ROCKINGHAM — There’s a man making dreams come true at the Richmond County Airport.
Jason Gainey took over the responsibilities at the airport following the retirement of the Haigler Brothers, Doyle and Sam who served the county for 52 and 11 years, respectively, in April. Since then, Gainey, an aviation mechanic and flight instructor, has doubled the amount of winged tenants at the airport and inspired a handful of local teens to pursue a future in aviation.
Aside from the aerial activity at the airport, there is also the task of tending to the roughly 360 acres of grass, which dominated the Haiglers’ time, Gainey explained. It would take more than 56 hours to cut (based on the 5 hours it takes to cut the 32 acre grass runway) and has to be done once a week, according to Gainey.
“All (the Haiglers) did was cut grass,” he said. To avoid, or at least lessen, that burden, Gainey decided to bring in young volunteers to help out. For every 10 hours of work they put in at the airport, they get 45 minutes of flight training and 15 minutes of ground training, all working towards their private pilot certifications.
The volunteers must be between ages 16 and 18, and need approval from their counselor or school principal to participate. The FAA requires that pilots have 40 hours of flight time before they take their tests. Gainey said that it can cost about $9,000 to pay for renting the plane, fuel and paying an instructor for an individual to earn their license elsewhere, a threshold the volunteers wouldn’t be able to meet.
“It’s a blast, man,” Gainey said. “You get to take up children and they get to experience something that they’ve never experienced.”
The course teaches the volunteers about how weather affects their flight, weight and balance management, multi-tasking, “lots” of math on how to calculate fuel burn based on how the wind is blowing, and the differences between flying at the mountains and at the beach, among other subjects.
Shane Chavis, 18, grew up in Biscoe with an airport a mile from his house. He said that all day and night, planes were flying overhead and all he wanted to do was join them.
“Up there there’s nothing to stop you from seeing the world, no stop signs,” Chavis said.
Chavis started volunteering with Gainey at the end of August at the suggestion of his REaCH counselor, and a short time later he went took his first flight, with Gainey in the pilot seat. He’s since been up four times, now piloting himself with Gainey’s guidance. Where at first he “had no idea what was going on,” he said he’s now gotten used to the feeling.
“It’s way more amazing than I imagined,” he said, calling the feeling of being in the air “addicting.” “Without Jason I never would’ve been able to afford (working towards his pilot license).”
Chavis said Gainey makes it easy to learn because of his patience with the inexperienced pilots. Long term, Chavis said he wants to fly in the military. His dream is to fly a P-51 Mustang, the famous World War II fighter plane.
Jerry Austin III, 17, piloted with Gainey for the first time last Friday. It was “rough” at first, nerves were intense, but by the end, he said, “I could do it any day of the week.”
Austin and Gainey followed the Pee Dee River and flew over Austin’s house. He said the hardest part is landing because it’s difficult to get a feel for how far you are from the ground. A senior at Richmond Senior High School, Austin said he doesn’t yet know what he wants to do for a career.
His dad, Jerry Austin II, public works director for Richmond County, wants him to go into aviation, whether commercial or military. Austin said he’s open to those ideas, but another idea is just having a plane, working on the ground, and being able to say, “Hey, I want to fly to the beach this weekend” — and then doing it.
After just two weeks as a volunteer, Austin said he can see himself having a plane as a part of his future, whatever he decides to do for work.
“I’m just going where the wind takes me,” he said.
For inquiries about volunteering with the airport, call 910-997-5071.
Airport lets teens work towards pilot licenses