Stories from intrepid reporters attending the Illinois Press Foundation Journalism Workshop at Eastern Illinois University
Experience is in the air at academy conducted locally.
By Ivy Truong
MATTOON — The cadets and the instructors at the Johnson Flight Academy find that the experience of flying can compare to nothing else, which is why the recent rain has been so disappointing.
“It’s like being on top of the world. Everything is pretty from up here. Green is green. Blue is blue. You can’t see any imperfection,” said Mark Grant, a flying instructor at the academy.
The Civil Air Patrol, an official auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force, sponsors the annual academy at the Coles County Memorial Airport. The program for the past 49 years has taken teenagers from 14 to 21 years old and conditions them on the mechanics of aviation and flying.
The goal is for each teen, by the end of the two-week program on June 19, to be able to fly solo on either a powered aircraft, glider, or hot air balloon.
“It’s really impressive for a 16-year-old to never fly before to fly solo a year later,” said Maj. Robert Bowden, the director of public affairs for the region.
The students prepare for the solo experience by attending ground school for half of the day, where they learn about the proper handling techniques, fundamentals, and emergency procedures. The other half is spent on truly hands-on experience.
Grant instructs his own students by gradually reaching the point where he does not talk to them at all while they are flying. He believes that the students should always treat the flying as if they are on their own.
“I won’t utter a word,” said Grant. “I just sit there, clapping.”
Recently, the sessions have been cut short. The weather, cloudy and rainy, has provided low visibility and dangerous conditions for the burgeoning pilots.
Rather than teaching students how to fly in these different weather scenarios, the instructors find it better — and safer — to have the students first feel confident in flying in fair weather.
“We want to make sure we do everything safely,” Bowden explained. “This is a huge part of flying, that thought process (of safety). (But) there’s always disappointment when you can’t fly.”
Cadets Nea Shaffer, Bowen Walsh, and Mackenzie Shepherd all agree that the flying is the most rewarding part of the entire camp — and the most difficult.
Shepherd, in her first week at the camp this year, learned to land with a powered aircraft. The experience, she thought, was easier said than done. One wrong move could make for a rough landing.
“I was about to give it up,” said Shepherd.
However, being able to fly solo afterwards made the challenge worth it. “You go on the runway, and you think, ‘Hey, I’m doing this on my own,’” she said.
For second-year glider veterans Shaffer and Walsh, this was an exhilaration all too common for them. They recently flew as far as two and three hours away, then back again.
“When you’re gliding, you’re soaring,” Walsh said. “It’s closer to you actually flying.”
For the experience, the students had to compete against some of the most involved and high-ranking cadets of the nation to learn under practiced instructors for a relatively cheap cost.
Each instructor has clocked in at least a few hundred of instruction and flying hours. They all aim to build relationships with the campers, hoping to have the cadets return for another year with, perhaps, less rain. Bowden himself is an alumnus who has returned to instruct.
“The experience is second to none,” said Bowden. “We’re the model that started it all.”