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Sky High

The most important thing that pilot Jim Keller said during his safety demonstration Tuesday at Peter O’Knight Airport on Davis Island had nothing to do with seatbelts or intercoms. Instead, it was his answer to the simple question of whether or not he enjoys his job.

I asked him this as we stood on the tarmac, about to take to the skies above Tampa as part of a media promotion by Red Baron Squadron. Keller is one of its pilots in town for the Gasparilla Festival, during which they will perform flyovers during the invasion and the children’s parade.

Keller said he was working as an accountant in Canton, Ohio three years ago when a friend of his convinced him to take flying lessons.

“I didn’t want to at first,” Keller said of his flying career. “I told him that every time I open a newspaper, there’s some story about someone trying to drill a new hole in the ground. I told him I didn’t want to be part of that club.”

Once he started, though, he couldn’t stop, so he decided to join the Red Baron. Now he travels all over the country performing in promotional shows for the company.

Keller said he hasn’t regretted the decision for even a second.

“I make half the money but see 100 times more smiles,” Keller said.

His statement stuck in my head as he revved the engine of the Boeing A-75, an open cockpit bi-plane. I could definitely relate to Keller’s feelings about flying – it’s been my dream since I was very small. But the truth is everyone has a dream they think about as they toil away at their nine-to-five, bussing tables or making copies. Too often, I guess, those dreams are never realized.

As the engine rumbled and the propeller turned, I felt instantly relaxed knowing the man behind me who would be controlling this lightweight aircraft wasn’t flying for a living, he was flying because it’s what he loves.

I closed my eyes as the plane taxied down the runway, ahead of four other planes making up the formation. In just a few seconds Keller and I were hundreds of feet above Tampa, looking down at the airport, highways and water.

As we climbed higher and higher I felt every little thing that causes worry on the ground just melt into nothing. Keller and I were getting so far away from regular life that I couldn’t have identified Cooper Hall, where my Spanish test caused me so much grief, even if I had tried. I couldn’t even point in the direction of my house, where my brother and I fought last week. All there was at 2,000 feet was cold air and clouds.

Keller decided to have some fun about 10 minutes into the flight. He did a few loops and turned a couple of barrel rolls. Then, he did something I later learned is called a hammerhead. It involves putting the plane at a 90 degree angle to the ground and then letting it free fall.

The pressure in the cockpit during those acrobatics was tremendous, but when the plane turned upside down, and the pressure let off, it was absolutely incredible. My first reaction, similar to when I’m on a roller coaster, was to hold on until my knuckles turned white. The fun only began, though, when I learned to let go.

Once I established trust in the seatbelts, the flight was nothing but exhilarating. There is not a word that could describe the feeling of raising my head and seeing the ground.

Over the intercom Keller checked to make sure I was feeling OK and to see if I wanted to do a few more tricks. I think he knew my answer by the huge smile on my face, which he could see in a small mirror hanging above the cockpit. We took a dive into another loop.

As the flight drew to an end, I felt a surge of disappointment. I was home again, where commitments and deadlines and conflicts weigh me down-weigh us all down. Still, that feeling of being free, of being able to just fly away from problems, lasted with me the rest of the day.

I really wish that feeling could somehow be bottled and distributed because we all need to feel it every once in a while. We all should have the courage to do as Keller did and give up a well-paying, stable, respectable job for something that may seem outrageous or risky but will make us happy. We all need to be reminded occasionally that our everyday lives are only small part of who we really are. Finding our true happiness and living our dreams is what really matters.

Keller landed the plane, helped me down to the cockpit and wished me good luck in school and with becoming a pilot myself. As we walked across the tarmac to the airport, he told me to remind The Oracle readers of one thing. He said oftentimes college students change their majors two or three times but, that it really didn’t matter. What matters is finding happiness and when we do, embracing it.

Watching Keller in his red jumpsuit, sipping a cola and joking with his fellow aviators, I knew it was something I wouldn’t forget and something we should all remember.

  • Contact Rachel Pleasant at