may be convinced that cabin fever was the reason for such a large turnout, but that’s only half the story. Triple Tree is a unique, family-oriented, private aviation destination with its own special kind of magic. An aviation Disney World of sorts, the grass strip welcomes young and old to experience genuine fun, fellowship, and hospitality.

First-time Triple Tree visitor and student pilot Adam Sarsfield, age 15, flew his family’s Piper Super Cub to the event with his instructor, 24-year-old Jacob Gates. “Triple Tree was unlike any other grass strip I had ever been to. Each strand of grass on the runway was trimmed to perfection, and there were no holes or bumps… the flight up to Triple Tree was filled with headwinds and bumps, but it wasn’t about how long the flight took. Simply being able to fly with friends and talk with each other along the way is what mattered to me,” Sarsfield said.

“It blows my mind that Triple Tree is catching on, and people are coming and having a good time,” said Hartness. “It’s our home, it’s where we all want to be… so we’re blessed, and we feel like we’re on the right track…we thank everyone for making this happen.”

From left the author stands with Triple Tree Aerodrome supporters and Cabin Waco owners Jim and Eileen Wilson and Triple Tree’s founders, Pat and Mary Lou Hartness. Photo by Conrad Geiger.

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