People often ask me about my interest in commercial aviation, and in return, I explain my lack of interest in commercial aviation. I explain my love for general aviation, which is more than a hobby, it’s a family. My aviation journey started when I was just 10 years old, a week after meeting a flight instructor at the Lynchburg Regional Air Show. I hopped up into the seat of that 172 (N35111) for my first ever intro flight, and I caught the bug.
My father was not a pilot, and I had seven years to go before I could even get my license, so it didn’t make sense to continue with training then. Instead, we took advantage of little opportunities as we traveled, to fly in helicopters and other training schools down the coast. An hour here, an hour there; not much was being learned, but the passion was certainly being built.
After I got into high school, I heard Liberty University had taken a new interest in young students and getting them on their way to become pilots. I participated in a free ground school training program, that slowly worked its way through the ins and outs of how to aviate. Afterwards, still not having a huge reason to fly since I still had a ways to go before I could even solo, I waited patiently.
About two years after that, I received a call from the Liberty University CFI who headed the ground school program, and I was asked to participate in their new Solo Camp. I didn’t know a lot about it, but they had me sold when I heard “flight time,” “solo,” and “cheap.” Two weeks of ground refresher, followed by hours in little C150 N63673, I was off to solo with just seven logged hours under my belt.
Liberty’s Solo Camp did a couple things for me aside from providing free instructors and cheap flight time. It provided insight into something I had been seeking for a long time, a strong sense of community. The community I had been looking for was far deeper than some friends. I wanted family, people who would do everything in their power to see others succeed. I saw local pilots, local students, and even university administration put themselves down so low to serve these students such as myself, and go out of their way to see us prosper. Among these people, Christopher Cartwright, Director of the New Horizons program, endlessly goes above and beyond for the students to come up with opportunities for students to fly, and meet new people.
The airport manager at the small New London Airport (W90), Phil McLanahan, is unlike any other person I have ever met. Time, money, effort: all of it poured into other people, to offer opportunities for new friendships and opportunities to fly. This is the part of general aviation that I fell in love with, the people.
I will never forget the feeling I got when I greased the third landing of my first solo, taxied back to the hangar, shut down, and heard the applause from the other students, instructors, and local pilots. They were just as proud of me as I was.
When others ask me what it is like to fly, I explain to them in the only way I know how. It is the most amazing, most invigorating, most empowering, and the most humbling thing in the world. After the Solo Camp came to an end, and the students were treated to free food at another airport, a ride in a 1955 Fuji LM-1 (N8020K), and a camp out at the airport, I quickly began to feel the hunger for more. At that time, New Horizons had not exactly formed a plan for the students to finish their PPLs, so I was left to find other means.
One of the younger pilots I had met during Solo Camp, Andrew Dossett, had literally just finished his CFI, and he was the proud owner of a Piper Archer II (N5886F). We discussed price, and wasted no time starting to fly. One of the most exciting and confidence-building parts of my training was being able to build experience in many different airplanes. I logged about 12 hours in the Archer before moving back to a C150 (N704WF). While small and slow, that little plane has been like family to me since. The stories Andrew and I have in the little plane of windows flying open, doors opening, nose wheel shimmies, pre-spin stalls, and night flights are endless.
After hitting around 30 hours and knocking out all the requirements, it was time for my long, solo cross-country flight. Andrew decided I needed a little bit of a challenge since I seemed to be bouncing through my training with no issues, so the two requirements he had for me on this flight were no GPS, and I was not allowed to fly to any airport that I had previously flown before.
With those parameters in mind and charts in hand, I departed New London (W90), flew then to Charlottesville (CHO), then to Farmville (FVX), and then back to New London. There again, I landed, and was greeted by a much older pilot named Ron, along with my instructor, and another older pilot. Ron is another amazing person who was along my path of aviation. We spent countless hours sitting at the airport talking, and his telling stories that never got old.
He was the first to greet me when I finished that flight, and I’ll never forget when he said, “Nick, I’d like to congratulate you. You are a pilot now, and you’ve proven it. And you represent less than one percent of the population. We are all very proud of you.” Andrew moved to Indiana to follow his dreams of corporate aviation, but to this day we still talk weekly, and I’m planning to fly out to Indiana this summer for a few days. Ron still hangs out at the airport and tells his stories to the aspiring young pilots.
One of my favorite experiences of all time was getting the opportunity to fly in a Falcon, the first private jet I had ever been on. This opportunity was due to a last minute call from Mr. Cartwright. As of now, I still fly the C150 with the little Woodstock-bird on the tail. I meet with my instructor multiple times a week in preparation for my check ride (which I will be taking soon), and I fly around the area practicing landings at the local airports, maneuvers, and communications. Aside from my trip to Indiana to visit Andrew, I have a trip to Dayton planned to see another Liberty instructor I became friends with, and a few more trips around the coast. My trips to Dayton and Indiana will be with another instructor friend I made at Solo Camp named Tyler in his Skylane.
All of the friends I have met since my “career” in aviation began, I’d say, are some of the best I’ll ever have. The stories will be cherished, the experiences will be memorable, and the friendships will be priceless. This is why I love general aviation.
Editor’s Note: This article is part of our Young Pilots Writer’s Challenge, where we hear from young pilots about learning to fly and the joys of aviation. If you or a young pilot you know has a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]