I love asking pilots what sparked their interest in aviation. Sometimes, it’s watching an aircraft fly overhead; sometimes it’s going for a first flight. Regardless of the event that hooked them, it is always evident by the glow in their eyes that it had a major impact on their life.
Setting out on AOPA’s four-day Road and Runway Rally, I had hoped to be able to create that spark for someone along the way. Fortunately, I had two such great experiences—one on a ferry in Virginia and the other at Florida’s St. Augustine Airport.
While driving the Smart car on the first half of the rally, my teammate Jason Paur and I hopped a ferry in Jamestown to try to make up for some lost time. Turns out, the family that we parked beside on the ferry lives near Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport in Harrisonburg, Va.
Amy Blackwell and her father Marvin Hillsman talk about flying before driving off the ferry at Jamestown. Photo by Jason Paur
Amy Blackwell and her daughter Maddie were quick to get involved in the race, cheering for my team (Orville) and giving us advice on how to get ahead in the rally.
“It’s kind of like the Amazing Race,” Blackwell said, comparing our four-day trip to her one-day 15-hour drive from Harrisonburg to Walt Disney World in Orlando. “I bought them the ‘Star Wars Trilogy’ to keep them entertained, and it work!” (Maybe if my teammate and I had done that we would have made better time in the Smart car!)
After finding out I was a pilot, Blackwell introduced me to her father, Marvin Hillsman who grew up in South Boston, Va., with friends who flew some of GA’s most iconic aircraft.
“When I was a child, I had a bunch of friends who had airplanes,” he said, rattling off flights he had taken in a Fairchild, Aeronca Champ, and a J-3 Cub to name a few. Although he had thought about learning to fly, he never actively pursued it. He does, however, make model aircraft.
Unfortunately, our time on the ferry was too short, so I quickly gave the family my contact information with an offer to take them flying because AOPA’s headquarters are located less than a one-hour flight from Shenandoah Valley Regional. We’ve already made contact with each other to talk about the rally, but I plan to touch base with them to set up that flight, so stay tuned.
Another opportunity presented itself at St. Augustine Airport where Galaxy Aviation and the St. Augustine Pilots Association had planned a gathering to welcome the rally crew. Jim Burton, of Jacksonville, Fla., brought his friend Keith Vermillion and his two sons to the airport to see the Remos GX. Burton, a pilot who put flying on the backburner to raise a family, is getting recurrent and encouraging Keith, a Jacksonville police officer, through his training to become a sport pilot. Both are flying a Piper Warrior out of St. Augustine with the same flight instructor, carpooling to and from their lessons.
The Vermillions get comfy and confident in the Remos GX during an event at St. Augustine Airport. Photo by Jason Paur
Vermillion’s sons, Keith and Curtis, were a little reluctant to hop into the Remos, even though it meant getting out of the damp rain that had started. Finally, after a little coaxing, they climbed in, put on the headsets, and started moving the aircraft’s controls. Any apprehension immediately fell away, and their confidence skyrocketed.
After clambering out of the aircraft, Burton and Vermillion took the two boys to the Piper Warrior they are training in and let them sit in the aircraft and listen to ATC over the radio. It wasn’t long before the family came back and the two boys hopped in the Remos for another look. This time, the boys posed for pictures like they owned that two-seat airplane.
Burton later told me that letting those two boys sit in the Remos had made their day; at the time, I had no idea of the extent of the impact. It was the first time the boys had ever sat in a GA aircraft. After the rally, I found out that they boys talked about the event the entire drive back to Jacksonville. Once Burton gets recurrent or Vermillion earns his pilot certificate, I’m sure those boys will have their next great adventure in a GA aircraft—their first flight.
Because I grew up around general aviation aircraft, I forget how easy it can be to spark an interest in aviation in someone who has never been exposed to it. Talking about flying adventures or letting someone sit in an aircraft might just do the trick, as long as it is followed up with some encouragement. So what sparked your interest in GA? And what have you done to pass that on to future pilots?