Taking flight over Lake Leelanau in 10 minutes or less
I ducked the wing of the 1953 “Super Cub” as it pulled away from the dock for the day’s first introductory flight lesson at Fountain Point Resort.
Northwestern Michigan College’s bumble-bee yellow floatplane navigated south on Lake Leelanau before turning to face north, preparing for take off. Its engine roared and the pontoons plowed through the water. Suddenly the specially designed floats rose and the plane pitched upward. In a matter of minutes all that remained of the two passenger aircraft was the distant propeller hum.
I patiently awaited its return and NMC’s aviation enrollment specialist Al Laursen prepped me for what would be my first experience operating an airplane.
I’d leave the take off and landing, as well as instrument reading to Australian pilot Cameron Kerr, an instructor in NMC’s aviation department.
The flight lesson offered to guests at Fountain Point is a tool used by NMC to spread awareness about its flight program.
“All aviation isn’t just getting on an airliner and going somewhere,” Laursen said. “There are a lot of interesting and fun things to do in aviation as a recreation and as a vocation.
The college’s target audience for the lesson is kids, though Fountain Point guests of all ages are welcome to participate. It’s their goal to provide a hands-on experience that will get propellers spinning and create a future interest in aviation classes. To maximize the impact and retain proper safety standards, the lesson is generally offered to kids no younger than ten.
According to Laursen, the minimum age can vary with each individual.
“We want to make sure they’re capable of understanding safety precautions and will take something from the lesson away with them,” he said.
The returning “Super Cub” could be heard before it came back into sight. The two pontoons touched the water gracefully and the plane was piloted back slowly. Seventeen-year-old Diondre Britton, a member of the Aviation Explorers post in Traverse City helped hold the aircraft against the dock, allowing both passengers to exit safely.
Jacob Benoit, of Richmond, Mich., hopped out enthusiastically and instantly shared his experience with his dad.
“My favorite part was flying the plane by myself,” the 13-year old said. “And talking through the headset, going fast and the landing.”
Just how fast would I be traveling?
“About 120 mile per hour,” Laursen said.
A few more kids went up before me, each returning with enthusiastic smiles and lengthy explanations of what they did. Britton finally called my name and I stepped up to the plane and greeted my pilot. Kerr helped me adjust the straps of the life vest and ran down emergency procedures.
Once out in the lake, we prepared for take off and Kerr throttled forward. I felt the aircraft lift out of the water and Leelanau County seemed to fall away from us.
Kerr pitched the plane left and right quickly, showing off slightly for a pontoon boat below.
“Have you ever flown before?” he asked through the headset.
“Not other than commercial,” my voiced echoed back as I said it.
He circled us over Leland, providing a photo opportunity before relinquishing the controls to me. I was a little nervous as I took hold of the yoke, or control system, located between my legs.
“Place your feet on the two pedals,” Kerr directed. “Those are rudder pedals and pushing down on either one of those aids in turning the plane.
“The stick will pitch the plane left or right. Pull it toward you to increase altitude or push it forward to decrease altitude.”
I felt the plane change direction slightly with each nudge. I never felt out of control however, and Kerr allowed me to adjust my mistakes before offering assistance. He also warned me when I started to gain or lose altitude.
“Watch your pitch attitude,” he said. “You want to keep the nose of the plane about level with the horizon.”
We flew over along the shoreline and over Suttons Bay before heading back to Lake Leelanau. As we came over the water, Kerr took back control of the aircraft for landing.
The entire flight may not have lasted much more than 10 minutes, but the experience left an impression. Combining the views of Leelanau County with an informative introductory course kept my head in the clouds long after my feet were firmly back on the dock.
It’s that feeling that Fountain Point owner and seaplane pilot Erik Zehender hopes sticks with the kids that participate in the lesson.
“If every kid could at least get an introductory lesson, suddenly science and math become real,” he said. “Even just operating the stick and rudder for a few minutes. It revolutionizes the mind of a young person.
“It’s an amazing experience to see the county from the air.”
Not only could I see looks of amazement on the faces that exited the plane, I experienced it myself. What I learned from the NMC staff has remained with me and images of the county below continue to land unexpectedly.
Driving a car just isn’t quite the same.