LTC Tom Sabiston and Hugh Wheelless
9 min read

My military career started with greetings from my friends and neighbors. That is another way of saying I got drafted. At that time, in 1955, it was common for guys to get drafted simply because there weren’t many of us born in the depths of the Great Depression and it took most of us to man the post-Korea Army.

Like most draftees, I set out to make my six-year obligation (two active, four reserve) go as smoothly as possible. That meant minimizing the walking, potato peeling and sleeping under the stars. Firing the weapons was fun.

Champ and Cub in grass

The Fort Rucker Flying Club airplanes even had the flying club roundel on the nose.

I got a security clearance while in basic training and had orders to go to spy school at Fort Holabird in Maryland when, lo and behold, a Guardian Angel came on the scene in the person of General Carl I. Hutton. I have forgotten his exact title but he ran Fort Rucker (Alabama), home of the Army Aviation School. He was also a friend of my father. My orders were changed from Holabird to Rucker. I was back in the aviation business.

I had a civilian Link Instructor rating (in addition to most of the pilot ratings) and my first job at Rucker was as a Link instructor. I had also worked in a USAF contract flight school in that same role so I knew about military Link work.

Next I worked at the Army Aviation Digest for a spell but all that was foreplay. At one point I had taken an instrument check ride in an Army L-23 (Twin Bonanza derivative) in support of General Hutton’s desire to have enlisted pilots fly in Army Aviation. When that wasn’t approved by the powers, plan B went into effect. The Air Force had Aero Clubs for low-cost flying for the troops, and General Hutton wanted the Army to have flying clubs.

Thus was born the Fort Rucker Flying Club, to which I was assigned, on special duty, which relieved me of all unit duties like guard and KP. The flying club was treated the same as the officer and NCO clubs and we had access to some discretionary funds.

Some things didn’t involve any money changing hands. For example, we needed a building on Ozark Army Air Field, where we would be based. No building was available so, presto, one was moved from the main base to the airport. It was a WW-II era building, like those used for mess halls and unit offices.

Next came airplanes. The money was found to purchase two, a Cub and a Champ.

There had to be an organization and that consisted of a president, Lieutenant Colonel Tom Sabiston, and things like a treasurer and a recording secretary. I got the title of vice president and general manager. My membership number was two. Tom out-ranked me mightily and was numero uno.

I got and studied all the prepared material on Air Force Aero Clubs and created an Army version of those documents. Only the name changed. Like so many things in Army Aviation at that time, our printed material was basically a copy of Air Force stuff.

I also talked to folks who were running aero clubs and got some good tips. The main one was that a club’s greatest asset was the member who paid his dues and did not use the club for anything but a place to hang out or an item of conversation in bars (really they were beer joints in southeast Alabama at that time). The advice was to keep the dues low to attract as many members as possible. They would, in effect, subsidize the members who flew.

LTC Tom Sabiston and Hugh Wheelless

Hugh Wheelless (left) of Dothan Aviation kept the airplanes running.

Ground school would also be a draw and it should be free to all members. At that time, there were no prepared ground schools or even outlines for ground schools. I got to make all that up. Unfortunately, I also had to teach most of the ground school sessions.

The charge for flying our airplanes was less than half the hourly rate charged by civilian flight schools. The instructing was free five days a week, from me. On weekends we had approved instructors and students made their own deals with those instructors

To start, there was reluctant acceptance of our activity at Ozark AAF. When the real pilots saw that the club pilots would fit in, things got better. There were no problems using light gun signals for the control of our traffic and the Air Force meteorologists gave really good briefings for the time.

Scrounging is a virtue in the Army and I got pretty good at it. For example, our little airplanes were tied down in the same area as the L-19s, and when the gas trucks would make the rounds, everyone would look the other way as they topped off the big 12-gallon tanks in our airplanes. Maintenance was handled by my friend Hugh Wheelless at nearby Dothan Aviation but if we had a safety of flight item on an airplane at Ozark AAF, an Army mechanic would cheerfully take care of it.

Later in my tenure, the Army started bestowing surplus airplanes on our club. We got two L-21s (semi-Super Cubs) and two L-17s (Navions) to start with. We had to license them as civilian airplanes and while the red tape was considerable, Dothan Aviation managed that, did the work, and painted the airplanes complete with a flying club roundel.

Cessna was just introducing the 172 at this time and I wanted mightily to get one of those. To me, it would have been the best possible flying club airplane (still is, 56 years later) but the economics of free airplanes beat out even Cessna’s generous lease offer on a new 172.

There was a slight ripple when we got the Army airplanes. The first two, the L-21s, came from Fort Benning. I had a sheath of paperwork and for some reason was told to be in uniform to fetch the airplanes. The person pushing the paper at first refused to hand over an Army airplane to an enlisted man, but after a time of patiently going over the paperwork, I convinced him it was okay. To avoid such confusion, I took a couple of Army pilots to get the L-17s from a different base.

There was no question about our having detractors. A certain bird colonel referred to us as “Private Collins’ @%&* private air force” and his pique reached a peak after an event one summer morning.

The Air Force had started getting T-37 jet trainers at about that time and the Army wanted some jets so political pressure was applied. The result was the T-37 Test Unit that lasted for a year. I knew the flying club had achieved full citizenship on the base when Captain Kauffman of T-37 fame stopped by my office one afternoon and said that I could go for a T-37 flight if I would come to their area at eight the next morning.

LTC Tom Sabiston and Hugh Wheelless

Flying club president LTC Tom Sabiston with Hugh Wheelless.

Needless to say, I was there early. It was my second ever flight in a jet, the first having been in a T-33 the previous year. We flew for about an hour, in which time I had a ball and learned that doing a loop in a T-37 is a little different than doing a loop in a Cub.

I did have to keep a low profile for a while after that because I heard that our colonel detractor was truly livid when he found out I got a T-37 flight before he did.

When I was released from active duty I left “my” flying club in the good hands of friends Fred Stewart and John Ellington. John’s father was governor of Tennessee so the Fort Rucker Flying Club still had some influence.

I was proud that a lot of people had learned to fly on my watch, nobody got hurt, and nothing got bent. The only frustrating aspect was the weekend instructors. Most were great but the occasional cowboy would slip into the mix and I had to deal with that. (You are fired.)

Fast forward to today and we find a lot of interest in flying clubs as a way to help grow the pilot population. I think the elements that made the Fort Rucker Flying Club work are still valid and I honestly doubt that a club can succeed today without the essential elements.

I was assigned full time to the club and at various times had helpers. One was Doug Cairns, home from the Air Force Academy because of an injury. Doug’s father, General Cairns, took General Hutton’s place and maintained that top level of interest in our club. General Cairns was lost in a helicopter accident and Ozark AAF became Cairns AAF. I still stay in touch with Doug.

The point is you have to have one or more people who are dedicated to making the club work and the more influence you can add to make operating go more smoothly, the better. The only general in our business now is in the name “general aviation” but the interest of someone like an airport manager or FBO principal could be invaluable as could any sponsorships.

A club has to have guidelines that don’t bend because it does have to be geared to the most marginal pilot in the club. I made some unpopular rules but they kept trouble at bay. One was that no solo cross-country could be planned that did not contemplate conclusion at least two hours before sunset. Another precluded solo cross-countries flights if the USAF met guys predicted anything other than widely scattered thunderstorms.

I do hope that flying clubs can help folks learn to fly. The one at Fort Rucker sure did. But if a flying club is to offer what people want–lower cost flying–then divine intervention in the form of subsidies will be required. Where might they come from?

Richard Collins
19 replies
  1. Todd Price
    Todd Price says:


    Thanks for getting the Army Flying Clubs started. In my short Army stint I had the opportunity to fly various Cessna models out of clubs at Ft. Eustis, Ft. Lewis and in Seoul, Korea. I would take my friends whale watching in Washington, to visit girls in the Chesapeake Bay area and out over the Yellow Sea in Asia. It is amazing that a poor Army private could enjoy such experiences (and it was cheap!) You made it possible.


  2. Larry Portouw
    Larry Portouw says:

    Too bad the hand-wringing Army lawyers have driven Army flying clubs out of business. There’s a derelict C-172 from defunct Fort Huachuca Flying Club on the ramp @ KFHU that is in my log book in 1981.

  3. David
    David says:

    Great slice of history for those of us who weren’t born in 1981. Private Collins’ private air force sounds like it was a great assignment

  4. Barry Rickert
    Barry Rickert says:

    There were only a handful of decisions I made as a kid that changed my life. One was to taking flying lessons at the Hamilton Aero Club, Hamilton AFB, CA now shutdown.

    It was not apparent at the time as to how or when I would use that experience and license but it ultimately lead to ownership of three aircraft, 3,000 hours and 90% of them for my own business.

    You’re a long time friend of aviation and hope you are enjoying your retirement.

    Yesterday, after my last flight in 1988, I got re-qualified to fly light sport in a Tecnam. It took me two hours of flying time. It is like riding a bike.

    I encourage anyone who has not flown in a long time to give it a go. No medical required.

  5. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Anyone aware of any flying clubs operating in Western Mass. or northern Connecticut? I haven’t been able to find any west of Worc. or north of Hartford.

    I am returning to the skies after a long time and am looking for various options to get back in the air.

    Thank you and fly safe everyone! :-)

    • PaulDow
      PaulDow says:

      Kathy, There’s a club with a 1974 Warrior based at Skylark (4 miles east of Bradley.) I’m not sure what their rate is, and what their other terms are, but they usually have a classified ad in the Atlantic Flyer.

    • Tom Yarsley
      Tom Yarsley says:


      We operate a one-plane flying club out of BAF (Barnes Regional in Westfield, MA). The vehicle is a T-hangared 125hp full-IFR Tomahawk. You can contact me at [email protected]

  6. Kathy
    Kathy says:

    Where are you located? I can’t travel out of western Mass or northern CT for flying adventures. Anything else is too far away

  7. Kathy Mullins
    Kathy Mullins says:

    I remember Skylark Airport. Glad to see that there’s a flying club there. Definitely worth checking out. I like the Piper Warrior, it’s a fun airplane to fly.

    Thank you, and blue skies, Paul!

  8. r chisolm
    r chisolm says:

    There were a lot of guys born in the forties being drafted in the 60s,,I enlisted for that one,,my war

  9. Andy Cotten
    Andy Cotten says:

    I was fortunate to grow up in Memphis, Tn a real hotbed of aviation activity in the seventies when I started flying. Three gentlemen started BPS Aviation based out of Delta Beechcraft at MEM in 1971 with two Cessna 150’s and a Mooney Master. BPS stood for Business, Pleasure, and Student and was also the first letter of the three’s last names, Jim Burt, Charles Phillips, and Clyde Springfield. Clyde was the club CFI. These guys were great to be around and put the fun in flying. We had flyouts to Brownsville Tn, for picnics, and meetings where the local FAA would show up with the vertigo chair and safety films. We also got together for dinners. BPS Aviation moved up to Dewitt Spain Downtown Airport right after it opened, and I believe they were the first flight training organization to operate out of there. They added a Cessna 172 to the fleet as well as more Cessna 150’s. The original three aircraft went back to the owners. I lived a mile from MEM and the drive to M01 was long so I joined a Cessna 150 club based at Robbins Airborne at MEM that had several Cessna 150’s that they rented out at seven dollars an hour wet. The club fee was twenty five dollars to join and seven dollars a month dues. I always had a plane available when I needed it. This club was just a place to rent at a reduced price and didn’t do any of the club type things that BPS did, but it was all I needed at the time. MEM also had the Lazy 8 Flying club and the Chandelles Flying club. I’m sure there were others. It was a great time to be a pilot and Memphis was a great place to enjoy club type flying.

  10. Rich
    Rich says:

    In the mid-60’s I was attending a private military college and it had a flying club. Also had some retired military on staff, a group of future military students, and ROTC Flight Training. In all, enough knowledge and interest to keep the club very active. In my 4 years there, got all my ASEL ratings at a minimal cost, although at the time I had to scrimp and save for the $5.00 per hour wet fee. For whatever reason, the club disbanded in the mid 80’s. Lack of interest, liability, cost, who knows.

    Fast forward to today. I recently joined a club in a large college town. It was formerly administered by the college, but now is private. Very geared toward bringing in new members, with ample planes at a low cost. The same things exist as in my original club. It seems to be doing well with each of the planes averaging 500 – 700 hours per year. It seems the things needed for success are a large base of interested people, low cost, and enough fun to keep the interest.

  11. Riccardo De Nardis
    Riccardo De Nardis says:

    I was fifteen when I walked into the hangar of the little flying club situated in the far corner of a military base just south of Rome, Italy. Flying, then as now, was allowed only at weekends. Four aircraft, then as now, were available for members. One of them is still part of the scruffy fleet. We lived in the hangar, there was no clubhouse, just a couple of benches, at one point we had a fridge for cool drinks during the summer months. Re-fuelling was from 200 liter barrels. Weather was checked standing on the barrels and looking at the horizon.

    I was too young to start flying, so I swept the hangar, re-fuelled, and ran to the airplane about to fly with an empty seat. I started my flying lessons with 80 hours experience thanks to generous club members. My instructor was a WWII veteran, on our first flight he told me to fly straight and went to sleep. The club discounted my flying lessons, members often paid for my lunches so I had extra cash for flying. Membership, then as now, ranged from teenagers to “old” pilots.

    Many of the teenagers have moved on, now Captains for airliners worldwide, or serving the Air Force in high command. But, when possible, they always pop in to say hello, swap chatter, ask how things are going. Others have remained simple Sunday pilots, still hanging out at the same airfield, enjoying flight as a simple passion.

    In the meanwhile, the club hangar has moved to the opposite corner of the military airbase, now there is a nice clubhouse, a restaurant, a proper fuel pump. Weather is analyzed via internet.
    Time has gone by, membership has gone up and down, the fleet has increased and decreased, good moments and difficult ones have been seen through.

    But short and long flights have been and are always flown with the same sentiment of friendship, be it two pilots in the C152 for a circuit at sunset, or as group in many airplanes for a long flight to Ukraine, Turkey or Spain, all treasured experiences.

    Members have shared their marriages, funerals and births with the club. Sunday lunches have always been rich with children laughter while they chalk drawings on the hangar floor, many of them now adults. Wives are friends and enjoy coming to the airport, non flying husbands appreciate the banter and the company of pilots. Parties and special personal occasions are celebrated in the hangar.

    And membership, now as then, ranges from teenagers to “old” pilots. And a teenager still gets a flight if a seat is empty. Washing the fleet and cleaning the hangar ensures a discount on lessons. And, 35 years later, a now “old” pilot will always pay for the youngster’s lunch so he can fly more.

    This is my flying club, my second family.

  12. RM Moore
    RM Moore says:

    “A club has to have guidelines that don’t bend because it does have to be geared to the most marginal pilot in the club. I made some unpopular rules but they kept trouble at bay.”

    Where might a copy of the Fort Rucker Flying Club GUIDELINES be found nowadays? OR…any other similarly good sample? Please give a link to the document.

    RM Moore

    • Dick Collins
      Dick Collins says:

      That was a long time ago. There is more interest in clubs today so you might inquire about this at AOPA’s web site.

  13. Doyle Frost
    Doyle Frost says:

    Dick, thank you for this one. One thing caught my attention: sponsors.
    What can you recommend when there is an uninterested, (read NEGATIVE interest,) party involved in the only airport within a reasonable distance. They are too interested in commercial aviation, as opposed to GA. Their favorite saying seems to be, “If it’s GA, take away the keys, battery, and lock it up somewhere, or scrap it, so it can’t interfere with our real purpose, commercial aviation.”
    As far as the co-called “Aviation Committee” the local county authorities instituted, there is only one pilot, and he has his own plane. Not even allowed to have rentals on the field. No restaurant for those $100 hamburger flights, and to get on the airfield, one needs an armed escort. It’s rougher getting on that flightline now, than when it was an active USAF SAC bomber base. (And back then, it didn’t have a local flying club, because there was a “civilian airport” about three miles away, that had a couple of clubs, rental planes, and a restaurant, as well as inexpensive fuel at the FBO.)

  14. Dave Shoemaker
    Dave Shoemaker says:

    I learned to fly at Army Flying Clubs at Fort Campbell and Fort Bragg, getting my private pilot license at Monterey Naval Post Graduate School Flying Club in 1966. After a year on the US Army’s all expenses paid jungle vacation tour, I picked up my commercial and instrument ratings at Ft Lewis Army Flying Club and Spanaway Airport. Slim (280 lbs, 6’8”) was my FAA Examiner. Finished my instructor rating at Ft Benning Army Flying Club and Columbus Airport Flying School in 1971. Subsequently joined the Air Force Flying Club at McClellan AFB. Don’t know how I missed the USMC Flying Club somewhere, but I would have enjoyed it. Without these flying clubs, I would never have slipped the surly bonds of earth. Thanks to all those who made it possible.

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