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EXCHANGE: Pilot shares love of flight with youths

August 9, 2018

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. (AP) — As a University of Illinois sophomore in 1967, Neil Fotzler often listened to his friend, an aviation student, chatter about his aerial exploits.

Eventually, tired of simply hearing about flying, he asked, “Well, why don’t you take me for a ride?”

So when Fotzler, a first-time flier, strapped himself into the co-pilot seat of his friend’s little aircraft on a torrid afternoon — when the air is rather bumpy for flight — he was merely seeking a novel experience.

Fotzler got more than he could have ever asked for. And he has been looking for ways to return that favor ever since — by taking “everyone” flying.

That first ride was a memorable one — for all the wrong reasons. Once airborne, the pilot decided to flaunt his aerial skills and performed spins and drops for Fotzler — which unfortunately led to serious nausea for the Prophetstown native.

The duo immediately turned back, but Fotzler’s airsickness worsened and he started retching. The inexperienced flier decided to open his window to vomit.

Bad idea, Fotzler recalls, as the contents of his stomach blew right back at him.

“So, my first flight wasn’t any fun,” he said with a chuckle. “But, I got the bug, which is strange. I guess I just had this urge to conquer flying.”

As a UI student, he took lessons at the Institute of Aviation, to no avail. Ultimately, he earned his civilian pilot’s license, around 1969, under the guidance of a former military pilot in his hometown.

Ever since the 69-year-old first “soloed,” he has been looking for ways to share that experience.

In 2002, the Champaign resident was approached by the Experimental Aviation Association, an organization that promotes recreational flying, asking if he’d be a volunteer pilot for their Young Eagles initiative.

Founded in 1992, the program is designed to spur interest in flying for youths aged 8 to 17 by giving them their first experience for free. Fotzler identified with the mission and took off with the Young Eagles for the first time from Willard Airport on Aug. 2, 2002.

Since then, he has logged 100 flights for the program.

When informed of this statistic, Fotzler said he was unaware of it but not surprised.

“I give airplane rides all the time, whether they’re Young Eagles or not,” he said. “And, if they develop an interest in flying or something, who knows? Maybe they get the bug, but it’s just fun for me.”

Fotzler has given “tons” of others free airplane rides, as well, from high school students to his own family members.

The passionate pilot even asked a reporter on this story, “You want to go flying?”

To which the reporter responded, “Yes, why not?”

Later that week, they drove to Day-Aero Place, a grass airfield enveloped by cornfields about five miles east of Urbana.

There, Fotzler unveiled his single-propeller driven light aircraft: the Cessna Skyhawk 172.

It sits snuggly in a lemon-colored hangar/garage, which would be rather roomy — even with the plane — if not littered with spare tools, parts and accessories for the aircraft.

The pungent odor of aviation fuel was pervasive and inescapable.

After inspecting and oiling the engine, Fotzler hooked the front landing wheel to an old riding mower and pushed the airplane out of the hangar.

Once in the open, he conducted a final functional check of all the basic parts — the rudder, propeller and ailerons — while explaining their usage and physics. He then put on his “Young Eagles Flight Leader” baseball hat and declared that it was time to board.

Strapped in tight, aviation headsets on, he taxied to the end of the runway, just some feet away from a cornfield.

Finally in position, the seasoned pilot consulted his 31-point preflight checklist for the last time, affixed an iPad to his right thigh, turned on a navigation app for aviation and flipped on all systems for takeoff.

Momentarily after the wheels started rolling, Fotzler tugged on the control stick and the Skyhawk took flight at 60 mph.

“You’ll get the feel of what it’s like to really fly in a small plane,” Fotzler said once airborne, his voice muffled by the whirring engine.

In between speaking with the air traffic controller at Willard, Fotzler played the role of tour guide as he piloted around C-U, dropping in altitude and speed at times for a finer view of the sights, and pointing out his favorite spots in the county.

It was as if he was showing a new friend the old neighborhood — from 3,000 feet in the sky.

Unlike his Young Eagle rides, which are brief and circle around Tolono and Philo, this trip lasted roughly an hour and covered extensive areas of the county.

Eventually, Fotzler turned back for Day-Aero and landed smoothly at 80 mph.

Soon after touchdown, Fotzler made an entry to his usage diary and conducted a meticulous post-flight ritual to ascertain that everything was in order.

He said it costs him roughly $85 per hour every time he takes someone flying, but that it’s easily worth it.

“If others enjoy it, you enjoy from their enjoyment. It’s just that much more fun,” Fotzler said with a beaming smile. “That’s what it’s all about.”

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Source: The (Champaign) News-Gazette, https://bit.ly/2M0rVN1

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Information from: The News-Gazette, http://www.news-gazette.com

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