John Small high flyers take to the sky with Wright Flight

Published 5:29 pm Monday, March 26, 2018

Sometimes it pays to do well in school.

This is the lesson learned by 107 ecstatic John Small Elementary fifth-graders this past weekend as they took to the skies above Washington-Warren Airport through the school’s Wright Flight program.

Nine single-engine airplanes, each piloted by volunteer pilots from throughout the region, formed a constantly moving rotation for approximately four hours Saturday, taking each child up for a 15-minute plane ride overlooking Beaufort County.

“We’ve got folks here from New Bern, Martin County, Pitt-Greenville and Washington-Warren,” Wright Flight volunteer coordinator Dennis Millsap said. “They come from all over eastern North Carolina.”

AIR TRAFFIC CONTROL: Cadets from the Greenville-Pitt Composite Squadron Civil Air Patrol were on hand to direct planes during the event. (Matt Debnam/Daily News)

Cadets from the Pitt-Greenville Squadron of the Civil Air Patrol deftly directed the cycle of planes, creating a scene of motion and excitement. With planes constantly coming and going, and with so many children so close to the tarmac, safety was the No. 1 priority, with fun coming in at a close second.

“Our main focus is to keep them safe and keep the planes arranged with enough room between them,” CAP Capt. Brian Hecker said.

To qualify for participation in the Wright Flight event, students spent 10 weeks studying aviation as a part of their curriculum. In addition, each student chose one grade from their first marking period and set a goal to bring it up by a whole letter grade. Those who already had straight A’s were asked to do a project on aviation history. With these goals accomplished, students were rewarded with a day of flying.

FLYING HIGH: Makenna Rogers takes the controls during a flight under the supervision of volunteer pilot Tommy Stancil. (John Small Elementary)

“The pilots are amazing,” John Small Principal Kelly Makepeace said. “They’re great with the kids and they make it relevant to them. They fly around town to the landmarks that they would know. They fly over our school, the Tar River and downtown Washington.”

Beyond simply riding in the plane, kids are also given the opportunity to handle the controls once the planes were up to altitude. For De-andre Blount, who had the opportunity to fly during the event, riding in an airplane gave him the chance to see some familiar landmarks from a different perspective.

“I saw skydivers, Walmart and I saw Greenville hospital,” Blount said. “It was fun.”

TOUCHDOWN: Wright Flight volunteers Theresa Guard and pilot Wayne Woolard escort De-andre Blount and Sharon Hopkins across the tarmac after an adventure in the skies over Washington. (Matt Debnam/Daily News)

Like many of his classmates, this was Blount’s first time flying. According to John Small Elementary teacher Lisa Lee, the program began at John Small Elementary when Mary Carter Taylor brought the program to the school more than 10 years ago. Lee said that on average, the program exposes about 150 kids from John Small to aviation each year between the two days flights are offered.

“Through the course of time it went from one teacher to three teachers being involved and eventually the whole fifth grade,” Lee said.

CLEARED FOR TAKEOFF: John Small Elementary Student Micah Whitley looks back from the co-pilot seat during his flight. (John Small Elementary)

For Earl Malpass, who manages Washington-Warren Airport, this program provides a unique opportunity to expose young people to aviation.

“The director of Wright Flight has told me that 95 percent of students might not get in an airplane again,” Malpass said. “But there’s about 5 percent of students that go on to pursue a career in aviation. For many, this is their first time in an airplane, and they’ll be able to track their career all the way back here to Washington-Warren.”

LOCAL VOLUNTEER: Local pilot Gil Alligood was among the aviators who volunteered to take kids flying over the weekend. (Matt Debnam/ Daily News)

With more than a decade’s worth of John Small students flying because of the Wright Flight program, Makepeace says she anticipates returning to the airfield with students for many years to come.

“I just want to thank the pilots, because they come out on their own time for us,” Makepeace said. “It’s a phenomenal program that I want to see continue, and I want the pilots to have all the credit because they do it on their own time, in their own planes.”