“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
By Christina Cannon / Photography by Sarah Unger
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 men who have a passion for piloting and know what it’s like to be flying high.
For Chuck Keef, a passion for aviation is in his blood. Keef’s father owned and piloted a plane, so jet-setting was never out of the ordinary for him as a child. When he enlisted in the Army in 1978, what was once a fun Saturday afternoon activity influenced his career. Keef was assigned to the 1/17th air cavalry of the 82nd airborne, where he served as a paratrooper and aircraft mechanic.
Even after leaving the military and transitioning into a role with the Chattanooga Police Department, Keef remained immersed in flight. “I became friends with the pilot for the department, and that’s when I decided to get my pilot’s license,” explains Keef.
The first plane he purchased was a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, but as his skills as a pilot grew, so too did his desire for a more advanced aircraft. After a stint owning a Beechcraft Bonanza, Keef purchased an Aero Commander 500, followed by a Maule M-5 taildragger. He loved his first Aero Commander so much that he eventually sold his Maule M-5 to pay for a 680F.
“I love flying because it gives me the sense of accomplishment that I am able to fly high-performance, complex aircraft,” explains Keef. “Both of my Aero Commanders are very stable twin-engine aircraft, and due to their size and weight, they handle turbulence well and give a great, smooth ride.”
When looking back on all the memorable flights he’s taken, Keef recalls one that sticks out in particular. Just after the turn of the century, Keef, along with an air center employee, was taking off from the Chattanooga Metropolitan Airport when the plane was struck by what was thought to be a bullet while climbing to altitude.
Even though Keef left the incident with some scratches from flying Plexiglas, it had no impact on his willingness to take to the sky.
“Flying really has an impact on me and my family. It’s a great bonding activity, and it allows us to take more weekend vacations together,” says Keef. “I’ve also met some of the most interesting and entertaining people I’ve known from the world of aviation, and there’s just something about that view from the front left seat.”
When Roddy Noll and one of his friends decided to take a glider ride one afternoon, he never thought it would propel him into a new hobby. After entertaining the thought of pursuing piloting, Noll took the plunge and acquired his glider license within a matter of months.
Three years later, Noll was the proud owner of a Piper J-3 Cub, which he later sold to fund his next adventure: rebuilding a Citabria and later building a biplane from scratch.
“At the time, I just had to have a biplane, and building it myself was the only way I could afford one,” says Noll. “It took me seven years to build, but I learned a lot, and the Federal Aviation Administration agreed to consider that experience to help me get an Airframe & Powerplant (A&P) mechanics license.”
In 1990, Noll traded his biplane for a Navion that he still owns to this day. Manufactured by military contractor North American Aviation, Noll’s Navion is approaching its 73rd year of service.
“The biplane was a blast to fly, but after two years, I wanted to get a ‘go somewhere in’ airplane and put the biplane up for sale. A guy in Mississippi responded to the ad and flew up to see it in the Navion,” explains Noll. “I ended up trading him the biplane for the Navion. He had only owned the Navion for a few years, and although his ownership was short, I’m only the third owner.”
Nicknamed “Old Dog” because that’s exactly what it is, according to Noll, the Navion is especially skilled at landing and taking off from short grass fields. It is also a fast cross-country machine, but Noll primarily stays close to home, frequenting places throughout the Southeast as well as the Bahamas.
“Being able to fly has afforded my wife Terri and me so many amazing adventures,” says Noll. “The beauty you’re able to take in from the sky is indescribable, and aviation helps you make quality connections and friends. There is also something gratifying about the challenge of flying an aircraft and being able to execute that.”
Aviation was not something Damon Riggs grew up around. Instead, it was something he dreamed of as a kid.
“I suppose the desire to fly was further influenced by my training and first career as an engineer,” explains Riggs. “Engineers love processes and checklists, both of which are big parts of flying.”
Riggs turned his dream into a reality and obtained his license in 1998, but with two young daughters, the time and expense of flying didn’t fit into his family’s day-to-day life. After 18 years of putting planes on the back burner, Riggs decided to once again pick up flying – a decision that has allowed him to spend more quality time with his loved ones.
“I’ve been privileged to be the pilot of the first airplane flight for a few people. To see someone on their first flight and grinning from ear to ear is a great feeling.”
“After a year and a half of knocking the rust off, so to speak, I was fortunate to be in the position to purchase my own plane,” says Riggs. That plane was a 1973 Beechcraft Bonanza that Riggs still flies regularly and fell in love with in part due to its V tail. Named Bo, which is short for Bonanza, Riggs’ aircraft is known for its docile but responsive control. He also notes that it has a remarkable cruise speed, and the size suits his family perfectly well.
In addition to using the plane to regularly visit family who’s anywhere from two to four hours away by car, Riggs also enjoys flying around people who have never been in a small aircraft before.
“I’ve been privileged to be the pilot of the first airplane flight for a few people – what a joy and responsibility,” says Riggs. “Many people get anxious about flying in small planes, especially the first time. Part of the challenge I enjoy is making them feel comfortable and confident. To see someone on their first flight and grinning from ear to ear is a great feeling.”
Riggs also uses flying as a way to set aside any of life’s everyday stressors and notes that piloting a plane requires a lot of focus and attention to detail. Combine that with the beautiful mountains, ridges, and valleys that run through this part of the country, and a Sunday afternoon flight is a relaxing albeit engaging activity.
“Flying is a mental exercise,” says Riggs. “The cockpit is one of the few places I can set aside everything else going on in my life for an hour or two. I never get any pushback from family or friends for not engaging in solving life’s problems while I’m flying.”
Ever since James Howard was a little boy, he has been fascinated with flight.
“I remember camping when I was a teenager and looking up to see a sailplane flying overhead,” says Howard. “I asked my dad where they came from, and he told me it was the Chilhowee Gliderport. The very next weekend, he drove me to the very same gliderport for my first lesson.”
After that first flight lesson, Howard was hooked and spent every spare minute he had mowing lawns and taking on other odd jobs so that he could raise money to fly. Add to that the fact that flying at an early age differentiated Howard from his peers, and there was no turning back.
“To be totally transparent, I didn’t make the best grades in school, and I felt like aviation set me apart from other students. Aviation made me feel special as a kid,” says Howard. “When you fly, the skies are yours, and you can fly anywhere in the world.”
Over the years, Howard has co-owned everything from a Piper Cherokee 140 and Cessna 172 to a Schweizer SGS-2-33, and each of them has sported the name Glamorous Christy. The name draws inspiration both from his wife Christy, as well as one of Howard’s all-time heroes, Chuck Yeager, whose Bell X1 was named Glamorous Glennis.
Naming his aircraft after his wife isn’t the only way Howard’s passion for aviation seeps into his relationships. He also proposed to Christy under the wing of a plane and notes that flying is rarely a solo endeavor. Instead, Howard uses his piloting skills as a way to bond with family and friends and expose first-time flyers to the sensation you can only get from soaring through the sky in a small aircraft.
Howard also uses his ability to pilot a plane for good and has set numerous flight records to benefit the likes of Children’s Hospital at Erlanger and the Epilepsy Foundation of Southeast Tennessee.
“My daughter and I even flew to Missouri once to rescue an injured crow named Oli Kai, who is now an ambassador at Reflection Riding Arboretum & Nature Center,” says Howard. “Regardless of whether the flight is for business, pleasure, or something in between, there’s nothing like hopping in an airplane when the air is cool and crisp, and you can take off just before the sun breaks over the horizon.”
Growing up, every time Rob Renner was outside and would hear a plane, he would stop whatever it was he was doing and watch in amazement.
“I’m sure there were those who thought I was intense for always looking up when I’d hear an aircraft,” says Renner. “I’ve just always been in awe.”
Fast forward to 1986, and Renner had just embarked on his aviation journey. After getting his pilot’s license, Renner purchased a Bellanca Super Viking that he would use for business trips.
“I own and manage some properties out of town, so I really got into it for business,” explains Renner. “But it wasn’t long before I found out it was much more enjoyable to fly for fun.”
After flying the Bellanca for a number of years, Renner made the switch to a Cirrus SR22 and has been very pleased with his decision. His Cirrus is outfitted with a parachute, and Renner notes that if any of his passengers are ever concerned about safety, he’ll point them to a few videos.
“They typically come back in awe and feeling very safe and comfortable about the flight,” he says. “I’ve also updated it with touch screens and ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance-Broadcast). I believe it’s about as safe as you can get when it comes to flying.”
In addition to his business trips, Renner also loves the quality time flying allows him to spend with his son. The duo has traveled to visit everything from Utah’s Mighty 5 to the Thunderball Grotto in the Bahamas, which gets its moniker from the James Bond film by the same name.
“After we visited those five national parks in Utah, we flew into the Grand Canyon, and that’s a trip that neither one of us will forget,” says Renner. “We’ve gone swimming with pigs and seen the pink sands of Eleuthera and the area where the gray Atlantic waters meet the rich blue waters of the Caribbean. We’ve seen so much of North America, and life would indeed be very dull without my Cirrus.”