It was an overcast Friday morning when I met retired Air Force Lt. Col. Bill Powley and his day's flight crew of 15 Central High School students at Tri-Cities Regional Airport to discover firsthand what Powley's famed F.L.I.G..H.T. Foundation is all about.
Powley, a Vietnam War veteran and former F-4, A-7 and F-16 fighter pilot, started Flight Lesson Instructional Grants Helping Teens (F.L.I.G.H.T.) in Unicoi County in April of 1992 after retiring from the military. The non-profit foundation, which currently operates as a grant- and donation-funded aerospace education program for Junior ROTC high school students in Sullivan County and upper East Tennessee, is designed to cultivate student interest in aviation through hands-on flight experience and training.
Already acquainted with Powley and his program from a feature I wrote on his induction into the Tennessee Aviation Hall of Fame in 2013, I now looked to gain a student's perspective of the program.
I joined the Central students and teacher Regina Bellereide outside Advanced Flight Training at 9 a.m. Powley approached from the hangar sheltering the white Cessna 172 he uses to fly students and ushered us all into the building for the briefing.
Powley explained the entire process of the 20-minute flights from takeoff to landing. There will be three students with me per flight, he said. "Everyone will have on a headset... The person in the front gets to help with taxiing, takeoff and flying."
"You taxi with your feet, heels on the floor... if you want to go right, push right," he said, and vice-versa. "I'll do three maneuvers while we're up there: a pull up and push over which creates zero gravity and, thus, weightlessness; a 2G turn where you weigh two times as much as you usually do and a dive bomb run."
More than 7,100 students from 15 area high schools have flown in the F.L.I.G..H.T. program over the last 22 years and more than half of them had never been in a plane before, Powley explained. If you haven't, he continued, "this will be the best first flight you'll ever have. So, let's get started."
Bellereide said students from her Military Careers class normally participate in F.L.I.G.H.T. because there is no JROTC program at Central, adding that "I canvassed some other populations, trying to generate interest among students. ... What better way to experience math and science."
The students varied in grade (sophomores through seniors) and background: Only 3 out of the 15 present had ever flown in an airplane, and one of those is interested in joining the Air Force.
Flight-by-flight, three-by-three, the students entered and exited the single-engine plane excitedly. The general post-flight consensus was that they enjoyed takeoff, landing and hitting zero gravity to watch things float in the air.
First-time flyer Lisa Reed, a Central senior, said she never knew "that you can go into zero gravity" in a plane. "I loved it."
Sophomore Skyler Muncy, who co-piloted the plane with Powley, said, "It's not as hard as I thought it was going to be."
Powley gave the students an aerial view of Central, as well as South, North and Dobyns-Bennett high schools. He also flew over local attractions.Sophomore Joe Saylor said he enjoyed takeoff and landing, but also the sights from above. "We saw Warriors Path and it's so small," he said.
After five student flights, the time came for the teacher and the writer to become the students and fly with Powley. She climbed into the back of the plane and I into the front, buckling my seat belt and placing my headset on. We locked the doors and the familiar roar of the engine met my ears: I grew up flying in my father's Cessna 172.
When the propellers sped up, Powley let me taxi out to the runway. Once we received clearance from the control tower, the plane gained speed and we took off. Powley instructed me to pull back on the controls to raise the nose of the plane. At around 2,500 feet, Powley leveled the airplane and said, up here "the plane basically flies itself," and he showed me how to keep it steady with only the fingertips of my right hand on the controls. Powley then took over and proceeded to demonstrate zero gravity, a 2G turn and a few dive bomb runs where he pretended to escape enemy fire. I couldn't help but laugh from the thrill.
Powley pointed out Warriors Path State Park and Central High School while we snapped photos, and all too soon it was time to land. He lined up the plane toward Tri-Cities' runway and helped me guide it back to earth where 15 hungry teenagers anticipated our return.
Bellereide asked students to write five sentences describing their experience. I've had the privilege to write a few more. To learn even more about this hands-on educational program, contact Powley at 423-502-1605.