Come fly with me

Check your flaps, rev the motor, gently pull on the wheel and it’s nothing but blue skies ahead and teal-colored water below.

The dream of man to take to the sky existed long before the Wright brothers achieved 12 seconds of flight in 1903. Leonardo Da Vinci dreamed of flight in the late 15th century saying, “Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the earth with your eyes turned skyward … and there you will always long to return.”

Da Vinci wasn’t envisioning flying coach class with screaming babies behind him, and the man in the seat ahead who doesn’t understand just because a seat is manufactured to recline, doesn’t mean it should.

No, Da Vinci, like the Wright brothers, dreamed of having the power of flight at their fingertips just as today’s pilots do. It also has been a dream of mine. On March 20, fantasy became reality, thanks to Gulf Coast International Flight Academy and instructor Chris Stufft.

As part of a Let’s Go Flying promotion for the March 27-April 1 38th annual Sun N’ Fun Airshow at Lakeland Regional Airport, a challenge was issued to experience the thrill of flying firsthand. It was a challenge I happily accepted.

Flying a Cessna 172B out of Sarasota/Bradenton International Airport is not flying an F-22 off the deck of the USS Enterprise, but for the first-time flyer greeted by a bevy of strange instrumentation, it can be just as intimidating.

Only at first.

As the instructor explains each instrument, they become less intimidating and it’s not long before one understands, while the checklist before taking off is more comprehensive than pulling your car out of the driveway, it can become equally routine with a little time.

The airshow features veteran pilots performing amazing stunts in front of thousands of attendees, but each of those pilots also had a first lesson.

Whether it’s a 747 commercial aircraft, a small recreation plane or a military jet, all pilots have a common beginning — a need to put the ground beneath them and soar soulfully upon the clouds.

Stufft is a former policeman turned fulltime pilot who began his skyward journey spiritually long before he did so physically.

“I was the guy stopping by the airport watching the planes take off and land, and wishing it was me,” said Stufft. “Flying was something I always wanted to do.”

He acknowledges his former profession, but doesn’t regret leaving law enforcement to pursue his dream of flying.

“The whole time I was a cop, all I thought about was flying,” he said. “When I’m flying, I never think about being a cop, so I think I made the right decision.”

Flying begins with classes to obtain a private pilot’s license.

GCIFA instructors teach a wide range of students, from their youngest at age 14 to their oldest of 78.

CEO Jim Julius started flying out of necessity, but said being able to fly is “a wonderful thing to do.”

Julius said there are plenty of options when wanting to learn how to fly, including licenses ranging from standard to sport.

“We also offer an accelerated program that will have you licensed in three weeks,” he said.

Prices of lessons vary, but most schools, including GCIFA offer an introductory lesson for $99.

If you think the freedom of blue skies is out of your reach, think again. If your gaze has ever turned skyward with a desire to fly, the clouds await your arrival. You are about to be hooked.

If you take the bait for first lesson, prepare yourself for the final bite.

There can be no better place than locally to do so. Taking off from SRQ produces immediate gratification.

Stufft handled the complicated process of taking off, but soon handed me control of the aircraft, as we turned north toward Anna Maria Island. There before me, the waters of Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico could only truly be appreciated from the air.

The Island’s sparkling white beaches are a sharp contrast to the green and blue waters that surround this beautiful Island. I am already proud to call this piece of paradise my home, but on March 20, my chest swelled with pride as I took in her beauty from 1,000 feet.

For that brief experience alone, I am grateful.

Flying the airplane is the easy part. Taking off, learning how to communicate with air traffic control, understanding what each instrument does, and landing the plane are the hard parts, but that’s what flight school teaches.

Even harder is climbing back into your vehicle at the conclusion of the flight. My Ford Explorer has power, but after piloting the Cessna to 120 mph, I felt as though I left the airfield in a golf cart.

However, it’s not a need-for-speed fulfillment. Once in the air, the sensation of floating in a sky blue pool of peace is quite satisfying. It’s not the same as climbing behind the wheel of a sports car.

If you’ve ever wondered what it would be like, choose your school and take the introductory lesson. One lesson won’t teach you to fly, but it will tell you everything you wanted to know about your desire to give it a try.

Editor’s note: Do you have an adventurous spirit? Do you own a business that offers a unique experience? Want to tell everyone about it? Contact Islander Reporter Mark Young at and become a part of the Adventure Challenge, The Islander’s new adventure series.


If you get the flying bug

For flight training options, go online at or visit, established by the Aircraft Owners and Pilots Association.


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