A couple days back, as I bent to unload the last of a few groceries into the depths of our pantry, I was confronted by one of those unwelcomed reminders that I’m aging— a pulled back. Consumed with the sharp catch in my spine and wincing from the fresh bruise already blushing across my ego, I plunged into the sundry items before me. As I stood and surveyed the damage, that’s when I saw it—the infamous, leftover Halloween candy bowl. Each year, a poor, lonely few scraps of candy are deemed unworthy in the afterglow of their fallen comrades, and, eventually, are swept into some equally under-appreciated Tupperware, only to be forgotten. Slowly, these outcasts retreat into the cereal boxes and canned goods, where they lie in wait. I typically cave at the first sight of these forgotten treasures and cast aside whatever diet I’ve recently sworn to uphold, without a second thought.
Today, however, I paused. My wounds still fresh, I looked back over my childhood and pulled strength from one of my pop-culture icons—Maverick, from “Top Gun”. I was eight years old when “Top Gun” first premiered, and Maverick was my hero. Brooding in the way only bad boys could, I admired his confidence and convinced myself that it was an attribute only airplane pilots were allowed.
Not quite ready to confront the slow but steady progress of time today, I decided to set out on a journey to get my wings and takeoff into the pilot’s life instead.
Serving our State from the skies for almost 20 years, there’s pretty much nothing TWRA Pilot Barbara Shaffer hasn’t seen. From delivering live shipments of wildlife like Florida Bass Fingerlings, Elk, and Eagles, to providing air support on poaching stings, and everything in between, Barbara’s career is the stuff of legends.
Protecting our State is not only a full-time job, it requires a multifaceted approach. While chatting with a regional coordinator here recently, they told me that taking care of this State means TWRA officers are everywhere, doing everything. Seeing Barbara today drove home the truth of that statement—I may not always see TWRA, but chances are ... they see me.
Looking through the plexiglass floor of Barbara’s plane, I saw a whole lot more than just landscape. What has grown into an awe-inspiring skillset and collection of stories, is a series of accomplishments that have been hard won through years of long hours, determination, bravery, and dedication. It seems overwhelming to even consider following in the footsteps of someone like Barbara, but I know that if I have any hope of lifting off and logging hours, I need to start small scale. And I’m thinking 1:48 or 1:32 should probably do it?
Model Aviation Day:
For some, it may be easy to assume that “model airplane” means “miniaturized experience”, but that couldn’t be more wrong. While these planes are small scale, I assure you that you’ll be anything but shortchanged. In fact, each August, enthusiasts all over the country congregate to celebrate the sensation that is model aviation, seeing sizes and shapes that range from 1:400 scale World War II replicas to modern-day drones and every dazzling derivative in between.
To top it all off, the members of the Coffee County Airfoilers pride themselves on passing on their piloting pastime. This means offering a whole lot more than just a fun way to spend an August afternoon. By providing a selection of simulators and test planes, these experts are equipping anyone who’s interested with an opportunity to try out the sport and see if it’s for them, all before ever shelling out a single dollar on gear and equipment.
The thing about “Top Gun” that always got me, wasn’t the flashy attitude or the smooth maneuvers, it was the fact that these characters were fighting to protect something. It may sound cliché, but looking out over the airfield this afternoon, I see that these Airfoilers are doing just that—protecting a heritage that is becoming harder and harder to find.
The group that gathered here today spanned all generations, with families and friends of all shapes and sizes showing up to take part in the fun. Together, this crew painted the clouds with their camaraderie and creativity, and, as the afternoon drew to a close, I realized that we’d filled the skies with as much laughter as we had liftoffs.
Small Aircraft Aerobatics:
Up to this point, I’ve realized that getting up into the air, and then staying there, are two very different things. While most of us would be hard pressed to stifle a smile while soaring through the skies, there’s always that fear in the back of your mind of what lies below. What happens when a flight plan goes off course, and how do you steer clear of the Danger Zone?
In case you’re confused, that wasn’t an optical illusion—our prop stopped. On purpose.
Catching up with Catherine today was truly life changing. Unlike any other adventure we’ve ever taken, she taught me that staying safe and lifting your spirits can both fit neatly in your overhead storage compartments.
Flyaway Indoor Skydiving:
It’s so easy to fear what’s on the other side of the familiar. And when the familiar in question is the door of your aircraft, understanding what lies on the other side seems … unwise. Still, as I prepared for my class with Catherine, she kept reminding me of the safety parachute I’d be wearing during the flight … as though the thought of having a chute queued up and ready, should things not go as planned, would put my mind at ease.
Luckily, the crew and I live within arm’s reach of a certain Forge, filled with fun attractions for every age, including those who want a taste of stepping outside a plane. And to stay within the tradition of starting small, I don’t even have to snap on a chute—just a suit.
To be clear, Indoor Skydiving sent me soaring, and I could’ve just stopped there. But that wouldn’t have been very … Uncharted, now would it?
Of the many things that are constant in this world, I’ve found confidence isn’t one of them. And while I started the day on cloud nine, assured my enthusiasm would see me through the experience, reading the release on what can happen on the way down from cloud nine got me feeling a little less certain. Luckily, my Producer and Cameraman were willing to join me, and as we gained altitude, I found my gumption gaining as well.
One by one they made the leap, leaving the plane until only my tandem instructor and I remained. This was it, the defining moment we’d been climbing towards. So with a deep breath and a quick prayer, I stepped to edge and thought, “goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!”
You may have noticed, time after time on this episode, I told our instructors the experience we’d just had was at the top of my list. And, each time it was true. The truth of the matter is that getting on top of Tennessee and seeing her from the sky really is about as good as it gets. You can appreciate the wide open spaces we’re so lucky to have held onto, while also seeing the sobering realities that threaten to change this State forever.
There are quite a few enemies at our gates these days, from urban sprawl and unsustainability to poaching and a penchant to get lost in our phones, rather than our State parks. But rather than fear what lies over the edge, and sit paralyzed by the possibilities, the face of our future depends on whether we’re prepared to fight back. There are those who already do; a select few who watch over us day and night. Their days are often long, their tasks thankless. But the more time I spend sitting alongside these selfless saviors, the more I realize what an honor it would be to join their ranks. While I may have gotten my wings this episode, I won’t be offering air support to Barbara anytime soon. I can, however, be a steward in my own way. It may be a contribution to conservation, setting up a bat box rather than burning citronella, or even just getting my little girl outside. Ultimately, though, it seems only right to live a life where folks like Barbara can turn to me and say, “You can be my wingman anytime.”