ELLSWORTH AIR FORCE BASE, S.D. --
The auto hobby shop at Ellsworth Air Force Base is a place where Airmen and their families can repair and maintain their vehicles. From oil changes to engine swaps, the shop has the tools, facilities and mechanics to help with most automotive needs.
“This is not a typical business,” said Paul Balcom, the auto hobby shop manager, explaining that the shop’s primary focus is not to make money, but instead to take care of people. “We are here to help our Airmen and their families.”
Airmen can work on their own vehicles at the auto hobby shop, providing access to tools and equipment they might not have available at their homes. The shop has a lot to offer, such as lifts; brake caliper tools; tire changing and balancing equipment; and a multitude of wrenches. The shop also has a contract for parts to get delivered directly to their location, which can mean significant customer savings.
Deployed Airmen can at times be concerned about their families. The Auto hobby shop and the Air Force Aid Society are here to put their minds at ease so they can focus on their jobs knowing their families are being looked after. AFAS assists the spouses of deployed military members by providing free preventative vehicle maintenance – to include an oil change, fluid check and vehicle safety inspection – all through their “Car Care Because We Care” program.
Amy Black, the spouse of a deployed Airman, recently used the voucher at the shop when her car needed an oil change.
“This is my husband’s first deployment, and he usually takes care of our vehicle needs,” she elaborated. “I think this place is very useful for people who like to work on their cars or, from my perspective as the spouse of a deployed member who has three small children, it’s a lot easier to stay near home and not have to worry about going to a shop off base.”
Since many of the mechanics at the auto hobby shop served in the armed forces, they have a special place in their hearts for military families.
“Our biggest priority here is to take care of our Airmen and their families,” said Chadwick Eldridge, a mechanic’s assistant. “We are happy to take care of any smaller issues, or we can refer [customers] to another shop and do our best to make sure they don’t get taken advantage of.”
When customers are looking for a place to get their vehicles serviced, they are counting on the mechanic to have the experience and knowledge to take care of their needs.
“I’ve rebuilt a few cars in my life,” Eldridge said. “It’s a great hobby and I enjoy it, especially when I get to teach Airmen about fixing their cars. It’s good life experience, and I think it’s great that they have access to a place like this.”
Base hobby shops have been around for a long time. Tony Curtis, a tool and parts attendant at the auto hobby shop, has been taking his cars to the shops for several decades. When he joined the U.S. Navy in 1979, the hobby shop quickly became his refuge and a place to get away.
“I didn’t feel at ease, and I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere until I went to the auto hobby shop,” Curtis confided. “When I was working on a car, it gave me time to think and talk to some other people who’d also been in a situation like mine. There is a kinship, and it is a safe environment to talk about things.”
While Curtis was in the Navy, he went on multiple deployments, and some of the things he experienced weighed heavy on him. Just like the auto hobby shop gave him an outlet for those feelings, he hopes it’ll do the same for other veterans returning from deployment. Armed with a wrench and a graduate education in counseling, Curtis plans to help as many service members as he can while under the hood.
“I feel like this place is a life saver for some people,” he explained. “This provides an excellent hobby and a great way for Airmen to meet other people and talk about deployments or other things.”
The auto hobby shop at Ellsworth AFB is slated for upgrades, allowing them to take care of the base population’s auto needs more efficiently.
“We are getting new floors and bay doors to help modernize our shop,” said Paul Balcom, the auto hobby shop manager. “We also plan on getting new digital equipment that will read engine codes and run diagnostics on the vehicle.”
Though a date has yet to be determined, the shop will be closed for over a month while it is being updated. Once construction is complete, the shop staff hopes to provide more comprehensive services to Airmen and their families.
For further information, contact the 28th Force Support Squadron Auto Hobby Shop at (605) 385-2900 or visit their website at https://www.ellsworthfss.com/funandfood/auto-hobby