The View From Above
Reporter Takes To The Sky For Bird’s-Eye Vantage Of Valley
The dipstick’s checked, the gas tank’s full and the ropes untied.
Nathan Krobath, the 25-year-old owner of Blue Ridge Aviation and Charlottesville Flight School, turned the engine over twice before we crawled down the pavement, toeing a yellow line straight toward Massanutten. We put on radio sets with puffy headphones — the thunking propeller muffled outside, voices reading weather and radio droning inside.
Forty, 90, 130 mph. Pull back on the wheel, feel the air resist, keep tipping the nose up and ... hold steady.
I gasped sharply as the ground fell away. The rubber band of relative perspective snapped a few hundred feet above the trees, and here, it zoomed out to view a quilt of crops and trees stitched together by roads. Leveling off around 2,000 feet, we bumped through the sky as though it was lined with soft, sporadic patches of foam — the air rushing up from the hot pavement and across the mountains nudged the single-engine plane’s belly and flaps, and Nathan adjusted accordingly. Every tiny dip felt to me like a half-second free fall, but he was not fazed.
My eyes stayed glued on the altimeter’s cartoon wings balancing on the horizon — one of the few gauges I can understand without explanation, and one that kept us from doing what I imagine would be the worst barrel roll ever.
I’m gripping the yoke like a toddler who thinks she’s steering a carnival ride: not really controlling anything, but not sure enough to test that theory and let go.
Minutes prior, Krobath stood counting out the T-shirt tails pinned to the wall of his office. He and his staff have graduated more than two dozen students in the last two years; when they complete their pilot’s certification training, students follow an old-timer’s tradition of snipping off the back of their shirt and pinning it to the wall.
Their names and solo dates are scrawled on each with markers. Several had their sights on mission work, some are local high school students, hobbyists, businessmen or commercial hopefuls.
“We get Joe Blow coming in from the farm, who just wants to see what it’s like ... 14-year-old students to 80 ... it’s such a range, and each one’s a little different,” Krobath explained.
If he ever needs a lawyer, dentist or physical therapist, he’s met a few of those, too: two of whom are Bill and Colleen Whiteford, also of New Market. Bill’s shirt tail reads, “29 years in the making.”
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Growing up, Bill Whiteford watched the airplanes take off and land four miles from his North Carolina home with a growing curiosity. In 1971, at age 19, he earned his pilot’s certification, but work and family soon diverted his energy elsewhere.
Four years ago, with his daughters now grown and family scattered several states away, he looked to return to the skies and found Blue Ridge Aviation.
Mid-flight, Nathan recalled, Bill said to him, “This is what it’s all about.”
“It’s very freeing,” Bill said. “It gives you a freedom and ability to go, in this country anyway, and do something you’re not ordinarily capable of doing.”
Colleen also earned her wings in a “pinch-hitter” course, so that in case of an emergency, she can land the plane, “maybe not as nice as we would like, but she could land it,” Nathan added.
Now, the Whitefords are frequent flyers to the Carolinas and Michigan to visit family. After a 29-year hiatus, flying still leaves them breathless. Breaking through clouds with a full moon on one side and lightning illuminating the sky on the other remains one of their favorite memories.
“Where else could you ever experience that?” Bill said. “When you’re flying, there’s a saying: There’s always a sunrise.”
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But on a different day, breaking through haze took a dive. During a Christmastime visit to see his mother, Bill and Colleen broke through clouds at 7,000 feet on a crisp Saturday morning. Bill looked at his wife and said, “Wow, it never ceases to amaze me to see a beautiful sunrise like this.”
As the words formed in his headset, smoke began pouring out from under the dashboard, into the cabin. Fires, he says, are a pilot’s worst nightmare.
You’ll die for sure if you don’t fly the plane first, Bill said, maintaining that he wasn’t scared, but only a little surprised.
It’s well known that flying is safer than driving, but when big tragedies in aviation occur — such as the Asiana Airline plane crash in San Francisco earlier this month — they tend to make national headlines faster than a higher casualty 10-car pileup.
The Whitefords took a smoke-lined breath, called air traffic control and landed fast in Farmville, uncovering a malfunctioning heater in the nose cone. “If you get excited, you gotta fly that airplane,” Bill said.
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Looking at the Valley from above is breathtaking and incredibly disorienting. Paths I’d tred often looked completely different from above. “To see things from a bird’s-eye view is absolutely awesome,” as Bill put it.
I laughed nervously at the sight of downtown Harrisonburg below: Court Square the size of a postage stamp, the courthouse tower a mothy green fleck in the middle.
On the introductory flight, Nathan and I flew the 30 miles from Weyers Cave to Harrisonburg in about 10 minutes — proving the push behind many of Blue Ridge Aviation’s clients: travel.
The Krobaths fly from Shenandoah Regional to Florida in about five hours, never having to stand in an airport security line while shoes get X-rayed, or wondering if the pilot is competent. He’d prefer to have control of his own plane, than leave it up to someone else.
Landing was less intimidating than taking off. We tipped the plane in a pattern parallel to the runway, looking left at a steep angle and slowly banked around to face the tarmac.
This part, I wouldn’t even pretend to be able to do — I could barely tell the difference between air and road — and I told Nathan as much. “Well, thanks,” he said.
I took the headset off and fumbled for my notebook. After one intro flight, this student was so excited she forgot to step down out of the plane and fell out. This is old hat to him, but the joy Nathan finds in taking folks on their first flight is evident.
Flight doesn’t run in his family, but teaching others to get off the ground has become his passion.
“Nate is an awesome guy,” Bill bragged of his friend and instructor. “He’s in his mid-20s and made a career out of flying ... it is to be appreciated what he’s done to bring flying to our community.”
One thing he’s learned, Nathan says, is that you can talk almost any maverick down to Earth — or up into the air. “The big thing ... is just trying to help people’s dreams come true.”