SOARING WITH LOCKHEED
By Stephen Lindenbaum, Affiliate member and former Treasurer, LMEA Soaring Club
Did you know that one of the oldest continuously operating soaring clubs chartered in Georgia is not a public club, nor does it currently fly in Georgia (even though it is “based” in Marietta)? Have you ever wondered who owns that aluminum Blanik L-13 tied down outside the barn or the big old Open Cirrus inside the hangar at Chilhowee Gliderport in Tennessee? The answer to both questions is the Lockheed-Martin Employees Association (LMEA) Soaring Club. The LMEA Soaring Club, a chapter of the Soaring Society of America, is open to all Lockheed Martin employees, family members, retirees, on-plant military personnel, and vendor personnel on full time assignment to the Lockheed Martin facility in Marietta, Georgia. Two of its current members have been with the club more than 30 years! Among its former members are the late well-known Georgia pilot Edwin Barnes, Tennessee SSA state governor Bob Davis and former soaring partner of Shelly Charles, William Plage.
In 1966, as the C-141 program was winding down and the C-5A program was starting up, three engineers from the Lockheed-Georgia Company (GELAC, known as ”the bomber plant”) and another from Lockheed Air Services (LAS) got the soaring bug. The four, Roger Goodwin, Waco Wike, Steve Willliamson (GELAC) and Don Andrews (LAS), decided to establish the Lockheed Soaring Club. They tested the waters at Parkaire Airport (near the intersection of Johnson’s Ferry Road and Lower Roswell Road in Marietta) where the North Georgia Soaring (NOGAS) Club was operating. Their first ship was a tired but airworthy Schweizer TG-3A. The following spring they packed up and moved to the new airport in Monroe, joining the recently reorganized Mid-Georgia Soaring Association (MGSA). The club held their initial meeting at the plant that winter. The interest shown by the Lockheed employees was so favorable; they decided to petition Lockheed for sponsorship under the company’s employee recreation department, the Georgia Lockheed Employee’s Recreational Club (GLERC).
GLERC responded by buying a shiny new 1967 Schweizer SGS 2-33 for the club to use. The club quickly grew to 30 members as employment at the Lockheed facility headed to a record 33,000. Several new club members made trips to Bermuda High Soaring in Chester, South Carolina to quickly add private and instructor ratings. The fledgling Lockheed soaring club recognized from the beginning the need to train ab initio members. They quickly established a permanent ongoing training program as an integral part of their operating philosophy. As employment at the plant grew with the C-5A program, so did the club. In 1969, the club and the GLERC organization together (the club itself putting up 1/3 of the funds) bought a new Schleicher Ka-8b to keep up with the growth of the membership.
Then disaster struck. The C-5A program was prematurely canceled in the early 1970s and 20,000 people lost their jobs. Because the club was affiliated with Lockheed and membership was restricted to employees and family members, membership dropped off drastically to 9. GLERC Soaring was unable to pay the bills. In order to survive, the club agreed to give their equity and total ownership of the Ka-8 to GLERC in exchange for Lockheed paying their outstanding debts. GLERC wanted to sell the Ka-8, but the soaring club members convinced the GLERC council to keep it. GLERC owned the sailplanes so they called the shots on membership, severely hamstringing the club’s ability to grow by bringing in new members from outside of Lockheed. As a minor event, this author joined as the 10th member in 1976, immediately becoming an officer and the third instructor on the staff.
As Lockheed recovered, the club bounced back reaching 22 members in the early 1980's. The club became a chapter of the Soaring Society of America in 1976. In 1984 the 2-33 was traded for a L-13 Blanik from Switzerland. The club built a trailer for the Ka-8 and began taking trips to the wave camp in North Carolina and the Sequatchie ridge in Tennessee. Members added gold and diamond badges using club and member-owned equipment. On one particular outing to the Marion wave camp, six members achieved gold altitudes and one diamond in one day, the last landing being made after dark!
In 1987, the Ka-8 was damaged in a landing accident at Monroe and was sold to a party in England. It was temporarily replaced with a leased Schweizer 1-26 until six months later when a 1967 Schempp-Hirth Open Cirrus, N99VJ, became the new GLERC-owned single-seater. Once again the single-seater was paid for with a combination of Lockheed and club funds. A year later that ship was also severely damaged, however this time insurance funds allowed the purchase of a replacement (their current) Open Cirrus, N757N.
Throughout the history of the Lockheed Soaring Club, they have never owned a towplane and thus have always been reliant on other organizations for tows. The availability of commercial tows and the attractiveness of the 18-mile long ridge with year-round flying opportunities influenced the club to move to Chilhowee Gliderport int he late 1980's It flourished there for more than a decade until the untimely death of owner-operator Mike Reisman. With the closing of Chilhowee, the Lockheed Soaring Club needed a new home. They accepted the gracious invitation of the Southern Eagles Soaring club to join them at SES's new home at LaGrange-Calloway Municipal Airport in LaGrange, Georgia, Lockheed's 4th home in 30 years. Lockheed and its members were fully affiliated with SES for several years.
The year 2000 saw the Lockheed Soaring Club moved back to the newly-reopened Chilhowee Gliderport where it continues to operate today. Due to downsizing at the Lockheed plant, now with less than 7000 employees, the membership has once again decreased to only 11 members. But there is hope on the horizon. Lockheed Martin is now considering allowing a portion of the Soaring Club membership to come from the public arena.
Over three and a half decades hundreds of people have passed through the membership ranks of the Lockheed Soaring Club. Many members have achieved diamond badges and competed in national competitions. Some former students have moved on to become professional airline pilots. The club saw its name change to the Lockheed Martin Employees Association (LMEA) Soaring Club with the merger of the Lockheed and Martin corporations, but the spirit remains the same. Perhaps the adventures will continue.
From the Lockheed-Georgia newspaper "Southern Star," May 18, 1967