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If you have dreamed of following in the footsteps of America’s great aviators, there is a business in Lancaster that can help. Sundowner Aviation is a flight school based at the Fairfield County Airport that can make your dream of flying a reality.
For some, becoming a student here is a step toward a career in aviation. Others are crossing a dream off their bucket list or just doing it for fun. Regardless of the student’s intent, the instructors at Sundowner are happy to teach others to do something they personally love.
Lonnie Watts and Chief Pilot Pat Rooney recently talked aviation and gave VCNB a tour of their facilities. “The flying community is less than one percent of the population of the United States. You might say it’s an elite club because when you get your license it’s earned, not given and it’s for a lifetime,” Lonnie explained. “Anyone who tries it usually can’t get enough.”
They will celebrate their fourth year in business this June, offering lessons, plane rental and even maintenance services. In 2013, they took over the management of the airport as well. Pat said the company was founded as a means to support a hobby. It wasn’t until the business had taken flight, so to speak, that they could see the 10,000 foot view: a flight school was a much needed service in the community. “It’s costly to store a plane so we decided to start teaching to offset the costs. Then we found out that people really needed us and it got a lot bigger than we thought it would ever be,” Rooney recalled.
The flight school began in a 50×50 foot hangar that doubled as a classroom. It truly got off the ground when they took over airport management. “We started with two airplanes and now we have six. We can give you almost any license you want and we offer maintenance. Not a lot of people do that,” Pat explained. “We’ve had people come from all over – from Kentucky, Ohio – we’ve had them from Tennessee, Texas and even a guy from China. There just aren’t a lot of flight schools around.”
Pat began flying with the United States Air Force in 1973. In the 43 years since, it seems that he has done and seen everything. He served the Air Force for 25 years, spending more than 17 years as an instructor. He served three years as a B-52G Aircraft Commander based in Barksdale AFB, Louisiana. After the Air Force, Pat flew the Boeing 737, 757 and 767 on international routes for a major airline.
His eyes sparkled when asked what it is like to fly. “It depends on what plane you’re flying. The super sonic? It’s great fun to have all that power and speed,” he laughed. “But take a beautiful, clear day and you can see forever. On a clear, cold winter night, cruising along at 30,000 feet, the stars are like diamonds.”
Describing the clouds as “cathedrals in the sky,” he concluded “there’s a lot of magic in it.”
Lonnie has been flying for twenty years and said it was a lifelong dream. “I’ve been obsessed with planes and flying since I was a little kid,” he said while explaining that a lot of their students also consider flying a lifelong dream. “I went up once and was head over heels for it forever.”
The school tends to have fifty to sixty students at a time. The average age, according to Pat, is late thirties to mid-forties but they currently have a student who is 15 and another who is 82. Before committing to flight school, individuals can take what they call a “Discovery Flight” which allows them to see what flying is like and to even take the controls.
Hours in the cockpit and in a simulator give students ample time to learn the skill. Plus they are required to understand the plane. “Knowledge is power,” Pat said. “You have to know the rules of the road, you have to know how instruments works, how planes fly. You need to know about aeronautics. You have to know things inside out. Remember, if something goes wrong when you’re driving a car, you just pull off the side of the road. If things go wrong up there,” motioning upward, “you have to know what to do.”
Visitors to the airport terminal will notice some interesting things. “When someone completes their solo, we cut off their shirt tale. They sign it and we hang them up around the room,” Pat explained. “Then when they earn their license, they visit the lemonade stand.”
The lemonade stand is a slightly damaged propeller, displayed on a wooden stand that features countless signatures from students who are invited to sign the propeller after receiving their license.
The Airport Pilots Association periodically hosts events for the public including movie nights and cookouts. Many events feature a Young Eagle component where kids 7-17 are introduced to aviation for free. “It’s good for the airport and it’s good for everyone to invite the community in and give them a chance to interact with the pilots and have a little fun,” Lonnie explained.
Discovery Flights are available year round and gift certificates can be purchased. For more information on Sundowner Aviation, the Fairfield County Airport, or upcoming events, find them online at www.sundowneraviation.com or call 740.475.8188.
See below for more pictures from our visit to Sundowner Aviation.