Todd Shellnutt, owner of Skyline Columbus flight training school, got into flying in a round-about way.
“I couldn’t get into law school,” Shellnutt said. “I wanted a life change. My sister said, ‘You’re young. You can do whatever you want.’”
That was in 1999. He had just gone through a divorce and just finished his service with the Navy.
After learning law school wasn’t going to work, he decided to try flight school.
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He moved to Macon and started his path to become a pilot.
A year later, he took his first flight with an instructor. His girlfriend, Linda, went with him.
She decided she loved flying, too. Both became pilots, married and now have a young son.
Shellnutt talked to us about flying and his passion for the Young Eagles program which gives kids an opportunity to take an airplane ride for free.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Tell us about the Young Eagles program.
The Young Eagles program is part of the EAA (Experimental Aircraft Association) for local children who are ages 8 to 17. It’s the last Saturday of each month from 8:30-11:30 a.m. It introduces them to flying.
Do you have to reserve a place?
No. It’s first-come, first-served.
How and when did the program get started?
It’s part of the EAA, and is a national program. Our chapter has 35 active, dues-paying members. We’ve had other programs over the years... The EAA has flown 1,678,589 children over the last 20 years. We flew 248 children in 2011. Our goal was 250, but we had bad weather a couple times and one time, we had only one pilot.
Who is eligible to participate?
You have to be age 8 to 17. That’s it. And you have to have a parent or a guardian with you.
What can children expect to do during the program?
We have a 15 to 20 minute-long briefing where we go out to the plane and explain all the parts. We open the engine and show them what it looks like. We tell them how many people it holds. Once they make their first flight, we give them a logbook and stamp the day and time they took the flight. We give them a certificate that says they’ve flown.
About how many children come each month?
We usually have about 20. This is one of those hidden treasures of Columbus.
Can children come every month or is it designed to be a one-time program?
A child can come every month. But after the first time, they have to bring a friend. If they have 11 friends, they can fly once a month all year.
How many children have participated over the years?
I don’t think we can possibly tell the number. We restructured the chapter in 2009. It was dormant for about four years before that.
How long is each flight?
It’s a 15 to 20 minute flight around the local area. We go as far north as southern Harris County. We can’t go too far south because of the Fort Benning flight area.
What makes it possible to offer the program for free?
The pilots. They pay for everything -- their time, the fuel and use of their planes. If a pilot does not have his own plane, they can use one of mine. I have four.
What’s your flying experience and background?
I started flying in 2000. I’ve always had pilot jobs. I used to do a lot of international ferrying.
Which pilots are involved?
They have to be a paying EAA member and meet pilot medical clearances.
Do most of the children who attend want to be pilots when they grow up?
Most come out for a free plane ride. It’s a great program. I hope they get interested in flying.
What are your favorite things about flying?
The freedom. Once you’re in the air, you’re just elevated above everything -- any issues or problems. You’re free as a bird. You’re literally leaving everything on the ground. I love it.
What advice do you have for young adults who want to become pilots?
Earn your pilot’s license, a life-long gift for yourself. It gives you the opportunity to go places.
Any tips for people who are afraid to fly?
Just come out here and ask for me. I’ve developed certain skills to calm people. Once they go up one time, they’ll put their fears behind them.
How costly is it to take flying lessons and become a pilot?
It’s about $7,000. It takes three to six months. If you join the Young Eagles program, it will cost half that if you take full advantage of the program. It’s a life-long certificate. All you have to do is make a flight once every 24 months to stay current.
Do most pilots own their own airplanes?
Isn’t it expensive to own a plane?
A four-seater costs $40,000-$50,000 used. I just ordered a new plane that will cost $300,000. It will be the first technologically-advanced plane in Columbus and the second one is Georgia. It’s a four-seater plane with all of the top technology on board.
What sort of safety measures are required for the program?
Planes have to be maintained better than your car. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has very strict regulations. And each pilot makes a meticulous check before flying. Seventy-five percent of all airplane accidents are due to pilot error. And just 3 percent are accidents due to maintenance. In all 20 years of the national Young Eagles program, there has been one accident. In the worst-case scenario where the engine quits, we learn to turn the plane into a glider and land. We train for that.
What stops you from flying?
Weather. If there is a thunderstorm, rain, snow or fog, we don’t fly. We check the weather all the time and we usually know the day before.