Taking Flight: A Bird’s Eye View and A New Perspective

With the passing of a birthday (I refuse to be more specific), I needed to do something out of the ordinary.  In my head, it seems, I have had a subconscious list of ‘must-dos’ to have had done before a certain age, yet the age has arrived and I only recently became aware of the list.

For example, by said age I was certain I would have hiked the Mayan ruins, but I haven’t.  I have never danced a tango, rumba, Charleston or anything well for that matter.  I do not fluently speak another language.  You get the idea.

Still, never being aware of my own mortality, it seemed there would always be plenty of time to git-r-done.  However, that is simply untrue.  The realization of this fact did not happen until this summer.  My best friend in high school (then, known as Tammy Clem) died, while riding on the back of a motorcycle with her husband.

The news was shocking.  How could it be true?  She was wearing a helmet, but they were hit by a car. Tammy was thrown off and died at the scene.  She left behind many who loved her, including two small children.

This accident has continued to creep into my mind and plague me.  Tammy lived life to the fullest.  She was a beautiful nonconformist who was quick to laugh and make others laugh.  Tammy was a good friend and we got into a lot of trouble together.  She taught me how to drive a stick shift on the dirt roads of Appalachia that we ran around on.  I just never imagined that seventeen years old would be middle-aged for Tammy.

She had so much living left to do, including ushering her children into adulthood and watching them marry and have children of their own.  But, this was not meant to be.

I only take solace in the fact that she died the way she lived – having fun.  Yet, I have struggled to find a way to honor her and our friendship in some small way.  On a bright and sunny day the answer was revealed to me in the flight of a Bald Eagle.  I cannot explain it, but it felt like Tammy was saying “get over it and on with it, already.”

If you haven’t guessed, I am almost the opposite of Tammy, who knew how to live in the moment.  I tend to be a little uptight, always have a list of things to do and projects waiting for me, and sometimes forget to have fun.  It is not that I do not know how to have a good time; it just seems to not be a high priority.

So, I deliberately went by the Ocean Isle Beach public airport to write down the telephone numbers on the sign that asks, “Want to learn to fly?”  Sure enough, this one has been on my list for some time.  So, this birthday in tribute to the amazing girl I knew, I took my daughter for a flight to capture the moment in time.

In thanks for her birth and what she has meant in my life, I celebrated still having time to make memories and share my life with my loved ones by having fun together.

Bernie Swanekamp, Coastal Carolina Aero Club’s Treasurer and a pilot, arranged for Duane Lewis (another pilot with the Club) to take me and my daughter up for a “test flight”.  It was a gorgeous day in Brunswick County with very little wind and clear skies.

Taking Flight

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERABefore we arrived on the tarmac (i.e. parking lot for airplanes), Mr. Lewis completed the preflight inspection of the required safety equipment.  The Cessna snugly seats four.  Caitlin sat in back, while I sat on the right in front with Mr. Lewis.

If this had been an actual first flying lesson, I would have been on the left in the pilot’s seat and the instructor would have been on the right.  Like a driver’s education vehicle, the right side of the plane has the same controls as the driver/pilot allowing the instructor to assist at any time.

Once seated and buckled in, we went through another checklist that included “visually and manually observing or manipulating” the radio to verify it was on and functioning, the brakes and flaps to confirm they were working, the safety lights were operating and so on.  All wearing headsets to communicate, Mr. Lewis taxied us to a runway and announced our departure over the radio.

As we gained speed, Mr. Lewis pulled on the steering wheel (a.k.a. yoke) and we lifted off the ground.  This part was no problem and actually exciting.  It is the ascent which has always seemed long and slow to me and gives me a bit of the willies.

I do not fly commercially very well.  Apparently, I heard a statistic (that I have not authenticated as fact) that the majority of all airplane crashes occur in the first or last five minutes of the flight.  Needless to say, the gaining altitude has always felt like the “I think I can” chugging of The Little Engine That Could to me, but I am never quite sure the airplane can.

At about 1000 feet, I thought “this is great – the perfect altitude.  It’s time to level out and cruise”.  Except that was not the case.  We continued to climb to about 2000 feet at which point I had basically had enough of this bright idea and was ready to land until my ten year old exuberantly gushed, “this is great!” over the headsets.

She was beaming and looking all around.  I wondered how I was blessed with such a fearless free spirit for a daughter and hoped she stays that way.  Turned out the day was perfect for flying.  From the bird’s eye view, the ocean was as smooth as glass and the houses and land below looked like a toy model.

We did not experience even the slightest turbulence, which I equate to feeling like driving on a bumpy road.  The speed of the flight itself seemed so slow, but we were soaring at about 100 mph.


To land, we lowered our altitude to about 1000 feet, entered the landing pattern (which is like on and off ramps in the air) using left hand turns since the pilot has a better view out of the left side of the airplane.

Mr. Lewis explained how to properly bring the plane down, “using the throttle, the flaps (air brakes) and the yoke to establish a constant rate of descent, you make a left turn when you are 45 degrees downwind (going with the wind) and beyond the landing runway.  This is called a “base leg” turn.

When the end line on the landing runway is 90 degrees to the left of the airplane you make another left turn called the “final leg”.  You aim the nose of the aircraft at the end of the runway and continue to adjust the rate of descent.

The little, white hash marks that look like a price code on the end of the runway should stay focused in the front window above the instrument panel.  When the hash marks vanish under the nose of the plane, you are over the runway and ready to touch down.”  And we did, just as smooth as silk.

If this had been an actual first flight lesson, I would have practiced taking off and landing several times, according to Mr. Lewis, not only to gain experience but, comfort and confidence also.

Coastal Carolina Aero Club

The Coastal Carolina Aero Club offers flight instruction at a comparatively low cost, access to the Club’s airplane, monthly meetings and camaraderie.

The flight instruction is provided by a club member that is a FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) certified flight instructor.

The Club’s airplane is a Cessna 172 high wing airplane that is well maintained from its insurance and annual inspection to its fuel and an oil change for every thirty hours of flight time.

Anyone can learn to fly, just like anyone can learn to drive a car.  You do not have to have a student pilot’s certificate or medical certification to take flying lessons until you begin to fly solo, according to the FAA’s website (www.faa.gov).

Club members are required to purchase two hours of plane use each month.  You would, then, coordinate that time with your flight instructor.  However, each person learns at their own pace and many book two or three hours of airplane time and flight instruction each week.

For example, Mr. Lewis was 65 years old when he began his training with the Club in September of 2004 and received his Private Pilots license a year later on September 9, 2005 after about seventy hours of flight time.  However, Brandon Sauls received his Private Pilots license after 50 hours of instruction stating, “the FAA requires 40 hours of instruction, but it just depends on each persons own comfort level.”

Monthly meetings are held at the OIB airport on the second Tuesday of each month at 7:30 p.m. and all interested are encouraged to attend.

Mr. Lewis associates flying with freedom.  He expounded, “cave men drew stick figures on walls of men and women with wings.  The Greek, Venetian and Roman philosophers and artists wrote about and sculpted animals and humans with wings.  Children look to the sky and dream.  [In this day and age,] flying can be available to everyone.”

“Absolutely nothing in this world can match the exhilaration of the whole experience of flying,” according to Mr. Lewis.  “It is a surprise to me that there is not a waiting line of people wanting the same experience.”  Adding, flying is particularly good for retirees as a relaxing hobby since “you are never too old to learn” something new.

The truth of the matter is none of us know how long we have, so we might as well enjoy what we can, while we can remembering that we will never have the same moment, hour, or day back again as a “do over”.


Previously published in The Brunswick Beacon [2005].  Reprinted with permission.  Verify information about flight school is still accurate before visiting. 

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