Taking Flight: Local Pilots Pass on Their Passion

by Amy Phariss, Photography by: Mollie Tobias

On any given weekend, particularly the lovely ones marked by blue skies and little wind, thirteen-year-old Maggie asks, “Can we fly today?”

As her mother, a woman who can barely make it through a commercial airline flight without becoming sick and who clutches the armrests as the massive plane finds the runway, I am in no position to fly anywhere, let alone high above the Sandhills in a tiny single-engine plane, with a teenager by my side. 

Lucky for me (and more so for Maggie), we have a friend who not only flies without nausea or armrest clutching, but he has the time, freedom and passion necessary to sit beside a teenager and help guide her through the ins-and-outs of literally taking flight. From the pre-flight check of the airplane to talking Maggie through a take-off, Larry Gebler passes on his life-long passion for flying to a thirteen-year-old girl who otherwise would have thought flying was for someone else, if she’d thought of it at all. 

On a bright, crisp Carolina morning, at Larry’s airstrip in Derby (Richmond County), we caught up with Larry and his flying buddies for a pre-flight chat and to watch the pair climb into the cockpit and take off, heading toward Moore County and eventually landing at the Pik-n-Pig for fuel in the form of smoked pork. 

I asked Larry, an ER doctor with the military, what he loves about flying, why he enjoys sharing this passion with younger people and how retirement (or partial retirement) has enabled him to explore flying in different ways, charting new territory and broadening the way he experiences flight later in life, when some of the rules have changed but his love for aviation remains as strong as ever.

Amy Phariss: What started your interest in flying?  When did you first fly and when did your passion come about?

Larry Gebler:  I grew up as an Air Force brat until age 14, so all of my early life was around high performance aircraft of the 1950s and 1960s.  Following my father’s death 6 months after retiring from the Air Force, my mother moved the family to Michigan where I was astonished to learn that kids built models of cars instead of airplanes and there weren’t any military flight lines full of shiny jets  to tour on Armed Forces Day. I took the first opportunity presented to join the Aviation Explorers of the Boy Scouts, where a (very small) group of teenagers who didn’t care much about cars would study ground-school, look pitiful at the airport fence until some pilot just gave in and said “get in” for a flight, wash and wax private airplanes to raise money to pay for some flying time, rebuild old WW II flight training equipment, and generally drool over  and caress airplanes in the hanger.

Mostly, we wondered how on God’s earth we’d ever have enough money to really afford to be private pilots.  Nobody worried about having enough skill or determination, if we only could get the chance!

I got a scholarship to the University of Michigan and started as an aeronautical engineering student, but after a year spent  figuring out that slide rules don’t have flight controls went to pre-med after having a hospital summer job that year.  Fast forward through medical school and a general surgery residency to the week I got out of residency into my first paying job as a physician. That Friday found me at the local flight school signed up for the Cessna Pilot Training program.  The rest of the story (Commercial Pilot, Instrument rating, Multi-engine rating, Glider rating, Seaplane rating, etc) is all in the logbook.  It all seems like yesterday and the “disease” rather than fading, only gets a stronger hold every passing year.

Amy Phariss: Why do you enjoy teaching younger kids to fly?

LG:  Maybe the best answer is that the kid in the above paragraph just never grew up and stopped playing with airplanes.  Unfortunately, the calendar makes no concession for that character defect, so most of us who cherish this flying passion are eager to pass it on to the next generations before time catches up with us.  I think most of us want more than anything in our older years to see that legendary “kid at the airport fence” who, like we did, fantasizes about flying some day.  We are sure that, given an iota of encouragement, she will put down her iPad and catch the fire, determination and self-discipline required to leave the ground and safely return by dint of her own brain and skills.  More importantly, if shown the open door and the path, she will want to become one of a society that internalizes  all at the same time the freedom of flying, all the personal responsibility of “Pilot in Command,” and the abiding belief that the sky is no limit to what she can achieve.

Amy Phariss: Tell me about your involvement in the Young Eagles program.

LG: The Young Eagles Program was started when members of the Experimental Aircraft Association realized (as did many pilot organizations) that aviation was becoming an older person’s game and that most kids in the U.S. viewed personal flying as too expensive, too hard, too technical, too unwelcoming, and just generally unattainable to them.  That “kid at the airport fence” was gone because she was in the arcade at the mall, and really had been absent for years due to our ignoring her.  The EAA decided to put together a program designed to have its pilots introduce non-airline flying to younger generations.  The idea was to have a peer group, led by a big-name chairman, who would get American kids once again “air-minded” and fired up about flying. The first Chair was General Chuck Yeager and the challenge to each member was to fly at least 10 kids per year in their airplanes. Our stated goal was to fly  one million young people between the ages of 7 and 17 before the 100th anniversary of the Wright Brother’s first flight.

The Young Eagles has been the most successful program in the history of the EAA.  The one millionth Young Eagle was flown by Mr. Rick Ellis of Freeport, IL, on November 3, 2003.  Since then, YE has set itself a goal of flying 100,000 young people per year,  and has introduced well over 2 million of them to flying to date.  A 2011 study found that participants are 5 times more likely to become a pilot than someone who has never participated, and that 9% of those new pilots are female compared to 6% females in the general pilot population. Additionally, 2 of every 100 participants who were 17 years old continued on to earn their pilot certificate.

The Young Eagles program is entirely operated by over 43,000 volunteer pilots flying their own or rented airplanes, and by countless ground support volunteers, without charge of any kind to the participating youngsters.  One of the proudest outcomes of this program is that EAA now has pilots who got their first flight as a Young Eagle giving flights to new Eagles.

Over 43,000 of us trying to pass it on!  I guess it’s a symptom of the disease to try to make it contagious. The EAA records show I’ve tried to infect 442 individuals.

Amy Phariss: Has flying changed since you’ve semi-retired?  Do you have more time for flying?

LG:  I think so, at least I’ve got a better chance of being able to fly on the bluebird days (clear skies, calm winds, sunshine).  I also am a partner in a grass strip airport at Derby, NC, so I think I’m more likely to spend that retired time mowing grass, repairing buildings, hanging up a new wind-sock, or changing one or the other airplane’s oil or spark plugs than necessarily flying more.  Of course, it is much more likely that I’ll just drop everything I’m doing to fire up the plane and fly to the Pik-N-Pig for lunch or up to Moore County Airport for mid-morning coffee than it used to be.

Amy Phariss: What makes aviation a good hobby
for retirement?

LG: One of the greatest dangers of private flying is “get there-itis,” a pathological condition of having to fly in whatever dangerous weather or mechanical conditions may arise because one has to be at work tomorrow. Being retired pretty much removes any external pressure that could lead to ill-considered aviating decisions because it is much less often that a retired pilot HAS to be somewhere. It’s a lot easier to live up to that definition of a superior pilot being one that uses his superior judgment to avoid situations requiring his superior skills.

Amy Phariss: Do you look for a certain spark or skillset
in kids that tells you flying might become a passion for
that person?

 LG: I think of flying a lot like swimming or boating in the ocean. Those who can think of themselves as PART of the atmosphere rather than powering or absolutely controlling their way through it seem to fly more smoothly and confidently. 

I think that’s why I like watching some young people fly–seeing if they are amenable to being part of their environment, guiding the aircraft rather than rigidly trying to  control  every aspect of it.  Can they get comfortable with bouncing around in some moderate turbulence in return for the privilege of being in the sky?  Anyone who’s never been anxious flying is a fool, but I look for an attitude of just preferring to be in the sky than on the ground. I also think that, while there is a lot of science, math, physics, chemistry, etc. to flying, there is an intangible artistry to flying well. It’s in some ways a well-performed dance with the airplane in the atmosphere, so I like to see those who, if you will, have an aptitude both for the science of aeronautics and a motivation to “dance” well with the airplane.

Amy Phariss: What do you love most about aviation?

LG:  Since I began taking flying lessons, the concept of Pilot in Command has been uppermost in my mind. In return for the freedom to soar around in the sky wherever and usually whenever I want, I am, as a pilot, the absolute master of and responsible for my own fate and those of any passengers. There’s nobody to blame, no one to whom to hand the responsibility for anything I forgot to plan, check, or execute. Even the Federal Air Regulations explicitly state that the pilot in command is “directly responsible for, and is the final authority as to, the operation of that aircraft.”  That’s a pretty good metaphor for how to live one’s life.

Amy Phariss: How does it feel to own your own airstrip
and hanger?

LG:  Mostly, it feels like a natural extension of a lifetime of flying. I suspect it’s like a rancher feels looking out over his property–the culmination of what he spent his life trying to achieve. It is also a wonderful opportunity to go back in time to the country airstrip and to have “hands-on” to what it must have been like to try to keep aviation alive in the 1930s off their grass strips. It makes you know that there’s a lot more to aviation than moving the control stick.

Amy Phariss: If you could describe what it feels like when you’re up there flying, navigating, etc. — which three words/adjectives would you use?

LG:  Freedom, self reliance, and being part of/within something much greater than yourself.

Sidebar: Andrew “Drew” Steidinger, a retired United Airlines pilot with over 53 years involvement in aviation, was taking another friend flying the morning we spent at Derby. While we waited for pre-flight checks and watched the planes take off, I asked Drew a few questions about his own aviation history and what flying means to him having retired from commercial flight but never giving up his childhood dream of piloting an aircraft (he tacked airplane posters and hung models all over his room as a kid). 

Here are 5 thoughts Drew left me with:

1. “Flying is the wave of the future,” Drew says. “It’s an interesting way to live a life. It’s a very heady experience.”

2. I asked Drew which characteristics or skills are necessary to make a strong pilot. He says a pilot needs an analytical mind, a good dose of common sense and fortitude. Taking responsibility for not only a plane but for the passengers on board is no small feat. 

3. As the mother of a daughter, I’m often aware that some professions are deemed ‘male’ and others ‘female’ in our society. I’ve often thought of aviation as a male-dominated field and asked Drew if he has any thoughts about this. He noted this idea of aviation as male-dominated is a misconception that is going away. In the mid-80’s, women began entering the profession of aviation in larger numbers, and the trend continues. Drew himself received his instrument training from Emily Howell Warner, the first woman captain of a scheduled U.S. airline. Warner was the first woman to join the Air Line Pilots Association and was enshrined in the National Aviation Hall of Fame in 2014. 

4. When I asked Drew what he feels is the greatest misconception about aviation, he didn’t hesitate in saying, “That it’s dangerous. It’s so much safer than anything you do – driving, riding a bike, walking across the street.” I went ahead and looked up the statistics on this claim. Sure enough, according to the National Safety Council (2019), the odds of dying in a motor vehicle crash are 1 in 114. The odds of dying in a flight incident are 1 in 9,821. In fact, the odds of dying from a pedacyclist incident, firearms discharge, motorcycle riding incident, unintentional drowning and by choking are all higher than that of dying in an air transport incident.

5. When asked what he loves most about aviation, Drew’s answer surprised me. I thought he’d talk about the rush of flying, the powerful feeling of being in control of an aircraft or the sense of freedom flying affords a pilot who travels among the clouds. Instead, Drew says, “It’s the people. It’s my aviator friends – the ones I’ve recently met and the ones I’ve had for years. I’m proud of being in the fraternity of aviators. As an aviator, you’re part of a select club. When you meet another aviator, you’re accepted.” 

National Safety Council. (2019). What are the odds of dying from…. Retrieved from https://www.nsc.org/work-safety/tools-resources/injury-facts/chart