Thursday, February 26, 2004

BOUND FOR THE SKY


Lebanon man flies to connect with his sons

By John Johnston
The Cincinnati Enquirer

PHOTO GALLERY
first solo flight
Moments of life series
He wakes up and checks the weather: clear skies, light winds, good visibility.

It all hinges on the weather.

Mark Blaha is mindful of this even as he spends his Saturday morning working at United States Playing Card Co. The 43-year-old Lebanon resident is married, a father of two boys. He's a Navy veteran. A former police officer.

And an airplane pilot in training.

From work, he calls Blue Ash Airport. The phone rings in the Schmidt Aviation office, where a bulletin board displays several dozen pictures. Each one shows a smiling flier photographed moments after reaching a significant milestone.

If all goes well, a photo of Blaha will be posted on the bulletin board later today.

Office manager Amy Christian tells Blaha the flight is a go. She knows what this day means.

MOMENTS OF LIFE

This part of an occasional series that documents moments that connect us. This year, the series focuses on firsts that are life's milestones. We welcome your suggestions. Contact John Johnston at 768-8516; e-mail: jjohnston@enquirer.com.

THE STORIES

First trip to the dentist
First flight
First baby
First comedy gig
First T-ball game
First college graduate

"The solo is the ultimate first in flying," she says.

By noon, Blaha's like a kid. He can't wait.

A few hours later he meets with his flight instructor, Bob Winters. They have flown about 12 hours together in a Cessna trainer. They begin pre-flight checks.

For Blaha, the solo has been a long time coming.

He spent 10 years in the active-duty Navy, nine more in the reserves. While stationed in California in the early 1980s, he started skydiving, for fun. The same field was used by pilots who flew lightweight flying machines known as ultralights.

"I need to try that," Blaha told himself.

For him, flying has never been just about getting from point A to point B. It's simply this:

"I love being up in the air," he says.

Over the years, he logged time in ultralights, gliders and powered aircraft. Each time he started taking lessons, something kept him from finishing: commitments at work or home, or shifting priorities.

Finally, in December, he vowed to finish.

His motivation was twofold: Nickolaus, who is 11, and Zachary, who will be 10 next month. His sons love airplanes, love being at the airport.

"I want to connect with them," Blaha says.

Before long, they'll be teenagers, exerting their independence. One way to build a bond is to find a common interest. Something the father can teach, something the boys can't get from their friends. Something they all enjoy.

That was what Blaha was thinking in December, when he vowed to get his pilot's license.

The boys aren't at Blue Ash Airport today. Dad needs to focus.

Just after 2 p.m., Bill Christian, Schmidt Aviation's owner and manager, listens to the weather radio: Calm winds, 6 knots, right down the runway. Good visibility.

"It doesn't get a lot better than this," Christian says.

Winters and Blaha climb into the Cessna. The airplane taxis down the runway, takes off, and circles the airport, with Blaha at the controls. Winters watches to see if his student is ready.

Blaha makes several touch-and-go landings. The wheels just touch the runway, then the plane immediately takes off again. Winters, satisfied, tells him to bring the airplane to a full stop so he can exit.

Then, final instructions from Winters: There's no pressure to make a landing. If you're not comfortable, pull up and circle again. If somebody's crowding you, get on the radio and say, "student pilot." That'll clear them out.

And: "You can do this."

Alone in the Cessna, Blaha doesn't think about flying. Not yet. Is everything working? Rev the engine. Check the RPMs. The magnetos. How does the engine sound? How does it feel? Flaps up.

Now he taxis down the runway.

Amy Christian and Bob Winters watch.

"There he goes," she says. "He's up."

"No turning back now," Winters says.

It's a chilly Saturday afternoon. The Cessna ascends into a patchwork of blue sky and high, white clouds.

Winters, of Madeira, is a quiet fellow. At 22, this instructor is about half the age of his student. He earned his pilot's license two years ago. He soloed in the airplane Blaha is flying.

He watches Blaha approach the runway.

"He's on the ball," Winters says. "He's got it. He's a good pilot."

Blaha descends for his first touch-and-go.

"Beautiful," Amy Christian says.

Winters nods approvingly.

In the airplane, Blaha radios in:

Cessna 75528 is crosswind runway 2-4, and Bob, if you're listening, thank you very much.

Blaha feels good. Very good. He circles the field again, does another touch-and-go. After the third time around he makes a full landing.

He must meet more requirements before he earns his pilot's license. But this is a huge step.

He taxis toward his instructor, and flashes a thumbs up.

Now he's shaking Winters' hand. Bill Christian, camera in hand, captures the moment. A photograph for the bulletin board.

"This is a big day for me," Blaha says, smiling.

The weather is perfect: calm winds, and visibility so good, you can almost see to the day a father and his sons share a love of flying.

E-mail jjohnston@enquirer.com




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