One of the great things about being a pilot is there is always a new challenge to meet, a new horizon to cross. It’s the same with an organization like the RAF.

Over the last few years, the RAF has worked hard to meet the “basic requirements”: creating and growing the organization while pursing the mission of preserving, maintaining and creating recreational and backcountry airstrips nationwide”.  Fundamental to all of this is our desire to build community among like-minded pilots and friends, helping them gather together to share their love of recreational aviation.

As with any donation supported non-profit, finding ways to fund initiatives is critical to success.    Last October, RAF supporter Jon Wells, who is president of the Honda Flying Club, Greensboro, NC contacted us to discuss their plan to raise funds for the club and finance recreational improvements for their home field, Sugar Valley (31A). Jon had been thinking back on his days as an Eagle Scout, remembering the importance of a campfire. The Club decided to build what they dubbed a Flyers Friendship Fire Circle, and sell engraved bricks to raise necessary funds.

It was perfect. Throughout history the campfire has served as a gathering place where travelers meet at day’s end to share stories of the day, keep warm and plan the coming day. Many recreational aviation events end the day with just such a fire; cooking food and sharing good times. Nothing better symbolizes the RAF, and the benefits derived from our mission, than the campfire.

During follow up discussions with Jon, it was agreed that a similar concept could serve the RAF’s nationwide mission. With Jon’s blessing we proceeded to develop a program to build 50 very unique campfire sites at select recreational aviation destinations around the country.

Creation of the Fire Hub Design

For the RAF, it was determined that the campfire settings needed an aviation theme that clearly identified each project with the RAF, and incorporated elements that would make each site “fit in” with its location. RAF supporter Carlos Barrios donated the services of his Orlando architectural firm of Baker and Barrios to develop a plan that met all criteria. Their design concept envisioned a 22-foot diameter circle filled with bricks segmented by three 9-foot aluminum propeller blades radiating from a four-foot hub that would serve as the actual fire pit. Constructed of 3/8 steel the vertical “hub” features the RAF logo “cut out” at the east, west and south coordinates. North appropriately depicts the Polaris, the North Star, the sky’s one celestial constant on which men have relied for centuries to guide them; the ideal symbol for our mission. We no longer had just another fire circle – we now had the RAF Fire Hub.

The Plan

A Fire Hub sponsor is selected to finance the construction costs of each project. Volunteer labor, provided by a local civic group, builds the Fire Hub. At each completed site, donor opportunities range from laser-cut logos on the propeller blades to engraved bricks where participant donors can memorialize their participation with their name, N-number or dedication to loved ones, with funds raised going towards the support of the RAF mission.

The First Fire Hub – Sun ‘n Fun

The Fire Hub concept received the immediate full support of aviation community leaders. AOPA, guided by President Craig Fuller, became the first sponsor funding construction of the first Fire Hub. Then John “Lites” Leenhouts, president of Sun ‘n Fun, offered to donate a site in their campground area.

Two weeks prior to opening day at Sun ’n Fun, design plans were finally approved, but the prospects of completing this first Fire Hub were deemed “slim-to-none!” That was until RAF supporter and Orlando contractor Bill Lowery came forward offering the services of his company ICC General Contractors to complete the project on time.  With little more than a week to go, Bill called in experts in aluminum construction and brick masonry as well as his son and fellow members of the Sanford, Florida Wing of the Civil Air Patrol.

On site, Sun ‘n Fun “early bird” volunteers set fence posts while Sun ‘n Fun President John “Lites” Leenhouts made sure necessary materials and supplies were available as needed. Grounds manager Don Huey provided everything needed from fencing to sand and graciously hauled away what needed to be removed.  One highlight of the fast paced construction had to be the young volunteers from the Civil Air Patrol.  Sacrificing their spring break from school, they pitched their tents and worked 10 hours days moving dirt, hauling bricks and becoming Fire Hub construction experts.

On Tuesday afternoon the construction was completed just hours before the dedication ceremony conducted by RAF President, John McKenna, AOPA’s Fuller and Sun ‘n Fun’s “Lites” Leenhouts. That night the fire was blazing and marshmallows were roasted for the very first time.

Let the Fund-Raising Begin

Thanks to this incredible effort, the response at Sun ‘n Fun was nothing less than overwhelming. Able to see and use the Fire Hub, all week donors and supporters participated ordering engraved bricks to be personalized and installed well in advance of next year’s event.

But, perhaps even more rewarding was that each night of the fly-in, people gathered at the Fire Hub to enjoy a roaring campfire, share stories about the day’s activities and plan their adventures for the following day. Nothing else could have better proven to us that all the effort was worth it.

All of us at the RAF thank everyone involved in making this first RAF Fire Hub project such a great success. Through their efforts and commitment, the impossible was definitely accomplished. A pilot community grew stronger from building it, and a pilot community grew larger by sharing it. We now are confident that RAF Fire Hubs will help assure the future of general aviation nationwide.

Submitted on April 14, 2012.

Leave a Comment