June 14, 2012
Up, up and away
County airport flight school lifts learners’ aspirations
CORTLANDVILLE — Pilot and flight instructor Jim Spaller has found that flying offers a new view on life.
Spaller, who gives private flight lessons year-round at the Cortland County Airport, says he constantly sees new areas to explore from a plane high above the ground. Day trips for spur-of-the-moment adventure flights to destinations like Montauk Beach, Long Island or the Outer Banks in North Carolina are made more reachable through a short flight.
Spaller has owned 7:47 Aviation since 2008.
For 13 years prior to that he was a flight instructor in Syracuse and at the Cortland County Airport with David Jones, the airport mechanic who used to operate a flight school on the site.
In 2010 Spaller took over the hangar at the airport he used to sublease from Jones.
Spaller said he usually is giving lessons to six to 12 students, ranging in ages from 14 to 70. The most common age range is 35 to 45 and students will frequently lament waiting so long to take it up.
“People will say, ‘I wish I’d done this sooner,’” Spaller said at his office at the hangar Wednesday afternoon.
To Spaller, flying is as second-nature as walking. He learned to fly while in the Army, gradually getting his ratings for various levels of flying, including certification to be an instructor.
Spaller estimates that his flight hours over the past 13 years amount to one and one half years of air time. He treats each student differently, depending on the person’s needs: a more commanding approach for some and a very gentle style for others.
Spaller was severely injured in a 2008 crash near Skaneateles in which a pilot he was instructing, Leslie D. Woodcock, 64, of Cazenovia, was killed.
Spaller said they were simulating an engine failure during landing when they crashed.
The plane lost air speed and struck the ground about 60 yards before a tree line and skidded into a pine tree. The tree then fell, crushing the plane, according to news media reports.
Spaller recalls climbing into a plane on crutches three months later, determined to return to flying despite a shattered pelvis and numerous other injuries.
“I knew if I waited, every day it would get more difficult,” Spaller said.
But Spaller was determined to return to flying and he said since he had been flying most of his adult life before the accident, it came back to him naturally.
Spaller says students range from pilots who are taking required refresher courses to those with no experience flying.
He says students commonly get sick to the stomach in the air and he recalls students who have grabbed his leg and cried out at the slightest turn of the aircraft.
His students run the gamut of occupations: from dairy farmers to businessmen and doctors who justify the expense of the course since flying a plane expedites their work-related travel.
Marietta resident Jeff Warner, who took lessons with Spaller two years ago, describes himself as a nervous beginner who within six months had his pilot license and now flies regularly for his construction job and recreation, putting in at least three hours weekly.
Warner said he always wanted to fly and after an introductory lesson with Spaller he started his lessons the next day. Warner said Spaller was not only a “great” instructor but very helpful when he decided to buy his own plane as well.
Spaller recalls one student who was still getting sick to his stomach in the air after 10 lessons. Spaller would end up taking over the controls the last five to 10 minutes of every flight. That man now owns his third airplane, a twin-engine Beach Baron, Spaller said.
The goal of the course is to give students the skills they need to fly solo and get their pilot certificate so they can take their field test to earn their license.
Most students take two lessons weekly for six months and Spaller said the entire course costs about $9,000.
In addition to the financial resources, students must have a desire to learn to fly as well as the time to devote to the approximately two-hour classes and lengthy reading requirements.
Spaller recommends an introductory flight for students to take with him before they decide whether to commit to the class.
The 35-minute flight gives people an idea of whether they would enjoy the course since they are immediately allowed to fly an aircraft under Spaller’s guidance.
Landings are the hardest part of learning to fly, said Spaller, because the plane responds differently at slower speeds and there are so many different things to pay attention to.
Students must complete three landings without his assistance before they are allowed to fly solo.
Spaller compares flying for the first time to a baby learning to walk because of the novelty of the experience. People have nothing to compare flying to, he said. It is not like driving because you steer the plane with your feet when it’s on the ground. The third dimension of being in the air adds a whole different feeling to the experience, he said.
Spaller said his job is to keep students safe until they are good enough to fly themselves.
Some students are retired and looking to add a skill, he said. Flying is a skill that can be used to cut down on travel time or as a hobby to escape from the rigors of their workday.
Flying improves everything you do, said Warner, because of the focus, drive and attention it requires.
“If anybody ever thought of learning how to fly and have the means, just do it,” he said. “Don’t wait, just do it, because it’s the best thing I’ve ever done for myself personally.”
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