AFA First Flight Day celebrates solo flight anniversaries; attendees enjoy free discovery flights over St. Petersburg

April 1st marked the 25th anniversary of Farragut’s Aviation Director Rob Ewing’s first solo flight and marked the 50th anniversary of our former Director of Naval Science, and now Development Officer, CAPT Tom McClelland receiving his Naval Aviator wings.

“Aviation is a family,” said Rob Ewing, Aviation instructor for Admiral Farragut Academy. “It’s a community, and anybody that you talk to remembers the first time they got in the air.”

It was 25 years ago in April of 1992 that Mr. Ewing first flew solo and it’s an experience he still remembers fondly.

“I’ve never gotten bored with it. I’ve got 2,000 hours or so of flying with kids in small airplanes and it’s still amazing and wonderful. Any time you find something that 25 years later you still love as much as the first time you did it, that’s the dream.”

Held at Albert Whitted Airport in downtown St. Petersburg, AFA First Flight Day featured three planes taking attendees on 15-20 minute rides around St. Petersburg, over the Don Cesar hotel, and over Admiral Farragut Academy itself before touching back down. “There must’ve been over 100 people taken up throughout the day,” Mr. Ewing said. “There were a lot from Farragut, students and even some alumni, and a good amount who weren’t affiliated with AFA. It turned into a great day for showcasing the program and the school.”

One of those students, 3rd-grader Benjamin, says he wants to be a pilot. “I’ve been up in planes about a hundred times,” he said, clutching the glider he got from the event. “I’m really excited to go up today.”

4th-grader Brennen Cornish and 5th-grader Traveler Cornish, brothers from Farragut, had a great time as well. “I loved being able to see through the water,” said Traveler. “I saw places in the ocean I’d never seen before.” “I liked flying over AFA,” said Brennen. “I saw my building and I saw people practicing on the baseball field.” Traveler and Brennen might take Aviation when they get to Upper School, but they definitely wanted to take another plane ride.

“First Flight Day was fun,” said Bill Emerson ’52. “The first time I saw Admiral Farragut Academy from the air was with “Skip” Cleveland ’52 at the controls in 1952. There was a grass track and a lot fewer buildings.”

“My favorite thing about aviation is giving people the opportunity to go on their first flight, and there’s nothing I like more” said Mr. Ewing. “I get to witness their first time seeing their city from the air, and it’s especially cool to fly over our campus with students and alumni. Just passing on that experience of aviation is wonderful. It’s completely different from getting in a commercial airliner. In a little plane the clouds are a lot closer, it’s bumpier, lots of things you don’t get to experience in a large aircraft.”

Mr. Ewing recalls his first flight fondly. “It was at a little airport in Ormond Beach,” he says. “I was attending college at Embry-Riddle at the time. On the day we flew up, my landings were good, and my examiner said ‘all right, I’m getting out, you’re on your own.’ I dropped him off and I did three full stop landings and came back, picked him up, and we flew back to Daytona.”

Mr. Ewing brings the feeling of that first flight to his students, including the traditions set before him. “The first time you fly solo they cut the back of your shirt off,” he said. “It’s a tradition that has been around a long time. I still have mine. My instructor cut the back off, signed his name, and wrote the date, which is something I’ve done now with my students countless times.”

Mr. Ewing wasn’t the only one celebrating a flight anniversary. CAPT Tom McClelland, Farragut’s former Director of Naval Science and current Development Officer, was also there to celebrate 50 years since he got his wings. “When I first started flying in the Navy, I’d never flown before,” says CAPT McClelland, “and so my first five flights were kinda difficult. I was unsure of what I was doing. Then by about the 6th flight it’s like a light bulb came on and all of a sudden I knew what I was doing. What started out as being uncomfortable, became very comfortable, enjoyable and fun.”

CAPT McClelland’s first solo flight was in 1966. “It would’ve been my 13th flight in the T-34B, which was the primary Navy trainer at the time,” he said. “We landed at an outlying field and the instructor got out of the airplane. I took off by myself and did several touch-and-go’s with him on the runway watching me. Then I came back and picked him up and flew back to Saufley Field in Pensacola, FL.”

Since then he’s flown many different kinds of jets. “When I finally got my wings, it was after about 13 months of training in the T-34B, then the T-2A, a single engine jet in Mississippi, then I went to Beeville Texas to fly the F-9 and later on the F-11. I don’t fly much anymore,” he continued. “Although, every now and then I see an airplane I would love to fly. There’s a new aircraft they’re selling at Peter O. Knight Airport which is an amphibious aircraft that I would very much love to buy, if it weren’t $300,000!”