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Thousands of flight fans attend annual Cracker Fly-In
Plane buffs soak in all things aero at Lee Gilmer Airport
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A plane prepares to take flight at the 46th Annual Cracker Fly-In at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville on Saturday. The event featured around 200 planes. - photo by Erin O. Smith

You might could find somebody as proud of their plane as John Hess was at Saturday’s 46th annual Cracker Fly-In. But, you’d be hard pressed to do so.

To hear him describe this Beech AT-11 he bought four years ago. To watch his face come alive with expression, his hands fluttering, as he recounts his monthly flights across the country, soaring from state to state, educating airshow attendees on his historic flying machine.

Well, he looks like a man in his element.

As one of hundreds of others exhibiting their aircraft at the event — hosted by the Gainesville chapter of the Experimental Aviation Association — Hess let anybody interested step aboard the World War II era plane and take a look around.

“People are curious about it,” he said. “Most people don’t have any idea what it is. So, we get to give them a little history and let them explore.”

And, that was the whole idea, according to event organizer Winn Fletcher.

“Airports and airplanes are not always that accessible to the public,” said Fletcher. “This is a chance for people to see the aircraft up close.”

Fletcher added that by mid-day the event at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport had already brought out more than 2,000 visitors.

Among them were Mike and Jeannie Edwards of Dawsonville who brought grandson, Finn, 2.

Mike Edwards, who grew up across from the Herbert Smart Airport in Macon, said he’s always been “fascinated by all the planes up in the sky. I used to watch them when I was a kid, but I rarely got to see them up close.”

In addition to the thousands of visitors, there were also dozens of vendors serving food and drinks, like Branch House Tavern of Flowery Branch.

Restaurant Manager Ryan “Bubba” Battles said it’s one of his favorite venues to serve food.

“You just look around and see all these people in the flying community and all these incredible planes,” Battles said, adding that he’d attended several of the annual events. “They’ve had historical planes here that would amaze you.”

Among them, Battles said: that Beech AT-11 right across the way.

Hess stood in the shady spot beneath one of the massive wings of his aircraft — the man seemed to exude pride for this sleek machine. And, not without cause.

According to Hess, the Beech AT-11 is an extremely rare and historic plane. It’s the aircraft that helped more than 90 percent of World War II bombardiers train for their missions.

Hess fielded questions as visitors stood on a step stool, gazing inside the front hatch. The back door was open too, offering a glimpse of the cockpit, top turret .30 caliber gun and 100-pound practice bombs in the racks.

Gesturing toward the glass nose of his Beech AT-11 — a clear bubble on the front of the plane — Hess explained that flying his aircraft across the country, visiting airshows all over the map, is a pleasure.

“It’s a lot of fun,” he said. “And, I get to fly what I consider to be one of the neatest airplanes a person can buy.”


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