New Life to County Airport

It’s early on a chilly February Sunday morning and the Bamberg County airport offices and hangar are awakening to now-familiar sounds and voices.

The landmark building of the airstrip carved in 1982 from pine forest, cotton fields and cattle pastures is being given new life by members of the Aviation Detachment of the South Carolina State Guard. One by one, they travel from across the state to contribute another day of volunteer work creating their new headquarters from the bones of airport offices long ago abandoned.

Lieutenant Colonel Walt Martin is the first to arrive in his aging Chevy pickup. He tinkers in the hangar with power tools he brought from his home in nearby Denmark – tools his father once used as a cabinetmaker – as the drone of airplanes overhead announces the arrival of other members.

Captain Ken Plesser and his wife Peg are the first to touch down on the cracked and faded Runway 5-23. They have flown from their home in Gilbert. Next to arrive is Major Pat Waters, flying from his base at the Mount Pleasant airport. They are soon joined by other pilots arriving from Aiken and Newberry and fellow Guardsmen who have driven to Bamberg from all corners of the state.

They are part of the State Guard’s newest asset - airborne support capability to assist in dealing with emergencies and natural disasters. They are all volunteers serving at the direction of the Adjutant General and Governor of South Carolina.

Bright sunshine beams through the windows of a soon to-be conference room where the group has gathered to begin its day with a moment of prayer. Leading the service is the unit’s commander, Colonel Greg Stidom, of West Columbia.

His words are borne of the spirit that brings the group together. Quoting James 2:14- 18, his message is about faith, backed up by deeds.

“Your faith is made perfect by your works. Your presence here today puts actions behind your words. Your willingness to prepare, to serve and to protect your fellow citizens justifies their faith in you. I appreciate your efforts and your commitment to the mission of the State Guard.”

Stidom is here to practice what he preaches. He pitches in with renovation chores while still recovering from a heart angioplasty procedure two weeks earlier.

Stidom is the first commanding officer of the State Guard’s Aviation Detachment. A pilot himself, Stidom was serving as Deputy Chief of Staff for Communications for the State Guard when he advocated formation of the aviation unit effective January 2008. It is currently growing from 15 members toward its authorized strength of 75. Enabling legislation is currently pending in the state legislature that would lead to the Detachment becoming a full-fledged Aviation Wing with more than 300 personnel.

Like most in the unit, Stidom is a highly skilled career professional. The ranks of the Aviation Detachment include educators, administrators, private businesspeople, men and women from all walks including a general contractor who is in charge of the project. What brings them together is their passion to serve.

Captain Jim Tobul knows the Bamberg Airport and the surrounding community very well. Tobul owns a thriving equipment manufacturing business based in Bamberg and pilots his own airplanes hangared at Bamberg and nearby Orangeburg including a twin-engine MU-2 that can be outfitted for cargo. Tobul’s aircraft are among a total of ten airplanes owned by Detachment members that could be deployed to help in emergency and disaster relief.

On this day, CEO Tobul is wearing jeans, an old hunting shirt and a pullover as he smoothes a patch of new drywall.

“I don’t mind getting my hands dirty,” he grinned.

“I am so impressed with the capabilities of people in this organization.”

“And I am really excited for us to have a home. It’s a win-win for the Aviation Detachment and Bamberg County,” he said.

It was Tobul who accidentally introduced the Aviation Detachment to its headquarters project.

“I invited the group to have one of our weekend drills here last fall,” he recalled through a cloud of drywall dust.

“Greg (Stidom) saw the empty building and immediately recognized its potential as our headquarters.”

Tobul, a member of the Bamberg County Airport Commission, secured permission to use the building through his contacts with the County Administrator.

Most of the 1500 square feet of office space and adjacent hangar had been vacant for seven years after being abandoned by a now-defunct flight school and fixed-base operator. Part of the building will continue to be used for storage by the Bamberg Sheriff’s Office.

Renovation plans include creating a conference room, offices, and a command and control communications center that will double as a flight planning office. The unit hopes to begin using the renovated conference room this spring.

With all volunteer labor and some donated materials, project boss Captain Bruce Protzeller of Aiken estimates improvements will cost $3500 excluding paint and carpet. And that includes gutting the interior down to the shell in most areas.

“It is truly a labor of love for everyone in this unit,” commander Stidom said proudly.

“We are all here because we believe in the importance of our mission to serve the people of South Carolina.”

Richard C. Moore is a Professor of Journalism at the University of South Carolina. He is also a freelance writer and a Captain in the South Carolina State Guard Aviation Detachment.