Flying To Nowhere Redux Part 3

My next leg on this slightly windy winter day was a turn north to Hampton-Varnville (3J0), and I decided to forego the bumps and climb above the scattered clouds where the air was smooth.

This trip would be just under 23 miles so I still wouldn’t be in the air for long, and I reduced my power to slow down and stretch out my sky time. The airport is shared between the two named towns, so close together that they look like one city from the air. The population of the two towns combined is just under 5,000 and both are in Hampton County.

Of the two, Varnville is slightly older, having been founded in 1872 by the Varn brothers, owners of a local sawmill, even before Hampton County had been created. Hampton was formed as the county seat in 1878 and grew into the larger of the two towns. Varnville’s main claim to fame is that some scenes of the movie, “Forest Gump”, were filmed there. It’s also the birthplace of Major League baseball’s Dwight Smith.

Hampton, on the other hand, does not boast any such luminaries, but does have the longest running newspaper in South Carolina, the “Hampton County Guardian”, which started printing in 1878. It is also the home of the annual Hampton County Watermelon Festival, held without a cancellation since 1939, making it South Carolina’s longest continually-running festival.

This was my first landing of the day where the wind was pretty much straight down the runway. And I landed over some tall trees on the approach end of Runway 29. Like Ridgeland, there was no weather information and no people. In fact, there were no airplanes- not one, and no hangars either. The FBO building was a non-descript pale-green cement block structure that was locked up tight. They did have a self-serve fuel station, but there was no price on the pump. The whole field seemed abandoned, but I did find the passport stamp in the black mailbox attached to the FBO building. There was also a backhoe near the FBO. I found out later that a small tornado had dropped down a few months earlier and done enough damage to cause some reconstructive work, but it still seemed strange that there were no airplanes tied down somewhere.

I did not tarry long- my next stop was to Bamberg County Airport (99N), just a tad over 26nm on a north-northwest tack. This airport was more of a challenge to spot than Ridgeland, but I finally located it and taxied up to the ramp. Again, the FBO was locked up and there were no people about and no airplanes on the ramp, though there were some hangars here. The Passport mailbox was on the side of the FBO but on the other side of the fence. Getting out would be an easy push of a button to activate the electrically controlled lock, but I saw that regaining access to my airplane would require a key code, one that I did not possess.

What to do? I finally decided to remove my belt and use it to temporarily tie the gate in the open position, get my stamp, then reclaim my belt once I was back inside the gate. It worked like a charm except for my jeans wanting to slip down the whole time. This was one time when the absence of people actually worked in my favor.

As I was standing on the ramp, I noticed an AWOS data collection unit on the field. This was curious as this had been another airport without any working weather information, or even a frequency to listen to, yet here was the unit, solar powered and ready to go. Is it new and hasn’t been activated? Is it old and deactivated? Hard to tell, but there it is.

Bamberg County was formed in 1897- it had been part of Barnwell county before that, and the town of Bamberg, the county seat, was actually formed prior to that in 1855. It’s population topped out at over 3,800 people in 1990, and  like many small rural towns, has been dwindling since, with a current estimate of 3,342 souls. The town was hit hard by World War I when it lost 20 young men out of a population of approximately 2,200. The list of notables includes a pretty big one- former Governor Nikki Haley was born in Bamberg and actually a contestant in the annual “Miss Bamberg” contest when she was five years old, but since the pageant traditionally chose both a Black and White queen, she was disqualified because, as an Indian American, she did not fit into either category.

My next stop was a relatively short hop to Orangeburg County (KOGB), only 15nm as the crow flies. This was the largest and busiest airport I would visit today and my departure heading of 050 degrees lined me up perfectly with their active runway 05. I was basically on a 15 mile final as soon as I took off.

Orangeburg DID have a working ASOS, so I had my weather as soon as I was in the air and all there was left to do was to enjoy my flight. Like Beaufort, I had been to Orangeburg several times in my flying career and was very familiar with the field. Orangeburg has two runways, including a 17/35 configuration, just like my home airport of Mt. Pleasant, and even shared the same Unicom frequency of 122.7, but once I landed,  the similarities ended, because like most of the other airports I had visited this day, the FBO was closed and no one was around. No takeoffs, landings, or pilots. The airport, like so many, was used as a training field during WWII, for both U.S. and French airmen. One really nice feature that everyone should visit is the Aviation Memorial and Pilot’s Walk, which is on the street side of the FBO. There you can find the names of members of the South Carolina Hall of Fame etched in the bricks as well as markers denoting the entire distance of the Orville and Wilbur’s first flight.

Orangeburg was also the largest town I would visit today, though it too has suffered a decline in residents, from a high of over 15,000 in 1950 to an estimated population of just over 13,000 in 2016, despite the fact that they are home to two universities, Claflin and South Carolina State. It is also one of the older areas in the state, having been settled in 1704 as a trading post with the local Indians, and incorporated as a city in 1883. The Orangeburg Festival of Roses, established in 1972, includes activities for children as well as tours of the Edisto Memorial Gardens.

As I stood on the empty ramp at Orangeburg, my decision to fuel up at Beaufort started to look pretty good. I had more than enough gas to make it home to Mt. Pleasant. The wind now slightly favored Runway 35, so I took off and turned southeast to home. This final leg was my longest, at 63.6 nm, meaning I flew a total of 198.9 nautical miles, or 228.9 statute miles. It was flying just for the sake of it, with a flexible schedule and just vague destinations. It was the reason I started my flight lessons, from my very first one in Almont, MI, a grass field that has been closed since the 1990s. I also collected enough passport stamps to qualify for a SCAA hat, but I’m going for the leather jacket.

I’ve got more flying to do