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Soaring High over the Smokies with pilot -Marc Hightower

With a free Friday afternoon—that almost never happens to me—under a beautiful East Tennessee sky of blue, I headed home for a nap. A long event the night before had exhausted me and when my boss suggested I call it quits at the office an hour before, I took her up on the offer enthusiastically. As I drove, I lamented that I would sleep the rest of such a beautiful day away, but there was little else to do until I could pick up my son from school at three. Today was not a day for sleeping… but what to do?

 Photo Credit: Sky High Air Tours

Gorgeous day, blue skies, perfect East Tennessee weather. My friend Maxwell texted, “What’re you up to?” Normally, of course, I would tell him I was working, or make some sarcastic comment back like, “Reading your interruptive text, brainiac,” but today, I was feeling jovial and free. “I think I’m going flying.” Yep, today was the day… if Marc agreed, and fingers crossed, I texted my friend the pilot. I’ve known Marc Hightower for several years. He’s a friendly face at any of a number of monthly meetings I attend as part of my day job, and I’ve come to know him as a sweet, generous adventurer with a cache of amazing stories and a heart of gold. How many of your friends can claim to have been arrested for piracy? How many winter in Key West? How many hike, and mountain bike, and dive sunken ships with world class photographers? Marc’s stories are not only interesting (and true), but he offers the sort of laid-back, no-fear attitude I aspire to—the kind that warrants doing what you love and everything you feel you must while you still have a chance. I’m betting that Marc Hightower doesn’t have a bucket list—because as he thinks of things he wants to do before the ultimate dirt nap, he does them. This isn’t a guy who has time for making lists.

 Photo Credit: Sky High Air Tours

One of those ultimately cool things Marc did some time ago was to rebuild a 1927 Waco (pronounced “Wah-Co,”) Model 10 Straightwing Biplane. The Model 10 was first introduced in 1927 and of the 1,623 built, only about a dozen still see airtime. The plane is a piece of history, and Marc has done a beautiful job with its restoration. As beautiful as Marc’s pride and joy is, I’m not an airplane girl. My fear of flying goes deep, and I can’t remember a time when I haven’t wondered how something so heavy stays aloft in the sky. I have flown in commercial aircraft when absolutely necessary for work-related ventures, but mostly, I have opted to drive, happy to be in control of the vehicle getting me from Point A to Point B–it’s part of the reason I put off flying with my adventurous friend so long. A plane without a ceiling? Like a convertible in the air? Really? Me? No. I’m good. My phone went off—another text, “Have fun. Don’t crash.” Thanks, Max. Needed that. Marc texted, too: He’d be happy to take me up in the today and was just finishing lunch, could I meet him in an hour? Having made it to my front door about the same time, I chose my attire for the adventure. Jeans, a long sleeved tee shirt, and some old, comfy sneakers. (I assumed, rightly, that flip-flops, my casual footwear of choice, would not be appropriate. So right.) I changed, grabbed a yogurt from the fridge, and headed back to my car… there was just enough time to make it to the tiny airport in my hometown. Located at 134 Air Museum Way, the airport is hidden behind a furniture store and a church, and most people don’t realize it exists. I was greeted with a smile and a hug–Marc in his brown leather bomber jacket looks every bit the pilot. Add a scarf and goggles, and you’ll feel like you’ve met the real Red Baron. Photos taken, and preliminary instructions memorized, I climbed into the front of Marc’s biplane, with a more complete grasp of why it’s his pride and joy. He gave me the low-down on how to communicate with him in the air, and announced the intentions for our flight via Unicom frequency, and we were off.

 Photo Credit: Sky High Air Tours

The ride was exquisite—and I completely forgot that I’m scared of flying. It’s a bit like being in a convertible, only you aren’t, you’re flying low over the gorgeous terrain of Smoky Mountains. Mark pointed out the musts—Dollywood, the rock quarry, the parkway, the Wheel at the Island… and I took in the breathtaking scenery from a whole new vantage point. I always knew I loved these mountains, and now I knew it with an even deeper conviction. There aren’t words for how beautiful the land that’s the backdrop of my everyday life is, and the flight with Marc reminded me of how blessed I am to live in such an exquisite setting. Lush, green trees, the river and its tributaries, lakes, ponds, and all the novelties that are the human interactions with this land, from high above, had me in awe. Then, panic. Silent, mind-blowing panic, because I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for my friend the host, but panic, nonetheless. The panic stemmed from the lack of noise—noise that I had grown accustomed to over the last 15 minutes. Dear God, we’ve lost the engine. I didn’t ask Marc about the lack the noise. Frankly, he didn’t seem panicked and I didn’t really want to know if I was about to die. Surely he would panic? No, of course he wouldn’t panic, he’s the pilot. I hate having such conversations with myself. Remember, I’m a bit air phobic. Turns out, we weren’t crashing. We were landing. The flight had come to an end, and I was a more than a little sad it was actually over… Marc helped me out of the plane and I thanked him, wondering silently again about his bucket list. I was about to mark this particular adventure off mine and I was sincerely grateful for the experience. As I walked through the airport and out to the parking lot, my phone pinged again. Max. “How was it?” The text came in. “Divine.” I replied, “So worth doing.” CONTACT  SKY HIGH AIR TOURS

Todays Bucket List Item: See The Great Smoky Mountains in an Open Cockpit Biplane!

Posted by Sky High Air Tours on Wednesday, August 15, 2012