Come fly with me ... Base Aero Club gets students away from it all

  • Published
  • By Brian Shreve
  • Robins Public Affairs
It was somewhere between the ground and the first 300 feet when my stomach unexpectedly dropped to the floorboard.

I actually closed my eyes for a few seconds, holding it in while Lewayne Davis, Robins Aero Club chief flight instructor, handled the airplane with an old-school Steve McQueen bravado, as if he were routinely driving a Honda to work.

That alone forced me to man up.

I've found myself in many different places in my life, in many situations - some of them thrilling, some strange, others downright crazy and dreadful.

But I can honestly say I would have never imagined I'd be manning a single-engine airplane 1,000 feet above Robins Air Force Base; so what if I only had the controls for less than four minutes?

I can still officially add that to the list of been there, done that.

You see, I have a ridiculously intense fear of heights.

A lot of people say that of course, but we're not talking about a might-think-twice before base jumping from the top of the Empire State Building kind of fear; I mean the light bulb in my living room won't be changed any time soon due to the semi-high ceiling and my knees wobbling the last time I tried - that kind of terror.

In other words, if I can take a flying lesson at Robins Aero Club, anyone can give it a shot.
In fact, a privilege once limited to active duty personnel and Department of Defense civilians, on-base flying lessons are now available to all Middle Georgia residents following a recent partnership between the club and the local community.

And if there's one comfort any curious but apprehensive Aero Club student learns quickly, it's that Davis is a man who knows what he's doing - perhaps because he's been doing it since 1970.

"I eat, sleep and breathe airplanes," he said. "Flying is something we can do others can't. That's why it's great for people to come out here and learn."

I'd never had any trouble flying in general, but we're talking commercial flights - unshakeable fortresses with in-flight movies. I'd even flown on small planes before, but never this small - a four-seater roughly the size of a Fiat - not to mention I had never been in the pilot's seat.

"I'm afraid of heights too," said Davis calmly. "But not when I'm piloting because I have the control."

According to Davis' own analogy, the difference is comparable to that of riding a large bus and climbing behind the wheel of a roadster.

To be specific, this was a 2003 Piper Warrior III. The Aero Club has a total of five Pipers used for lessons, four Warriors and one Arrow used for more advanced commercial training. Now open to the public, the club hopes to expand its fleet, according to Davis.

All of the aircraft are inspected twice a year by Federal Aviation Agency mechanics in compliance with club curriculum and that engines are changed after 2,000 flying hours.

Another advantage for students here is the experience of the staff, which consists of four full-time instructors driven by passion.

"Our instructors are well checked out," said Davis. "The difference here is that we're retirees, not doing this for a living or flight time."

In general, lessons at military flight clubs are among the safest in the country, Davis added. Robins Aero Club won the Air Force Materiel Command Outstanding Safety Award just last year, among other accolades.

Aero Clubs are safe because there's a lot of oversight, he said.

"There's more control over people flying, more training and more recurrent training," Davis said. "That keeps people safer. We've never had any injuries."

Davis said an 83-year-old student had signed up for first-time lessons the day prior to our flight, reiterating the fact that "anyone can learn to fly an airplane."

As for my own experience, I was already excited to be driving a plane down the largest runway in the state outside of Hartsfield-Jackson International, having no idea Davis would allow me to briefly take the controls once we were airborne.

But when the initial fright of flying a plane out of the blue subsided, I came to appreciate the quiet hum of the engine and the peace that comes with being in the sky - up in a place where there were no bills, no weird neighbors, no loud political pundits.

A large part of life may be about conquering fear. And flying - an experience appropriately born in America - may simply be all about freedom, even if you do have to land eventually.

So now I know why people fly.

You should find out too.

What to know: Anyone interested in signing up for flying lessons at the Robins Aero Club should call (478) 926-4867.