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Fly-in puts teen on Cloud Nine

June 20, 2006|by SARAH JOHNSTON

"As a pilot grows older, his stories get bigger and his facts get smaller," teased Gil Pascal of Clarksville, Md.

This remark was met with an uproar of laughter, so explosive that it drowned out the hum of engines and whir of propellers. Spirits soared at the Father's Day Fly-in on Sunday, June 18, at the Rider Jet Center in Hagerstown. General manager Kevin Benner views the event as a wonderful opportunity to show appreciation to both customers and locals. The fly-in features airplane and helicopter rides, and is an exhilarating bonding experience for fathers and their children.

However, the vast majority of its attendees are not only celebrating the gift of fathers, but the gift of friendship.

The Rider Jet Center was enveloped by a sense of camaraderie and a feeling of warmth. Pascal was surrounded by an assemblage of seasoned aviators, all of which meet at the fly-in annually. The delicious breakfast and lunch buffets do not lessen an aviator's appetite for accounts of aerial adventures. Whether grounded in fact or exalted by fiction, these narratives are received with eager ears.

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"The thing about being a pilot is that we'll answer any question," said David McCain of Hagerstown. McCain, who houses a Cessna 425 Conquest in a hangar at the Hagerstown Regional Airport, attended the fly-in with 8-year-old daughter Abby.

As he introduced me to his companions, I found his words to ring true. The pilots that were present at the Fly-In were a genial and grandfatherly group, who reveled in imparting their knowledge of aircrafts and tales of air travel. They disclosed a wealth of information (enough to write a book!) and I only wish that I could have quoted each and every one of the fine gentlemen that shared their time and wisdom.

Temperatures and excitement simultaneously rose as morning became afternoon. The Rider Jet Center, owned by David Rider, abounded in aircrafts of all shapes, colors, and sizes. I had the great fortune to ride in both an airplane and a helicopter, enabling me to report both flying experiences.

In a Cessna 208 Caravan, a nine-passenger airliner with such amenities as leather seating and spacious leg room, begins its ascent, takeoff is a surreal experience. As the landscape diminishes beneath you, so does reality. Thousands of feet in the sky, the world is seen through new eyes. Farmland blankets the earth in a patchwork quilt of natural hues. Rivers wind through forests like cobalt snakes, while roads stretch on until they are swallowed by the horizon. Pilot Steve Pearl gently tilts the plane, giving its passengers a bird's eye view of Prime Outlets, which has taken on the appearance of a miniature village, a relished collector's item. The shadow of the airplane glides softly over the ground, tracing our journey. I am overcome with the same feelings that I imagine pierced aviation legendary Amelia Earhart to her very soul: boundless wonder and immense serenity.

The helicopter ride differs immensely. It does not bring to mind bygone aviation luminaries, but modern television stars. As I adjust the microphone on my headset, images of the Wright Brothers are replaced with images of 24's Keifer Sutherland. With no runway to navigate, takeoff seems effortless, fast and smooth, but, admittedly, uninspiring.

A sudden realization stirs within me as the voices of air traffic control and pilot Ron Van Otterloo stream through my headset: it is not the helicopter ride but the helicopter itself that makes this excursion enjoyable. Above, the propeller rotates with dizzying speed, creating a warm draft that seeps in to tousle my hair and wrap around my skin. In such a small aircraft, I feel that there is very little separating me from the cloudless summer sky.

Jim Lanning of Falling Waters, W.Va., celebrated a momentous anniversary when he marked his 60th year flying in April. Following in the footsteps of Charles Lindbergh's transatlantic ventures, he has crossed the Atlantic 53 times. Lanning, whose passengers have included Ronald Reagan and Colin Powell, sees a bright future in aviation.

If your dad's closet is overflowing with ties and t-shirts from Father's Days past, plan to attend next year's Fly-In, where you can treat your father (or any father-figure in your life) to a memorable day. Upon landing from a breathtaking flight, you may find yourself echoing the words that American spy pilot Francis Gary Powers spoke to his own father: "Dad, I left my heart up there."

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