Most pilots simply seem born to fly.
Flight instructor and private airplane owner Curt Tilly would agree. He loves sharing the other-worldly experience with others – of floating 2,000 feet in the air, of watching lightning on the horizon and feeling the wind, quite literally, underneath his wings.
Orville Wright allegedly said that “there is no sport equal to that which aviators enjoy while being carried through the air on great white wings” – and many Wake County residents seem to find that true, storing their wings at the Raleigh East Airport in Knightdale.
About 40 private pilots fly the 30 Piper and Cessna planes as a hobby, whether to use the machine for speedy, traffic-less transportation or for the joy of limitless airspace.
“There are three types of pilots,” Tilly said. “There are the pilots who like to get to the beach in an hour ... and then there are those who fly because its amazing ... I’m somewhere between those two.”
He has flown since he was in college at N.C. State University. With the bump of the wheels lifting the Piper Cherokee 180 off the ground, and the steady climb of the plane, freedom accompanies the wind.
“I can go anywhere I want right now,” Tilly said, adding that there are few limitations to such small planes, aside from avoiding clouds and communicating with other pilots on a certain radio frequency.
Zebulon Mayor Bob Matheny began flying in 1976, gaining his pilot’s license at the Raleigh East Airport. He, too, had always wanted to fly – “since I was four years old and would see planes fly over my house,” he said – and that desire was only intensified through working on aircraft in the military.
For about 10 years in the seventies and eighties, he owned a Piper Cherokee and then a twin-engine Cessna. He later pursued further licenses, including one level of a commercial pilot’s license.
Pilots have to have a “real interest” in mechanics and the technical aspect of flying, Matheny said, between the radios, coordinates and instruments.
Despite the panel of instruments on each machine and the 22-step pre-flight checklist, pilots of small planes rely mostly on their sight. If they are required to stay 500 feet below the clouds, they simply use visual estimates.
Neither pilot has felt his life threatened. Matheny recalled being caught in a thunderstorm. Tilly remembered a time where he ran the gas tank a little too close for comfort.
“An aging sport”
Tilly said he imagines that flying is a hobby that’s aging out. While younger generations spend significant time on media and technology, flying as a sport is also stigmatized for its expense.
Although Matheny agreed it isn’t cheap, Tilly allayed the cost excuse.
“I know people that spend more than me (flying) just on golf,” he said. Many pilots partner in the aircraft’s ownership, which helps with cost. The airport itself is maintained by the pilot community.
Tucked behind Business Highway 64, the airport is easy to miss, with a hobby that isn’t often remembered.
But for the pilots who soar into a weekend sunset, the view is anything but forgettable.