Aerial shot of Woodbury. Photo by Dan Whittle
“Up here, it’s all about trust,” confirmed my instructional pilot with comforting jocularity. “Now, let’s see if I can remember how to fly this plane?”
At 2,500-feet in the air that’s when pilot Jim Gardner, president/owner of Murfreesboro Aviation Corp., turned the Cessna’s controls over to me after we made aerial pictures of the massive number of employee parked cars at Smyrna’s Nissan Automotive Manufacturing Plant.
Personal deodorant may have had an immediate meltdown as I felt the airplane’s powerful pulsating piston engine and movement come under my temporary control. This was the first time a pilot handed the controls to me as we zipped over the beautiful rolling hills of Middle Tennessee.
As we flew, I wondered if my friends and neighbors down below would be nervous if they knew I briefly flew an aircraft above their homes.
We had two missions: Introduce an aged newspaper columnist non-pilot to the actual flying of an airplane and make photographs high in the air over Murfreesboro, Smyrna and Woodbury.
What a breath-taking assignment it proved to be.
“It’s not the closest I’ve ever been to heaven, but it ain’t bad,” I instructed nervously to my newest best friend (pilot) through our headsets as he slowed the Cessna down for my photography assignment. “My wife Pat and I love flying in the aerobatic stunt planes each year at the Great Tennessee Air Show at historic Sewart Air Force Base. Pat even took the controls one day of a fighter jet here at the state’s biggest air show each summer. But I’ve never flown an aircraft of any type.”
“The rolling hills over Middle Tennessee are breath-taking to look at from the air,” shared pilot Gardner soothingly, as if to get my uptight nerves under control as we glided out of Smyrna Airport Control Tower’s air space back toward Murfreesboro and Woodbury to the east. “Keep your eyes forward and use the horizon to keep the plane level.”
We followed the four-lane John Bragg Highway (70S) from Murfreesboro to Woodbury.
“I chose this Cessna for your photography assignment, since it’s a high-wing and the window on your side opens all the way for your shots from the air,” instructed Gardner.
We photographed breath-taking scenes from the air, including MTSU’s massive campus and football stadium and Cannon County’s Short Mountain that I still believe is higher than Murfreesboro’s rising and growing Mount Trashmore (dump) located a short distance north of Murfreesboro Airport.
“When doing day flights, we use Mount Trashmore and the nearby big rock quarry as points to look for as we near Murfreesboro Airport,” Gardner shared. “And from the air, you can get a true picture just how big a city Murfreesboro and MTSU have become with growth.”
Aviation is “big business” in Rutherford County, assessed Gardner.
“With MTSU’s internationally-recognized Aerospace Program here, we don’t lack for flight instructors in my company to help newcomers learn to fly,” Gardner added. “And flight instruction is more affordable than you might think … we have students ranging from 14 to age 70 … we have millionaire students and we have students who cash their paychecks from McDonald's to pay for their lessons.”
Gardner keeps eight flight instructors on retainer, plus seasoned pilot Ben Johnson serves as chief flight instructor and Chris Brooks is an A&PIA qualified mechanic along with mechanic Gary Downing.
“This is the first day on the job for our newest mechanic, Laura Browning,” Gardner instructed. “Senior flight instructor Marty Newcomb and office manager Veronica Torres rounds out our staff that operates 24/7, round-the-clock every day of the week.”
During our flight, I shared a bit of special aviation history that Murfreesboro shares with the world.
Amelia Earhart’s personal mechanic, the late R.D. ‘Bo’ McKneely, lived his retirement years in Murfreesboro, I shared.
In that interview, the mechanic voiced regret that he had not been on flight with the legendary aviatrix as she attempted to be the first female pilot to circle the globe.
“I wish I had been on the plane with her.” McKneely noted in the only interview he gave to the media. “Maybe I could have made a difference.”
Earhart’s remains or plane were never found after they disappeared over the Pacific Ocean. Her ill-fated flight originated out of Miami on June 1, 1937.