MARION — Before Jean Hammill got married in 1970, she said to herself she would like to learn how to fly someday. Now at 72, the Marion woman finally has fulfilled her dream of getting a pilot’s license.
And she encourages others, too, to pursue passions that will keep them young at heart.
“I’m adventurous,” she said. “If you’ve got a hankering, go do it if you’re physically able. Flying isn’t physically taxing, no more than driving your car. The hardest part for me is getting in and out of the airplane,” she added with a laugh.
Fewer than 1 percent of people in the United States are licensed to fly an aircraft, according to the Aircraft Owner and Pilots Association. The oldest known pilot in the nation is Ernie Smith from Red Oak, who last flew in December 2018 at age 101, according to WHO-TV.
While there is no minimum or maximum age set for a pilot’s license, the Federal Aviation Administration requires commercial airline pilots to retire at 65. It does not place regulations on recreational or private pilots, other than passing a medical exam every two years instead of every five beginning at 40.
Hammill’s long interest in learning to fly was rekindled on a trip to Anchorage, Ala., where she took a seaplane tour in 2016.
In 2017, she enrolled in P & N Flight and Charter at the Marion Airport to learn how to fly and to fly solo.
At the Marion Airport, most people coming through the flight school are recent high school or college graduates and people in their 20s and 30s, said Jan Walton, certified flight instructor with P & N Flight and Charger and a designated pilot examiner with the FAA.
Getting a pilot’s license requires the completion of ground school and at least 40 hours of flight time. Hammill had 127 hours of flight time before getting hers.
P & N Flight and Charter’s ground school meets once a week for eight weeks. Students learn about the mechanics of a plane, airport markings, weather and navigation.
Students also take flying lessons from an instructor in a rented plane. Hammill estimates she spent $10,000 over two years for her pilot’s license.
Walton is both a friend and a flight instructor to Hammill. Walton first became interested in learning to fly through her late husband, Perry Walton, who was a helicopter pilot with the police department.
The Waltons purchased the Marion Airport in the 1980s and launched P & N Flight and Charter. They grew the flight school from one to 14 planes.
After Perry died, she sold the airport in 2015 — the city now owns part of it — and sold P & N Flight and Charter to Cole Norton in 2016.
But she continues working as an instructor and examiner. Walton said she loves to teach, and the people who sign up for the school want to learn. While learning to fly and continuing the hobby may be expensive for some, Walton asks — what hobby isn’t?
Terrell Brownlee is also a certified flight instructor at P & N Flight and Charter and was a flight instructor to Hammill. He is working toward getting his commercial pilot’s license.
Last Friday, Brownlee flew as co-pilot with Hammill as she practiced flying a new plane.
Most people think the enjoyment of flying comes from looking out the window, he said. But for him, it’s about seeing how soft he can get his takeoffs and landings.
“It’s about one-upping my previous take off and landing,” he said.
Now that Hammill has her pilot’s license, she wants to take a day trip with a few friends to Prairie du Chien, Wis., for a “$100 burger.” The burger itself doesn’t actually cost $100. The cost comes from renting a plane for a 45-minute trip there and back.
“I’m really looking forward to that,” Hammill said.
She also would like to keep her pilot’s license for as long as possible. To do that, she has to do three takeoffs and landings every 90 days and pass a flight review every two years, a test given by a flight instructor that includes flying maneuvers and knowledge of flight rules. She also will have to pass the medical test every two years.
Hammill was under a deadline to get her pilot’s license this summer. Once someone completes flight school, he or she has two years to pass the license exam. For her that meant getting her license by July 1. She beat the deadline on June 26.
A couple things almost derailed her goal: a rainy spring and a total knee replacement in May. She would have given up if it wasn’t for the encouragement of her friends and flight instructors reminding her how close she was to getting her pilot’s license.
“I’m 72, and I just hope people don’t give up,” Hammill said. “You’re sitting in a recliner chair watching TV through the winter months. Get out there and find a passion and go for it. I think it keeps you young.”
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