Students soar with free flight lessons

Ben Allison ’14 (fifth from the left) took advantage of the free flying lessons offered in North Adams. --Photo Courtesy of Ben Allison
Ben Allison ’14 (fifth from the left) took advantage of the free flying lessons offered in North Adams. –Photo Courtesy of Ben Allison

“Over there, that’s Albany airspace” came Trevor Gilman’s voice crackling through my headset. Gilman, a flight instructor for Teamflys located at the Harriman-West Airport in North Adams, was sitting on my right side. The two of us were intimately tucked inside of a Cessna 172 airplane. As we leveled out after take off, I looked away from the horizon line and saw a hawk circling right at eye level. I could feel the shake in the yoke (the steering mechanism used while in flight) and for the first time in my life, felt like I was truly flying.

This opportunity to fly last Saturday and Sunday was provided by Harriman-West Airport’s “Williams Weekend,” wherein students, faculty and alumni were invited to take a half-hour flight lesson at no charge.

Butterflies fluttered in my stomach as we pulled up to the airport at noon on Saturday. I saw David Shufelt ’83 – long time friend who had tipped me off to this opportunity – standing, having just landed from his own flight. He introduced my brother Barrett Allison ’09 and and me to Peter French ’53 and Weng-Him Cheung ’15. We briefly chatted while watching Michael Sarrouf, another Teamflys instructor, take a joy ride in the air. Before I could grasp the gravity of the situation, we were then introduced to our separate flight instructors.

My brother Barrett Allison was to fly in a Teamflys Cessna, while I would be flying with Gilman as my co-pilot in French’s personal Cessna – French is a licensed pilot, having flown personally for decades.

Gilman and I stood outside of the plane for what seemed like a split second as he quickly listed off the protocol of checking the aircraft for damage or potential flight issues. He told me to hop into the cockpit as he manned the co-pilot. At 6’ 3” and 215 lbs., I must say the space looked a little small but I squeezed inside. Before I knew it, we were taxying down the runway. “Pull the throttle, follow your brother down the run way, push in the throttle, leave it at 10,000 rpms. Okay, here is the deal – really the only thing you can do wrong on take off is braking – if you brake while we are going 80 mph on the runway, we will swerve out and it won’t be good. Other than that, you should be fine,” Gilman coached. This didn’t seem to be a big deal to him, but I broke into a sweat.

“Pull on the yoke and point the nose at the horizon – let’s get this baby off the ground!” Gilman’s voice crackled through my headset. I had hoped we would ease into this whole “takeoff” situation, but apparently time was of the essence. I could tell that Gilman knew what he was doing, however, and was not concerned.

The adrenaline rush and the constant influx of information did not stop with takeoff – the flight was a full half-hour of complete concentration. After what seemed like five minutes, we were coming in for the landing. Just like during takeoff, Gilman seemed nonchalant about the fact that we were going to be making a major shift – from airborne to earthbound.

Gilman instructed me to follow my brother’s plane back onto the landing strip. “Not a problem,” Gilman continued when I asked if there would be enough time between Barrett Allison’s landing and ours. “I’ll handle the throttle to drop our speed, keep our descent at this rate,” Gilman said. As we hurtled toward the ground, I still did not feel I was adequately prepared for landing. At eight seconds to impact, Gilman chimed in “alright, now when we get to about 10 feet off the ground, I want you to pull back on the yoke and keep us airborne as long as possible above the runway. I’ll keep lowering the throttle, and eventually, we will just drop in.” By the time he finished the sentence I was pulling on the yoke and gliding in.

The adrenaline kept coursing through my body for five hours after I landed. During our post-flight lunch with Shufelt, French and Cheung, my brother and I learned that there had been an active flying club at the College in the 1980s and that Teamflys is willing to work with students interested in flying during Winter Study. Additionally, there have been suggestions to the College to purchase its own plane (the College owned a “share” of a plane when there was an active flying club).

This experience made me strongly question why the College community has not put more energy, time and resources towards taking advantage of the airport in its backyard. Personally, I believe the College should look into subsidizing interested students toward getting their pilot’s license. Why not use the airfield to offer influential alumni convenient transportation to events like Homecoming to boost donations to the College? There are not many schools in the country that have the financial or environmental resources to offer experiences like this. And, as we often lament, we are all stuck in a purple bubble. I see this as an opportunity to highlight the wonderful privilege we all share being stuck in the Berkshires, simultaneously embracing the opportunities at the College, while flying through the glass ceiling of the purple bubble.