- The Enterprise
- The Recorder
Boys and girls stretch their necks skyward and, often, throw their imaginations in full throttle when fighter jets rip through the skies above St. Mary’s County.
“I used to dream of what it would be like to be one of the pilots,” said Rob Lewis, now a pilot and a sophomore at Murray State University in Kentucky. “I grew up in Great Mills, watching the Navy planes fly over.” And he wondered not just what it would be like to go that high and fast, or to land on an aircraft carrier, he said. But, “to see the county from the air.”
Students like Lewis, inspired by flights often originating from Patuxent River Naval Air Station, have enrolled in courses to learn aircraft maintenance. Some have taken to the skies themselves, flying solo as young as 16 years old.
Lewis, 19, is working toward a career as a civil servant for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a biologist and pilot. He’s studying wildlife and spends his time examining small mammals and game birds near the Mississippi River. With his pilot’s license, Lewis said, he’d be prepared to take on assignments in remote areas. He’s already been scanning opportunities for his dream job, in Alaska, Wyoming and Montana.
Younger children who want to become pilots should consider local flight programs, such as the Civil Air Patrol, an auxiliary of the Air Force, and the county airport, Lewis said. “A lot of the kids have never flown before,” he said. They can receive some free orientation flights through the Civil Air Patrol, he said. “I did that when I was very young.” And, he said, some pilots’ associations offer scholarships. Parents just have to lend a bit of support.
Lewis used to ride out to the county airport with his father, “and just watch planes take off and land,” he said. By 14 or 15, he’d joined the Civil Air Patrol, and has learned how to conduct emergency search-and-rescue missions, about aerodynamics, and how to fly alone. All of that has helped him look at things more analytically. It’s taught him to manage stress. “What risks are worth the rewards,” he said.
And that sense of wonder instilled in him by aircraft soaring over his Great Mills home is still there, Lewis said. “If I hear a jet fly low, I still run outside and see what it is,” he said.
He also chases adventure. Lewis will jump in a Cessna 182, maybe fly to Kitty Hawk, N.C., to visit the Wright Brothers memorial, or to lunch — a day trip pilots would call “a $100 hamburger run.”
The Raleigh-Durham airport has a restaurant with nice burgers. The cost of an aircraft rental and fuel used to be around $100 for a quick trip like that. Prices have increased, but the name stuck.
That burger run is how Lewis got to know one of his flight instructors better. Harvey Dalton, of Lusby, flew with him to North Carolina to grab a bite to eat.
Lewis is “good people,” Dalton said. “He’s one of the many success stories.”
Young pilots are special. “You see how they light up,” he said. “Underneath you is clouds and above you is blue sky. That’s what we experience every time we go up. To pass that on to these kids is a privilege.”
“Maybe that will deter them from making bad choices,” Dalton said. “You can’t go through your schooling and get bad grades and pursue something like this.”
Brandon Igo, 17, a student at the Dr. James A. Forrest Career and Technology Center, has flown a Cessna 182 in St. Mary’s County. “I like the physics behind it, the fact that people have the ability to do something that most people for thousands of years have been trying to do.”
About two hours a day each school week, Igo is in his aviation maintenance class, learning about engineering and mechanics to keep planes ready for flight. They’ve riveted pieces of metal together, smoothed out aircraft exterior materials to minimize scratches or damage that could create extra drag while a pilot is in the air. And, they’ve built their own aircraft models, his favorite project, and flown them in a field behind his school.
The class has given Igo an edge in the Civil Air Patrol. He already knew how to answer quiz questions about helicopters. And his flight and studies have him interested in an aviation career. Igo graduates next year, and plans to take aeronautical engineering courses in college.
For young people curious about flying, but think it’s out of reach, Igo said, “It’s not. It’s a very attainable goal.”