The small white-and-blue plane picked up speed as it raced down the runway Wednesday at Jefferson City Memorial Airport, lifting lightly into the air as it set off toward Lee's Summit. Houses, roads, fields and trees rolled by underneath, becoming smaller and smaller as the plane picked up height, reaching 8,000 feet.
Jon Welker sat on the right side of the plane, his hands rested on the control yolk as he steered the plane westward toward the Kansas City metropolitan area. He spoke into his headset, turning his head slightly to his left to look at his flight instructor, Scott McDonald.
Welker, a Boone County resident, has been taking flying lessons from McDonald, chief flight instructor at Jefferson City Memorial Airport, for about a year. He started learning to fly seven years ago but had to put it on hold. It wasn't until a couple of years ago, though, he started flying again.
"It's a privilege because not very many people get to fly and experience being up in the air and that perspective," Welker said. "In business, there's a lot of things and distractions you have to deal with; but when you're flying, that's all you can do is fly. I mean, it takes everything you have, and you can't think about this customer problem. For me, that's the fun of it."
Welker is a co-founder of Agent Clean, a service-based company and franchise system that focuses on exterior cleaning, as well as the owner of Agent Clean of Mid-Missouri. He said he wants to use his pilot license to expand his business. Instead of driving several hours to different cities, Welker could fly there and back in a shorter period of time, giving him more time to spend with his wife and four children, who he takes flying occasionally.
Earlier this month, Jefferson City's Airport Advisory Committee discussed ways to encourage locals to take flight instruction classes. The airport has been offering lessons for decades, but most of the community is unaware of the opportunity, committee member Grant Shorthose said.
People can earn a private pilot license, instrument rating on a pilot license and a commercial pilot license. Welker currently has his private pilot license and an instrument rating on that license. He now is working toward a commercial license.
After he receives his commercial license, Welker hopes to be a flight instructor so he can gain experience and earn money; someone with a commercial pilot license can charge for flight services. He said his backup career plan is to become a pilot.
McDonald said a private pilot license could cost approximately $7,000, and expenses for a commercial license or an instrument rating on a license can vary.
Participants must be 17 years old to earn a private pilot license. People have to be at least 16 years old to fly an airplane solo, but Shorthose said people could start learning to fly even before they are 16.
With the aviation industry in need of pilots, Shorthose said, offering flight instructions could provide a possible career path.
"A lot of people look at (becoming a pilot) as an amazing accomplishment, a career path that only a few can do, and it's actually just really the opposite — almost anybody can do it," Shorthose said. "The average person can go out and become a pilot. And the average person can take those skill sets and go into the industry and in a matter of years, they're flying airlines all over the world. It's an amazing thing for a young person in Jefferson City, Missouri, within 10 years of graduating high school could be flying a jumbo jet in Asia."
The four-seater Piper Warrior passed through a white cloud, bumping slightly. Last year, that turbulence would have bothered Welker, but McDonald had him practice last winter to get him more comfortable with the bumps.
"I just didn't know what the airplane was capable of, so I would start thinking the wings were going to fall off when we would hit a bump. You start realizing that there's nothing between you and down there than you, and you start to panic. You have to walk yourself through that — so it was just a mental hurdle," Welker said. "So Scott and I went up a lot during the winter and that really helped, just getting bumped around and getting used to it and realizing it's no big deal."
McDonald said a common hurdle new pilots have to overcome is getting used to the bumps.
"When you're driving down the road and hit a speed bump, it's normal. When you're on the lake and you hit a wake from another boat, it's no big thing. But when you're in an airplane, people just don't see it the same because they can't see it; they can't see where these bumps are coming from or what's causing it," he said. "But just trust your instructor and know that they're not going to put you in a situation that's going to hurt you. It's a learning experience, and you have to get used to the bumps."
Welker took flying lessons at another airport before coming to Jefferson City Memorial Airport, and he likes the structure of the lessons. He had to take written tests and experience several hours of flight training.
There are goals Welker has to reach during each lesson. On Wednesday, he had to fly more than 100 nautical miles — a unit used to measure distances at sea — for at least two hours, and his next lesson will be flying at night.
Welker and McDonald agreed one of the interesting parts about being a pilot is the ability to travel.
"I could be doing flight instruction one day, but tomorrow, I could be flying to South Carolina or California and be back for dinner," McDonald said. "It's the coolest job ever because I literally fly an airplane."
Before taking flight instruction, though, Welker and McDonald recommended people take the introductory flight, a 20-30 minute flight where an instructor lets people get a taste of what's involved in a lesson. Introductory flights cost $100.
When people first start taking flying lessons, McDonald said, the best advice he can give them is to not give up.
"We have a lot of people who come and say, 'Oh, this is hard or different,' or, 'I don't know if I can do this,'" McDonald said. "People get frustrated, and they give up. It's hard, which is why not a lot of people do it, but there's no reason someone can't do it. Anyone can do it. You just have to put in the time and the effort and have to want it."