LUMBERTON — For this week’s column I decided to “just wing it,” and by that I mean, “go above and beyond,” and by that I mean, “take a flying leap,” and by that I mean: combine all of the above idioms into a singular truth — I flew a freakin’ airplane — and am now officially cooler than you (and this is coming from a dude who drives a 1999 Dodge Caravan).
It all started when I was struck by the dreaded writer’s block. Editorial columns can be extremely difficult to write if you are a reporter who spends 99 percent of your workday trying to remain objective.
I decided that in order to write about my perspective, I would need a little, well, perspective, and so for the next few weeks I am going to be challenging myself with some new experiences, which I can then document for your reading pleasure. It was this, or write another column on “American Idol.”
When writing an editorial column I have found that once you find a topic to write about, it is Easy Street, but it is always the initial lift off that can prove the most challenging — that, ironically enough, is also the case when piloting an airplane. This is why I enlisted Keith Ross, owner of Carolina Aerosport Flight, which trains would-be aviators in how not to die.
Ross began flying planes in 1992 and began flying commercially in 2001. When not training adventure seeking reporters, Ross serves as pilot for Sampson-Bladen Oil Company.
“I have been interested in airplanes since I was a little kid,” Keith said. “When I was 18, I started flying the radio control models, and I was 21 when I first started taking my first flying lesson.”
The Federal Aviation Administration requires a pilot have at least 40 hours of flight training before they are able to take the test to become a pilot. As of this Saturday, I now have to log only 39 hours. Less than two days. That thought should be as scary to you as it is exciting to me.
It was a breezy Saturday afternoon when I arrived at the Lumberton Regional Airport. I met Keith at his hangar, where he was seated with two other mustachioed pilots trading jokes at each other’s expense. It was then I realized that I had forgotten to bring my pilot’s mustache.
His other pilot friends were less assuring.
“Oh good, you got here just in time for us to finish putting on the plane’s wing,” said one of his friends between snickers. “Only a couple of bolts went missing, but I’m sure you’ll be fine.” I had no idea that Statler and Waldorf, of The Muppets, had taken up heckling people at airports.
The plane in question was a 1978 Cessna-152. A classic. Keith assured me that planes tend to go through far more inspections and restorations than cars and that despite the Cessna’s age, she still had years of life left in her.
After going over a lengthy checklist and playing with the radio — sadly, there was nowhere for me to plug my iPod, which meant there would be no playing of Kenny Loggins’ timeless classic “Danger Zone” during this particular flight — we were off. As this was my first flight, lifting us off the Earth was Keith’s job. It would be my job to not return us to Earth in a fiery blaze of glory.
“I think a lot of people have a fear of flying because they think that it is unsafe, and I feel like it is as ‘bout as safe as driving a car,” Keith said. “Once you have gone through training and understand everything that is happening with the aircraft, in reality it is a safe way to travel.”
Keith ain’t kidding. In 2012 a statistician with MIT determined that the death risk for passengers of commercial airlines is one in 45 million flights. A person could fly every day for 123,000 years before the odds would turn against him.
Still, statistics are of little solace when traveling in a tiny compartment 3,500 feet above the Earth.
To Keith, who has been flying airplanes longer than I’ve been able to walk, every detail on the ground below could easily be understood and recognized — fun fact: Lumberton has an alarming amount of illegal backyard trash burners going on at seemingly all hours of the day — but to my untrained eyes, everything looked like a maze of lines and squares. Mind you, these were beautiful lines and squares, but lines and squares nonetheless.
If you’re feeling brave, an hour flight lesson, or just a ride along, will run you $125. Carolina Aerosport Flight can be reached at 910-827-1373.
After an hour of taking in the sights — unfortunately, no loopty-loops took place, nor was I able to convince Keith to let me fly the airplane just under a low-hanging bridge — it was finally time to come back to Earth. This again, was something I needed Keith’s help with as, like taking off, it is equally as difficult to land.
James Johnson may be reached at 910-272-6144 or on Twitter @JJohnsonRobeson.