By Christina Davenport | Photography by Sarah Unger
“Once you have tasted flight, you will forever walk the Earth with your eyes turned skyward, for there you have been, and there you will always long to return.” – Leonardo da Vinci
Although da Vinci wasn’t talking about a trip in a modern-day aircraft, anyone who has experienced the miracle of flight will tell you that his words hold much truth. For those who spend their time soaring in the sky, aviation isn’t just a way to get from one place to another. It’s a way to connect with loved ones, find inner peace, and experience nature’s splendor. Meet the local men who have a passion for piloting.
With a home in Ringgold and one in Stuart, Florida, Steven Sandidge was no stranger to long road trips.
“I am a self-employed professional engineer, and one day I began thinking how nice it would be to be able to get to our place in Stuart more often so I could expand my business in Florida,” he explains.
That one thought was all it took for Steven to jump head-first into his personal journey with aviation. His very first flight in a private plane was in his 1971 Cessna 150L that he bought to train in. Since purchasing it, however, the plane has transformed into much more than just a training aircraft.
“My intention is to customize the plane with a STOL cuff, vortex generators, a new leather interior, carpet, LED wingtips, and an IFR platform. I realize that I am spending a lot of money on a training aircraft, but I intend for it to stay in the family,” says Steven. “I like this aircraft because it’s cheap to operate, and it is a canvas to work with. I want to make it something special and hopefully pass it on to my grandson whom I would love the honor of teaching how to fly.”
While the plane doesn’t have an official name, Steven often refers to it as Lemon Queen because of its yellow and white exterior and the fact that it was once landed in a Californian lemon grove in its early days of service.
Even though flying is something Steven looks forward to sharing with family, it’s also very much a solo endeavor. At the age of 68, he sees aviation as just one of his many retirement hobbies and a way to keep learning and growing.
“I enjoy flying, and my goal is to become the safest pilot I can be by continually training. I would like to someday take some upset and recovery training and acrobatics training,” explains Steven. “One thing I have learned in life is that you are never too old to learn something new or embark on a new adventure. You just have to be willing to take the plunge!”
For Dane Ward, flying is in his blood. With a father who was a lifelong pilot, airport manager, flight instructor, and aircraft technician, it’s no surprise that Ward was drawn to the world of aviation from a young age.
“I began formal instruction as a teenager, and I soloed on my 16th birthday,” says Ward. “Our parents didn’t allow my two brothers and me to drive a car alone until the age of 17, but soloing an airplane at 16 was just fine.”
Even though Ward earned his private aircraft license and instrument rating in the ‘80s, he and his wife Connie just recently purchased their first airplane – a 1972 Cessna Cardinal 177B – two years ago. With the perfect balance of stability and sportiness, the Cardinal makes for a pleasurable ride with plenty of leg and shoulder room and unsurpassed visibility.
When asked about his most memorable flight, Ward recalls flying home one night after having dinner in Athens, Georgia. “The sky was incredibly clear, and it seemed as if we were flying into the Big Dipper,” explains Ward. “On another memorable flight to Panama City, we cruised along in smooth stratus clouds for over two hours. Near our destination, I flew an instrument landing approach and popped out into clear conditions 800 feet above the ground with the runway perfectly lined up in front of us. That sight never ceases to be a thrill.
While arriving at a destination more quickly is an obvious bonus, Ward really loves aviation for the sense of community it provides and how it allows him to bond with his wife in a unique way. Whether it’s fly-in breakfasts, air shows, or quick trips to see friends and family, piloting a plane lets Ward spend quality time with like-minded individuals and those he loves most.
“Airplane ownership and flying is a rewarding hobby that Connie and I enjoy together. We are always on the lookout for fun destinations, and sunset flights over the Georgia and Tennessee mountains have created many romantic memories,” says Ward. “There’s just something about the camaraderie and unique knowledge shared among pilots that is truly special, and the pursuit of becoming a better pilot is a stimulating and never-ending process. Flying offers an opportunity to disconnect and see the world from a different perspective. Any worries of the day immediately take a back seat during flight.”
When Sean Datcher was 7 years old, he took his first flight as an unaccompanied minor to visit an aunt in Ohio. “After I boarded the plane, the pilots invited me to stand in the cockpit. I marveled at the myriad of buttons, controls, and switches. They pointed out numerous instruments, and I was profoundly intrigued,” he says.
When he returned home, his interest was thoroughly piqued. After some research, his interest took on a life of its own and turned quickly into a passion. He began building model planes, and by the age of 12, he was learning to program and run flight simulators. While in college, Datcher began working as a software developer for Continental Airlines.
“After 30 years as a technology professional, I began taking flight lessons. At that time, I had over 3,000 hours logged into flight simulators,” says Datcher. In 2017, he and his wife Zakia purchased their first aircraft – a 1971 Piper Cherokee.
“It’s really the perfect trainer airplane. It is forgiving and economical on gas,” says Datcher. “However, recognizing we needed more space and speed, we purchased a 1981 Piper Saratoga Turbo SP. The Saratoga is referred to by many as the Suburban in the sky, and with six seats, it’s great for cross-country trips. We can fly as high as 20,000 feet, and the turbo allows the engine to perform as if it were at sea level.”
While the Datchers enjoy flying for the shared experience it offers, they also seek out other ways to give back to the aviation community. They are especially interested in young aspiring pilots who may feel as though learning to fly and acquiring their own aircraft is merely a pipe dream.
“We partnered with Azure Flight Services in Cleveland to provide our aircraft for their flight school. Many students have earned their private pilot certificate and instrument rating in our Cherokee,” says Datcher.
In addition to teaming up with the local airport for flight school, the Datchers are also participants in the Angel Flight SOARS program where they transport patients in need of medical care who aren’t able to afford commercial travel.
“Flying forces you to focus, to concentrate, and to push all distractions aside. The mental challenge of planning a flight, executing the plan, communicating with air traffic controllers, and seeing other aircraft in flight is an amazing experience,” says Datcher. “Flying combines my passion for technology and engineering with my desire to share a hobby with my wife, which also satisfies our need for speed and adventure.
When our personal passion is combined with mentoring cadets, providing for the sick, and strengthening relationships with fellow aviators, life becomes very fulfilling.”
For Tony Armour, flying does more than just cultivate skills in decision-making, multitasking, and planning. It’s also a way for him to become immersed in a community of like-minded people. A pilot for 27 years, Armour purchased his latest plane – an experimental Just Aircraft SuperStol – in 2016 and hasn’t looked back since.
Armour notes that his STOL (short takeoff and landing) plane is basically the dirt bike of airplanes. Its large tires and long shocks let the aircraft navigate rough terrain and take hard landings, and owning a STOL affords pilots greater freedom in where their aircraft can take them.
“By flying the SuperStol, I have made some great friends, and we have a local group called the STOL Bandits,” explains Armour. “We frequently fly together and land in fields, cow pastures, and even on some hills. We’ve landed in front yards or beside restaurants and will grab breakfast or lunch as a group.”
While Armour enjoys the camaraderie that comes with being a part of a group, he also likes introducing people to a different type of flying. Armour is constantly on the hunt for new landing locations, and it’s not uncommon for him to touch down when he sees an interested group of people.
When asked about his most memorable flight, Armour recalls his first trip in the SuperStol just after he purchased it. Located in Grand Junction, Colorado, and flying at around 75 mph, it took Armour three nights of camping and four days to get the plane back home, and the trip also marked his first solo flight in a taildragger.
Although Armour will occasionally fly for a one-off business trip, the majority of his trips are taken to help him connect with his loved ones and other aviators.
“My local flying buddies and I have been to STOL competitions as far as Texas and South Florida, and we have participated in many closer to home,” says Armour. “Flying is a lot of fun, and the skills you learn through being in aviation apply to the rest of your life. Whether it’s your personal life or how you run a business, flying can give you a new perspective and help you see things differently.”