By Debi Lander
Old style leather flying helmet on my head, goggles over my eyes, and a scarf wrapped around my neck: I’m ready to take flight, feeling like Amelia Earhart and those 1920s barnstormers. Actually, I am ready for my photo op. Pilot Marc Hightower at Sky High Air Tours, based in Sevierville’s Gatlinburg Pigeon Forge Regional Airport, snaps my pic.
Then he says, “If you’d like you can take off the helmet and let the wind blow through my hair.” I do.
Marc instructs me about the biplane and plans for a circuitous flight over historic Sevierville, Pigeon Forge and the edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. I anxiously sit in the 1927 Model 10 WACO Straight Wing biplane waiting for the miracle of flight. Marc took three-and-a-half years to rebuild the aircraft, his baby, and the engine was fully overhauled. I am more reassured knowing that he has been flying visitors in this area for the past seven years.
Headphones allow me to hear the control tower and communicate with the pilot. Air traffic controllers clear us for takeoff and this flying machine lifts with ease on its feather-light fabric covered wings. To me, aeronautics remains a mystery, but I am tingling with glee as we ascend. I don’t just feel the breeze blowing through my hair; I feel the wind beneath my wings.
Marc’s voice comes through the headphones, muted yet comforting. He points out areas of interest: “There’s the clock tower on the courthouse in downtown Sevierville.” The spot has become an Instagram icon, beckoning people from all over the world to pose in front of the bronze statue of Dolly Parton. Dolly’s considered Sevierville’s favorite daughter, pretty much responsible for tourism and thousands of jobs in the region. She funds a reading program for preschoolers and contributed millions to nearby Gatlinburg residents who lost their homes in the 2017 wildfires.
The struts or wing supports partially obstruct my view, but I’m feeling the glorious freedom and connection with the sky, remarkably different from sitting in a pressurized cabin of a jet. We fly like birds, low and slow about 1,200 feet and 90 miles per hour. I spy the sprawling Wilderness in the Smokies Resort, the hotel’s water park easily identifiable and many cabins available for rent. We pass over the upscale Tangier Outlet Mall that attracts thousands of happy shoppers.
Taking photos becomes a challenge, but I want to document the experience. When you twist your upper body to the side, a sharp blast of air hits you. Whoa! Be sure to put the camera strap around your neck and restrain your sunglasses. Slowly, the plane circles around mist that looks like smoke rising from the mountains — the reason they were named the Smoky Mountains. Then, I get a head-on peek at Dollywood and the amusement rides. A family can have some serious fun in Sevierville.
I want to linger, but introductory biplane rides only last about 20 minutes. We fly lower as we head back toward the airport. Before long we descend and roll down the runway. My open cockpit ride is over way too soon, but I was literally blown away with my step back to the Golden Age of Aviation. Like Charles A. Lindbergh said, “Sometimes, flying feels too godlike to be attained by man. Sometimes, the world from above seems too beautiful, too wonderful, too distant for human eyes to see.” I must agree.
Visit www.skyhighairtours.com for more information.
Visit www.bylandersea.com to read more of local travel writer Debi Lander’s stories and travel tips.
Photo courtesy Debi Lander
The author at her photo shoot before the biplane ride.