Barry Saunders

He wants to help aspiring young aviators take to the sky – Saunders

It pays, as Garth Brooks reminded us, to have friends in low places.

It doesn’t hurt to have them in high places – like in the sky – as Warren Wheeler found out. A friend in the sky helped Wheeler, director of a flight school who is intent on getting kids into airplane cockpits as pilots, snare groovy jazz musician Najee to headline a benefit concert Friday.

When Wheeler was seeking a performer who’d draw a crowd to raise money for his Airolina Music & Flight Support program – but who wouldn’t demand a planeload of dough – he asked his pal, Tom Browne, for help.

Browne, in addition to being a world-renowned musician, is also a world-class good guy and licensed pilot who likes spending time above the clouds when he’s not onstage or at home in Garner. He has shared a lot of stages with musician Najee.

“Najee is a pilot, too,” Wheeler said when asked how Browne got the flautist to do a gig – that’s jazz talk for “perform” - at the Hayti Heritage Center. “He’s doing this because he wants to help. He doesn’t need the money.”

I’d be surprised if he did. In college, Najee albums in my friends’ record collections were as ubiquitous as roach clips and empty TJ Swann wine bottles set on windowsills for decoration.

The logical assumption would be that anyone as passionate about flying as Wheeler is must’ve grown up champing at the bit to get ahold of a plane’s controls, to be able to say, “Y’all sit back and let’s see if we can get this big mother in the air.” (Sorry, but I’ve always wanted to hear a pilot say that just before takeoff.)

That assumption would be wrong. “I wanted to build boats,” Wheeler said, before the flight bug bit him in high school in 1958.

“Back in those days, they were selling airplanes, and for some reason my sister and her friends convinced a dealer that they might be interested in buying a plane,” he said, laughing while recalling the incident. “The dealer brought one from Charlotte to Raleigh and I sat in the backseat and that was the end of that. From that point on, I wanted to fly.”

Wheeler earned his private pilot’s license at 15 while still a student at Hillside High School. He attended N.C. A&T State University briefly – very briefly.

Why’d he go there for such a short time? “I was told that they had an ROTC program there and you could fly,” he said. “They did and you could, but only as a senior. I didn’t want to go to school for four years to learn what I already knew. So I went to a flight school in Texas.

“My father was not happy that I didn’t go to Morehouse College, his alma mater,” Wheeler said, “but he was very happy when I got hired by Piedmont.”

Wheeler, a licensed flight instructor at 19, said he was the first African American pilot at Piedmont Airlines when he was hired in 1966, and he was also the first black dude to start his own airline, the regional Wheeler Flying Service. He did both jobs simultaneously, as well as serving as a flight instructor for Piedmont when it merged with USAir in 1989.

Not every kid has a father who is president of a bank, or a big sister who can convince an airplane salesman to take her friends, her little brother and her on a test drive in a plane. That’s why last year Wheeler started the program to pique and cultivate the aviation interest of students between the ages of 12 and 19 – students whose lives may be earthbound but whose imaginations are unbound.

I’m interested in kids having the same opportunities I had.

Warren Wheeler, of Airolina Music & Flight Support

“I’m interested in kids having the same opportunities I had,” he said. “When I was in high school, I think the cost was about $12 an hour for lessons with an instructor. Now, it’s like $170” an hour.

There is not only a lack of opportunity, he said, but there is also an impending shortage of commercial pilots. “It’s acute right now, and it’s getting worse. The military is not turning pilots out the way they used to – and they’re holding onto them when they do have them,” he said. “The FAA raised the retirement age from 60 to 65 about 10 years ago, and they’re talking about raising it again to 68. That’s just kicking the can down the road.”

Wheeler is picking up the can.

“Ten years from now,” he said, “if you’re flying on JetBlue, Delta, American or some other major airline, don’t be surprised to see one of these kids coming out of the cockpit as a pilot.”

Since I sincerely believe that Najee and Tom Browne will both still be drawing crowds a decade hence, wouldn’t it be cool to jet to the Bahamas on a flight piloted by an alumnus of the Wheeler Flying Service?

The school doesn’t have its own plane – yet – so Wheeler leases one from a company at the Person County Airport. When they’re not actually flying, the students train on a flight simulator that he keeps at the Hayti Heritage Center. You’ll be able to check it out Friday night if you go to the benefit concert Friday or contribute to the school at www.airolina.org.

Here’s another benefit you can derive from going to the benefit concert: When the stewardess rejects your plea for an extra bag of peanuts, you can truthfully inform her, “I partied so that that pilot could go to flight school. Now hand me them nuts.”

If you go

Benefit concert featuring Najee will be at Hayti Heritage Center at 7:30 p.m. Friday. For tickets, go to www.hayti.org or order from www.ez-tixx.com.

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