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It’s Saturday morning, and members of the Coleman Aero Club are at work. Club members wash and wax the club’s four airplanes, then gather for a safety meeting. Later in the day, some members might fly to lunch.

In the United States, such a trip would be known as “going for a $100 hamburger,” but for members of Germany’s only American flying club, it might just as well be a “$100 bratwurst.”

Cost of bratwurst: about $5. Airport landing fee: about $5. Cost of getting to the bratwurst in a plane you rent and help to maintain: $90. Round trip: $100.

In addition to the gastronomic stops, flying is a great way to see Germany’s sights, said Craig Walmsley, president of Mannheim’s Coleman Aero Club and chief flight instructor. Flying in a private plane also means avoiding crowds and the hassles of commercial travel — security checks, long lines and delays.

“Fly up the Rhine River, pass all the castles up to Koblenz, fly down the Mosel and over to Trier — and just make a day out of it. It’s great sightseeing,” Walmsley said.

Since 1972, the Coleman Aero Club has operated from Coleman Army Airfield on Coleman Barracks. Its 80 or so members include certified pilots, flight instructors, students and other friends of flying.

“Maybe a quarter of the members are civilians and the rest are military,” Walmsley said. “The ones in the military may be trying to get a pilot’s license to get into flight school. A lot of them are already rated pilots [and] they just want to come over here to stay current.”

Many American flying clubs in Germany lost members in the wake of the troop drawdown in the early 1990s. Ramstein Air Base’s flying club was the last to fold in 1996, leaving Coleman as the only place for Americans stationed overseas to learn how to fly or continue their hobby at an affordable rate.

“People come from everywhere,” Walmsley said. “They come from the embassy, Bonn, Geilenkirchen, the Netherlands.

“The cost difference between flying here and flying in a German aero club is exponentially different,” Walmsley said.

The Coleman Aero Club charges between $65 and $180 an hour for plane rental, depending on the plane and the radio inside. Flying lessons cost $15-$18 an hour and ground instruction is $10 an hour.

The club owns four single-engine Cessnas available for rent to all members, whether they are logging their first hour of flying or their 5,000th.

The four planes — some of which are older than a few of the club’s members — will all receive a face lift later this spring, which will include new leather upholstery, carpet and a uniform patriotic paint job.

The refurbishing of the aero club’s fleet mirrors Coleman Army Airfield’s mission of helicopter repair and maintenance. Helicopters, enveloped in a white, cocoonlike wrap, are shipped from downrange and places in between.

This combination of fixed-wing and rotary aircraft provides an unusual environment for student pilots, Walmsley said.

“It gives [the members] practice talking with the tower and dealing with other traffic,” Walmsley said. “It’s good for the controllers to deal with helicopters and airplanes, and it’s good for the pilots as well.”

It’s that relationship between the Army air traffic controllers and the aero club members that has been a large part of the club’s longevity.

“We have a super good relationship with the Army here,” Walmsley said. “They want it here because a lot of the helicopter pilots get their ratings, get out of the service go, back to the States and get jobs with regional airlines — right, left and center.”

In addition to pilots who join the club to further their skills for jobs outside of military service, there are club members like Alex Bradburn, who can fly — as long as he keeps his high school grades up.

Bradburn hopes that a pilot’s license now will better his chances for flying for the Air Force later.

“Being able to fly won’t get me in the Air Force, but the academics will,” the Kaiserslautern (Germany) High School junior said.

For Air Force Staff Sgt. Travis Clawson, flying is another hobby he has added to his list. An avid scuba diver and motorcyclist, Clawson said flying is something he has always wanted to do.

The firefighter, with the 435th Civil Engineer Squadron at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, logged just 60 hours before he was deployed to Iraq in June. He returned in November and got back in the cockpit in late March.

“Basically, I got my license, took a few friends up and then left [for Iraq],” Clawson said.

Student pilots need to fly at least once a week to see any progress, Walmsley said. The minimum number of hours for a pilot’s license is 40, but most students generally take 60-75 hours.

Since lessons and plane rentals are charged by the hour, the quicker a pilot gets his or her license, the cheaper it is.

“A pilot license is good for life,” Walmsley said. “The only thing you have to do to keep your license active is you have to get a medical exam every two to three years — depending on how old you are — and you have to go up with an instructor once every two years to make sure you can still fly.”

The grand total for a pilot’s license from start to finish — $4,000 or a lot of $100 bratwursts.

How to fly

Active-duty U.S. Air Force members interested in learning to fly might be able to defray a fraction of that cost by applying for tuition assistance. If eligible, the Air Force will cover up to $200 toward ground school instruction. Officers would have a two-year active-duty service commitment in exchange for the tuition assistance. Both officers and enlisted must provide the Air Force with proof that they completed the course.

The Coleman Aero Club offers ground schools throughout the year as a way to attract new members and teach students the basics of flying. For more information on the club, visit its Web site at www.colemanaeroclub.org, or call DSN 382-4103 or civilian 0621-779-4103.

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