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'High' School

Looking down on Vermont from a private plane


Published May 23, 2003 at 3:08 p.m.

I am 7000 feet above Lake Champlain, swooning over the velvety green pastures of Shelburne Farms below, when a voice on my headset sends me crashing back to reality.

"Your turn," says instructor Tom White, nodding at my yoke. Why, oh, why wasn't I listening when we were on the ground and he explained how to steer? Just as I'm reaching a tentative hand forward, White lets go of his own yoke. Suddenly, I'm in control of a Cessna 172, with two lives at stake -- and absolutely no idea how to fly.

"Pull down, and the nose goes up," White reminds me. "Left and right move us left and right."

Simple enough. The yoke, as it turns out, is forgiving. My shaky movements are rewarded with the slightest of turns toward the Green Mountains and then the Adirondacks. I'm flying! I'm really flying! It's only when we're headed toward the heavens that I begin to worry: The altimeter reads 10,000 feet and climbing.

"OK, maybe you should take over," I say, and move my hands back onto my lap, where they stay.

I've never been a huge fan of flying. My mother used to bring an old Hellman's jar of vodka and tonic water to ease her nerves on long flights, and my own carry-on has certainly seen a flask or two filled with Smirnoff (with tonic free from the flight attendant). But there's an entirely different world of flying out there, one without cocktail carts, peanuts or even other passengers. And, as I discover during a day of lessons at South Burlington's Heritage Flight, it's a whole lot more fun.

Aviation education has been, if you'll pardon the pun, an up-and-down business. According to the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Assoc-iation (AOPA), private licenses are usually issued according to trends in the nation's economy. The industry suffered a blow after September 11, 2001, and is still reeling from the war and a downturn in disposable in-come. But with summer around the corner, there's been a renewed interest in hitting the friendly skies. And Vermont just might be the friendliest place for learning to take wing.

While nearly every airport in the state features some sort of flying lessons, Heritage "is the most prominent," according to Tom White. It also sits kitty-corner to Burlington International Airport, which means students can become familiar with control-tower operations and learn to run with the big dogs. Classes are $35 an hour; throw in the plane rental -- $54 for the two-seater Cessna 152 or $74 for the four-seater 172 -- and you've still got yourself a pretty good deal. Total cost for a solo license: about $500 to $1500. Private licenses require a $4500 to $6000 investment.

If you have a few bucks to throw around, consider this: A Cessna 152 goes for about $35,000, less than the cost of a Suburban -- and you don't have to buy a DVD player to keep the kids entertained on long trips. The costs do add up, of course, when you consider fuel ($3 per gallon) and maintenance.

For bargain-hunters, right now is a particularly auspicious time to begin flying, as Heritage has a special $49 introductory flight-lesson promotion. It's sponsored by a program called "Be a Pilot," whose name pretty much explains its mission. And a scholarship program funded by the Experimental Aircraft Association helps students pursue a career in commercial aviation.

While Heritage does provide commercial licenses, the bulk of its summer lessons, which are typically split between ground instruction and air time, are geared toward solo licenses (requiring 10 to 20 hours of flying) and private licenses (55 hours). You can actually solo an aircraft at 16 -- the same age required for a Vermont driver's license.

Most of Heritage's students are about 25 to 55 years old, with plenty of weekend warriors and vacationers who'd rather go back to school than fight rowdy kids for a space on North Beach. But this is no ordinary school; class time, spent in a cheery conference room plastered with maps and charts, accounts for less than half of a typical two-hour lesson. Then you're in for the recess of your life.

White has already conducted the 10-to-15 minute pre-flight check by the time I arrive, so I climb right in the Cessna. Like a driver's-ed car, it's outfitted with twin yokes and pedals. If this were a real lesson, he would have explained by now the concepts of flying. As the AOPA brochure puts it, "An airplane in flight is the center of a continuous tug-of-war between four forces: lift, gravity, thrust and drag."

Huh? Having scored a D+ in high school physics, I'm happy to be spared this part of the lesson. The only tug-of-war I have going on is between me and my seatbelt. I remain blissfully unaware that anything but hocus-pocus is going to whisk us around the sunny skies. White plugs in our headsets, starts up the prop and begins to maneuver the plane with pedals connected to the rudders. He gives our aircraft code -- 6555 Juliet -- to the airport and we begin to make our way toward the runway, where we'll take off into the wind.

We're blessed with minimal wind, so after a final check, the takeoff is so smooth I don't even notice we've left the ground. Then all of a sudden the land opens up below us, a dizzying sight. The movement seems so natural that I lose my apprehension and begin to drink in the expanding landscape. Cars zip by on the interstate (suckers). Shopping malls and concrete corporate blocks give way to a patchwork of farms at their spring best, electric in color.

New housing developments appear, with dump trucks pushing dirt around, and half-finished roofs. "You can see all the little suburbs popping up," says White. He then calls in to the control tower, which is tracking us by radar, for permission to make a left turn. As we fly toward Camel's Hump, fields are replaced by trees, the tops of some still bare of leaves. On the summit, we look for hikers who have to trudge six hours to glimpse a smidgen of the view we're now enjoying.

White's aim in the first lesson is to make the student feel as comfortable as possible, and he handles the Cessna with a cool mix of professionalism, years of practice and continued awe at what lies beneath. A native of Montpelier, White, now 24, began taking lessons when he was 12. "Ever since I was a little kid, I'd look up at the sky and follow the airplanes," he says, still obviously smitten.

He began serious training when he was 17, then studied at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida and Arizona, with additional lessons in Hawaii. After flying over palm trees, desert, ocean and volcanic peaks, he returned to Vermont. "It's an incredible place to fly," he says. "Just the diversity that you can get in a short flight is top-notch."

Indeed, the variety of views we experience today is enough to lure anyone back from the tropics. From Camel's Hump we hop over to Mad River Glen, scribbled with unkempt, bushy trails, and Sugarbush, where the last of the spring snow clings to the upper regions of the ski runs. Heading west, we spot small pools of water in the pockets between peaks, where moose are known to congregate. As we dip lower, our shadow transforms from a blurry blip to a perfect, T-shaped silhouette of wings and tail.

When we're out of the mountains, we realize we're near Middlebury College, my alma mater, and do a quick buzz of the campus. It seems to have doubled in size since I left, with more new construction underway.

Next it's over to Lake Champlain, where I take my turn at the wheel and then pull out my camera for a few photos. We're flying so smoothly that I forget we're moving at 100 miles an hour. I'm reminded when I open the window for a clearer shot: My little Canon Elph nearly rips out of my hand. Whoa!

Window safely shut, we find my house -- hey, are those my carpenters out for a smoke break? -- and begin our descent over Burlington. The city looks like a scene from a model-train set, with ant-like pedestrians dotting Church Street. For a moment this northern Vermont May day is captured in a perfect snapshot.

Forty-eight hours later, I'm running along the bike path when I hear the slight groan of an engine overhead. Looking up, I spot the T of a Cessna, out on a scrubbed-clean, bright blue and green morning. Hey, that could be me, I think. Exactly. "Once we get someone up in the air," White says of his students, "it's hook, line and sinker."

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