If Hogs could fly
An otherwise overcast day seems to brighten slightly as the sun makes one final effort to peek through the gray screen before setting below the horizon. My heart races, and I can feel the lub-dubs of blood circulating almost above the dulled radio chatter in the cockpit. My pilot, Wade Hendrickson, a UA grad from only three years earlier, seems like a storied veteran at the controls. He calmly reviews his flight plan, checks the instrument panel for any irregularities and, finally satisfied, turns the key.
The engine sputters slightly before springing to life. Within seconds, we are at the end of our runway, awaiting the final OK for takeoff. In the waning moments of our time on the ground, I watch the hangers zoom by: J.B. Hunt, Lindsey and Associates, and countless others blur into one continuous garage just before the rubber tires lose contact with the tarmac.
Two quick turns and five minutes later, our four-seater is hovering hundreds of feet above the land where our footsteps have trod. The towers of Old Main stand alone at the apex of The Hill, highlighting the beautiful skyline of the UA from above. My photographer hangs out the Cessna’s tiny window, taking pictures as fast as possible.
While coasting above Donald W. Reynolds Razorback Stadium, the flight seems almost surreal, and the prospect of flying alone seems almost as distant as the landing strip.
Perhaps it wasn’t that distant.
Our flight, which Drake Aviation’s director calls a discovery flight, is the first step in a pilot’s training program that is helping about 80 flight enthusiasts from Northwest Arkansas earn their license.
After their discovery flight, students begin taking the controls almost immediately, Hendrickson said. The first sessions focus on taxiing down the runway and takeoff; however, students are manning the controls in the air from the very beginning, Hendrickson said.
“Once the wheels leave the ground, it’s all them,” Hendrickson said. “We feed them to the wolves [and] they’ll learn.”
While taxi, takeoff and flying are learned early, students tend to have more trouble learning how to land. Most students have to fly between 10 and 15 hours before they are landing perfectly, Hendrickson said.
“At first, it’s a little booger bear,” he said. “But once you get the hang of it, it’s not that bad.”
After learning to fly, and more importantly, land, students are required to log two cross-country flights, one during the day and one at night. These flights, which must be farther than 50 nautical miles, offer students the opportunity to fly to Fort Smith, Joplin, Mo., Springfield, Mo., and many other regional locations, Hendrickson said.
Some students travel farther than 50 miles, he said. During training, Hendrickson would often fly back and forth to Arizona, making fuel stops in Amarillo, Texas.
The flight usually took about five hours, he said. Another Drake student traveled to the Cessna factory in Independence, Kan.
Aerodynamics, air navigation and engine basics are also incorporated into the training curriculum, but flight experience is the most important aspect of the program, Hendrickson said.
Of the 80 students enrolled in flight school at Drake Aviation, 20 are from the UA, said Yasser Saeed, director of operations at Drake. Most of the remaining 60 students are enrolled in a two-year degree program through Northwest Arkansas Community College, Saeed said. The NWACC-Drake Aviation program, which costs nearly $24,000, offers a degree in Aviation Science and a commercial pilot’s license.
While the UA does not offer a degree program in flight training, students can still earn the private license. The private license program costs about $4,500, not including books and materials, Saeed said.
Federal Aviation Administration regulations require 40 hours of flight time for all private pilots to earn their license. Taking three lessons a week, a prospective pilot can earn his or her license within four months, Saeed said.
“We just hope that we can enroll more students at the UA,” Saeed said, adding that most of the UA students were taking up flying as a hobby.
After earning their license, students can rent aircraft at Drake’s center to fly by themselves or with friends, Saeed said.
Prices range from $80 to $165 an hour for solo flights.
“It’s just like renting a car,” Saeed said.
We watch as the signs of night begin to appear along the outer rims of the Ozark Mountains. We gradually turn back toward the northern horizon, and the low hum of the engine accelerates to a roar.
The familiar rooftops of Old Main and Dickson Street give way to the crowded avenues of College Avenue.
Soon, the air traffic control tower comes into view, and a feeling of sadness washes over me, knowing that our trip is nearing its conclusion.
After calling for clearance from the tower, Wade brings the Cessna in for the final approach. The ground continues to approach faster. At last, Wade pulls the yoke back, and the wings come to level. The wheels below chirp upon contact with the runway.
I turn and take a final look at the path behind, watching as the sun silently drifts below the Arkansas countryside.