Ronald Volungus stepped gracefully around the propeller of his Cessna 182, a light airplane that seats four and can cruise at about 140 miles an hour.
“Check the engine to make sure that there’s no bird nest up in there,” he said, gesturing toward a metal grate just below the nose of his plane. “These engines get nice and warm, and that bird may be stupid, but he ain’t dumb. So he’s going to fly in there and try to make a nest in there where he’s nice and warm with a roof over his head.”
The Boy Scouts, in their neckties and olive green trousers, looked half skeptical, half intrigued as Volungus carried on. Rain misted down lightly on the expansive grounds of the Fulton County Airport.
“If you have a bird’s nest and you go flying, you might end up with a little bit of smoke in the cockpit,” he said, playfully stretching out the word “might” like a man who’s recited this line a few times by now.
Volungus was in his element, explaining pre-flight operations and checklists to the boys who were trying to earn their merit badges in aviation.
The Boy Scouts of America Twin Rivers Council held its annual fall camporee at the rural airport this weekend, and more than 1,200 scouts got to do some cool stuff during the three-day excursion. There were climbing, archery, tomahawk throwing, BB-gun shooting, bottle-rocket and football activities, as well as ham-radio demonstrations, model airplanes, helicopters and K-9 demonstrations.
But some of the really cool stuff, like riding shotgun in a small aircraft as it cuts through the sky or watching Air National Guard pilots tilt the wings of their C-130 Hercules aircraft as they fly over the field, didn’t get to happen after a turn of unfortunate events earlier this week.
First, a state police senior investigator died when his stunt plane crashed into a wooded area in the town of Edinburg exactly one week ago. Timothy John Cowper was a friend of the EEA Young Eagles, the organization that was going to take the boys up in the sky.
“They had a memorial this afternoon and a funeral tomorrow,” said Camporee Chairman Bill Babbage on Saturday. “They were concerned that their pilots may not have their head and body into it, and they didn’t want to jeopardize anything. It was unfortunate, but we’re dealing with it.”
Then there was the government shutdown, which meant that the pilots from the Stratton Air National Guard base in Glenville are technically furloughed right now.
So no plane rides or C-130s. No big deal, said Babbage, who struck an optimistic tone on multiple occasions Saturday, at one point referring to the rain as “liquid sunshine.”
“The kids are having fun,” he said. “They’re all having fun, doing things they haven’t done before. We have a venture crew out throwing tomahawks at wooden blocks. I mean where else are you going to do that and not get in trouble for it?”
Despite the rain, the airport grounds were a fun place to be Saturday. Hundreds of camping tents lined the fields, many surrounded by lawn chairs and campfires and 2-burner camp stoves. On one field, boys shrieked with delight as they launched 2-liter bottle rockets into the air by the water tower.
‘The sky is the limit’
Elsewhere, groups of boys and men and a few women shuffled to and from various activity stations, gathering signatures for their aviation merit badge. This year’s camporee, titled “The Sky Is The Limit,” was aviation-themed.
“One year. our theme was Native Americans because we were at the Saratoga Spa State Park and there was a Native American Festival going on the same weekend in the park,” explained Babbage, who admitted with laughter that the themes are really that simple.
A big part of the annual camporee is getting the kids interested in things they wouldn’t normally have a chance to experience. In aviation, that interest is usually sparked by the world of model airplanes, said Eric Williams, District II Vice President of the Academy of Model Aeronautics.
The image that most people have of model airplanes did not line up with the objects he pulled out of the back of a truck Saturday. These were actual planes, but about 40 percent smaller than a light aircraft.
“The only difference between our planes and those big ones is the size and there’s not a human being inside them when they fly,” said Williams. “We fly them via remote control, otherwise, they do the same things that those planes do.”
As a man behind him started putting the wings onto a bright yellow model airplane, boys began to hover nearby to watch. While many dub model aviation a hobby, Williams said it’s a great educational tool for youth to begin learning the career path of a pilot.
“This is the only hobby that can teach math, science, physics, engineering, history,” he said. “We have aircraft that look like World War II aircraft or World War I. Kids can learn about the history of aviation, what it meant to the World Wars and conflicts. They learn about why airplanes fly, about the mathematics of laying out an airplane, all kinds of stuff like that. It’s really the seed ground of America’s military, civilian and commercial aviators.”