An unexpected yet exciting moment happened for Courtney Riley while attending Saturday’s Airplane Ride Day at Freeman Municipal Airport in Seymour.
As the 20-year-old Seymour resident and three of her family members boarded an airplane, she took up Berl Grant’s offer to be his co-pilot.
That allowed her to sit in the passenger seat, put on a headset and see all of the gears go on.
Once they were high above the city, Grant tapped Riley on the shoulder. When she looked at him, he moved his hands back, told her to grab the controller and guided her through flying the plane for part of the nearly 20-minute ride.
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“When he said that, I was in shock, I was crying,” Riley said. “I kind of got emotional because that’s my dream, that’s my passion. It’s a dream come true. I loved it.”
For somebody who has grown up wanting to be a pilot, Riley said it’s a moment she never will forget.
“I’ve rode in commercial airplanes and stuff like that, but I’ve never actually gotten to fly anything,” she said. “I actually asked about the pilot’s lessons out here. They are expensive, so it’s going to be a while until I can actually do that. We were talking to (Grant) about that, and he just said, ‘Take over.’ It was amazing, absolutely amazing.”
This was the second straight year for the Freeman Army Airfield Museum to sponsor Airplane Ride Day. Proceeds from the $20 per person charged for airplane rides benefit the museum, which is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization.
About 150 people took rides during last year’s event, but only three airplanes were available. Event organizer Larry Bothe wound up having seven planes available this year, which was a good thing because attendance grew to 380.
The event was supposed to be from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m., but Bothe said three pilots stayed around until 6:30 p.m. to give people rides.
“We’re here to raise money,” he said.
The Freeman Field Flying Association, a group of local pilots, used to conduct Airport Awareness Day each year on the second weekend of October. Airplane rides were a small part of that large event that drew people to the airport to learn about its history and see planes up close.
That later morphed into Cherry Hill Aviation offering Aviation Day.
Being the curator and former president of the museum, Bothe decided last year to start an event in June solely dedicated to airplane rides that would bring in money for general upkeep.
“It worked last year,” he said. “We weren’t sure it would. That was the first year, but it worked great, so then we said, ‘OK, we just need more airplanes,’ so we did that.”
Mike Jordan, a member of the museum’s board, invited a food truck to set up at this year’s event. The museum also was open for people to tour, and Jordan said twice as many people went through this year.
“It’s a hands-on, feel-good experience,” Jordan said of Airplane Ride Day.
That’s what Riley got out of her visit to the airport.
Ever since she was young, she said she has wanted to be a pilot in the military. Only being 5 feet, 1 inch tall, however, she didn’t meet the minimum height requirement to be in the U.S. Marine Corps.
Now, she’s in the Army Reserve working toward an aviation-related job.
“I’m a little bit of an Army brat,” she said. “My dad was in the military. He lived over in Germany for a while, and I’ve just kind of always had an interest in enlisting. In fifth and sixth grade, they ask you, ‘What do you want to be?’ and everybody is like, ‘Astronaut,’ this, that and the other. I said, ‘I want to be in the military.’
“Just from flying on even commercial airlines, I’ve always had a fascination with the sky and being in the air,” she said. “When I started flying and feeling that feeling, I was like, ‘I want to do that, and I want to be able to fly that and have that feeling and give others that feeling.'”
On Saturday, she was able to share her passion with her family. Fifteen of them paid to take airplane rides, several of them for the first time. Four generations of the family took in the experience.
“It was really fun, and it was really nice. I got to go up there, and I saw them having fun,” Riley said. “This used to be a military base, so you’re bringing awareness to what used to be here and remembering the history here as well as letting everybody experience something that not many people get to experience.”
Riley’s stepmother, Heather Riley, said it was her first time being in a small airplane.
“I’m scared to death of heights, and being in a little plane, I know they are shakier, so I was nervous, but it was amazing,” Heather said. “We were just missing one sister. She had to work, but it was nice to do it as a big family and all of us get to go.”
Heather’s mother, Melody Miles, said it was $20 well-spent.
“It was worth it,” she said. “I would do it again next year.”
Evaleni Pardo and Enrique Gonzalez of Seymour took Aaron Pardo, 8, and Galeny Pardo, 6, to the event.
They planned to spend part of the day at Shields Park Pool but made a last-minute decision to also check out Airplane Ride Day after Evaleni saw it advertised on Facebook.
Gonzalez said he had been in larger planes, but being in a small plane was a new experience. He said the movement of the smaller plane took some adjustment.
For the others, it was their first time flying.
“That was a big opportunity. It was awesome,” Evaleni said. “You can hear nothing when you are up there, but you can see everything.”
Both children said they weren’t nervous about the plane ride.
“We went up, and then we went down. That was my favorite part,” Aaron said.
When asked about riding in a plane again, Galeny said she wasn’t too sure, but Aaron exclaimed, “Yes, yes, yes! Because it was so fun.”
Gonzalez joked he liked it so much he might take an airplane ride every weekend.
He and Evaleni both said they encourage others to check out Airplane Ride Day next year.
“I’d say they need to come and that it’s a unique experience, and they can get the opportunity for some child that has never been in one,” Evaleni said.
“I think it’s very good for the community, and I think it’s a good experience for everybody — most important to the kids,” Gonzalez said.
Bothe, who has logged nearly 8,000 hours in his 44 years of flying, said people’s reactions is what keeps him flying.
“Most people love it,” he said. “Once in a while, we get somebody that doesn’t like it. It’s almost inevitable. Someone thinks they might like it or their friends talked them into it or something, but everybody else is like, ‘Can we go again?’ I just love it when these kids have a smile from ear to ear and their parents are happy.”
Anyone interested in paying to take an airplane ride at Freeman Municipal Airport may call Larry Bothe at 812-521-7400 or Cherry Hill Aviation at 812-322-6762.
Also, the Freeman Army Airfield Museum, 1035 A Ave., Seymour, is available for tours from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. Saturdays or other times by appointment. For information, call 812-521-7400 or visit freemanarmyairfieldmuseum.org.