Author’s note: I have decided to make a random flight with no goals except to fly. This is Part 3 of my adventure.
The flight from Manning was short and quick, just a bit more than 25 miles as the Piper flies, over a landscape of trees, roads, and small towns. Sumter Airport (SMS) lies underneath the Class C shelf of Shaw Air Force base, home of the United States Air Force 20th Fighter Wing. I would normally contact Shaw before I entered their airspace, but today I just descended to 1300 feet, well below the 1500-foot bottom shelf and kept motoring in. The airport lies five miles north of the city of Sumter, a city of around 40,000 souls as of the last census.
Sumter is another South Carolina town named after a Revolutionary War hero, a natural result of the state’s “original thirteen” heritage. Its namesake is Thomas Sumter, nicknamed the “Carolina Gamecock” by a British general for his fierce style of warfare, which they should have foreseen after burning down the man’s home. It was incorporated in 1845 as Sumterville, but shortened its name to just plain Sumter only ten years later.
Born in Virginia in 1734, Thomas Sumter first became acquainted with the military life after joining the Virginia militia, and campaigned against the Cherokee Indians but as often happens in life, eventually became allied with the Cherokees and accompanied three Indian leaders to London to meet King George III. Like so many of his contemporaries, Sumter went from a loyal subject of the crown to an American Revolutionary and dealt British General Charles Cornwallis his first defeat at Blackstock’s farm in Union South Carolina. Fort Sumter, where the first shots of the Civil War were fired, was named after him, and the official nickname of the University of South Carolina is the “Fighting Gamecocks.”
The city’s claim to fame is Swan Lake/Iris Gardens, the only public park in the U.S. containing all eight known species of swan, gliding along in the midst of what is described as the “…nation’s most intensive plantings of Japanese iris”, a collection started accidentally when the owner, Hamilton Carr Bland, unhappy about the lack of Iris blooms in his carefully planned garden, ordered his landscaper to dig up all the bulbs and throw them in the swamp. As it turns out, those bulbs really liked the swamp and an attraction was born.
I also had some personal history with Sumter, or at least the airport, because it was here that I passed my checkride for my Private Pilot license, over 25 years earlier, and I hadn’t been back since. I had two main memories of that day- the first was that of my designated examiner, Alva Brown, growling, “You’re not going to fly me into Shaw airspace are you?” Yes, actually, in my nervousness, I had completely forgotten about that and had every intention of just climbing right into that Class C airspace, which would have been an automatic failure.
My other memory was landing on the airport’s grass field, which crosses the main paved runway. There are not many usable grass fields around anymore and it had been a long time since I had landed on one, so I decided to re-live my experience. There was almost no wind so all I had to do was touch down and get the airplane stopped before it met the concrete of the crossing paved strip. I had done it before, so many years ago, as a brand new pilot, and it worked out just as I remembered it.
One change I noticed was the new and magnificent FBO building. There really is a difference between the counties that are proud of their airports and those that don’t seem to care as much. Sumter County clearly cares. I parked directly in front of the building, and walked inside. Here was another nice change.
In contrast to the airport I had just visited, there were a group of pilots inside, sitting around and talking, just like at my airport. This was more like it! I spent a few minutes talking to what were obviously the “regulars”, or, as my wife likes to call us, the “airport homeless people.” It took a few minutes before I realized that one of the gentlemen was sporting a rather interesting leather jacket, issued by the South Carolina Aviation Association, according to the logo. Here was exactly what I was collecting passport stamps for, and this was the first time I had actually seen one of these jackets. He very graciously allowed me to photograph him and his prize. It was a really nice jacket and it reminded me that I needed to get my passport stamped while I was there.
I casually dropped the fact that I had taken my checkride there and when I mentioned Alva Brown, the old-timers started trading stories back and forth about the man, now gone, who they clearly had respected and liked. When I mentioned my plans to depart on the grass field, one of them told me to watch the far end of the runway, as sometimes it could get “soupy.” That’s exactly the kind of local advice I was looking for, and waving goodbye, I started up my trusty Cherokee and taxied off for my departure. Then I taxied back in again to retrieve my stamped notebook, which I had left on the table. Sigh. Another takeoff, and another leisurely trip at 1200 feet.
My next stop was Camden, which, established in 1730, is the fourth oldest city of the State and South Carolina’s oldest inland city. As I approached, I listened in on the local Unicom frequency. My purpose, of course, was to hear any other planes that might be bent on occupying the same small piece of airspace that I was using. Instead, as a bonus, I heard someone giving instruction in a small tailwheel airplane. I don’t remember what kind of plane it was, but I knew for sure it wasn’t a Piper Cub. That’s because the instructor, unaware that his microphone was stuck in the transmit mode, was holding forth in very colorful language about how much better his plane was than a Cub, and then enumerating all of a Cub’s deficiencies. Did I mention it was colorful?
I attempted to let him know that his conversation was being enjoyed by everyone on the frequency, but of course he couldn’t receive due to his constant, colorful, transmissions. Every once in a while he’d remind his student to keep an ear on the radio. No such luck for either one of them.
Camden was another example of an airport that was valued by its county government. Woodward Field has two runways, one at five thousand feet. It also was the most secure small airport I had seen in this state. It was surrounded by a serious fence and visitors have to enter a code to get out, but the employees inside were friendly. The building had a nice lobby and the picnic tables outside made the entire place seem welcoming.
Referring to the fence, I asked the FBO attendant if there was a prison nearby or perhaps escaped lions, but he told me that the County had received a grant and spent it on upgrading the general security for the facility, including the fence. It made sense but I was starting to like my escaped cats of prey theory.
Camden, as mentioned earlier, was the scene of General Horatio Gates’ career-ending defeat to the British- the Camden Battlefield is a National Historic Landmark. The city also had the honor of being burned down by Sherman’s troops during the Civil War. Besides the battlefield, Camden has a lot of sites on the National Historic Locations registry, including a large inventory of antebellum homes, historical buildings and churches, and even archaeological sites. Camden is home to Old Quaker Cemetery, which dates back to the earliest days of Camden. Mary Boykin Chestnut, whose collection of diaries became the Pulitzer Prize-winning “Mary Chesnut’s Civil War” lived at Mulberry Plantation, south of Camden.
But Camden also has an extensive history of horse racing and is home to the Carolina Cup, a premier steeplechase race held nearly every year since 1930. In fact, it still holds the National Steeplechase Association attendance record of 71,000 people- not bad for a small rural town with a year-round population of less than 7,000. In the winter, there are more than twice as many thoroughbreds in the area as city residents.
There is no hint of Camden’s rich history at the airport FBO and that represents one of the main disadvantages of traveling by air. The view is beautiful but the details stay hidden. I resolved that my next trip to Camden would certainly involve a tour of the historic sites and homes, but for today, I live to fly.