NORTH TRYON – I’d known the pilot for all of five minutes when he asked, “Would you be up for going for a bit of a flight?”
The aircraft, a single-engine, two-seat, 1969 Champion Citabria, would be the smallest plane I’d ever flown in. It was also sitting, not in an airport hangar, but in a potato field across the road from the pilot’s house in North Tryon.
Given the circumstances, the thought crossed my mind that I could die.
But considering my pilot was 82-year-old Vernon Inman, who’s been taking off from the grass runway of his field for more than 50 years, I agreed immediately.
“I have roughly 2,200 hours of flying,” Inman tells me.
“I always had a liking for aircraft. During the war, I’d stand out and watch aircraft doing acrobatic flying. I’d be building (model) aircraft as a kid, so it started from that I guess.”
It was on Jan. 3, 1962, when Inman, a potato farmer by trade, obtained his pilot’s licence. Although he lived through the time of the Second World War, he was too young to enlist in the Air Force.
Needless to say, he still caught the flying bug.
Three years after becoming licensed, he bought his first plane, a Piper Cruiser, in Quebec City. Four years after that, he purchased the Citabria brand new from a Toronto manufacturer for $13,000.
In the way that most Islanders would hop into their car for their morning commute, Inman casually fires up the plane’s noisy engine and taxis across the field, lifting off over the rural landscape as if he were piloting a 747.
Since it’s such a small aircraft, I feel the dips and banks in the pit of my stomach, but it’s more from the thrill than from motion sickness.
That’s also what Inman still loves about flying, even after half a century.
“Just the thrill of it, the scenery,” he said. “On my 80th birthday, I was scheduled for surgery at Prince County Hospital… at nine o’clock. I got up that morning and went for a half-hour’s flight.
“I just wanted to celebrate my birthday.”
We make the brief journey to the skies above Borden-Carleton, the entire length of the Confederation Bridge visible across the Northumberland Strait. Later, we pass over the scenic views of Victoria-By-the-Sea.
Although he usually flies by himself these days, Inman and his wife, Thelma, have often taken plane trips to the United States or to Grand Manan Island, N.B.
The Citabria is in remarkable condition for its age – even the original paint job hasn’t faded much – because Inman keeps it in a windowless building next to the field, his own personal hangar. He’s taken an acrobatic flying course and assures me he still does the occasional loop or barrel roll.
“The red paint is hard to stop from fading, but it’s kept good,” he said. “I think (the plane) will last me out if I don’t damage it.”
He had the Citabria out back on Jan. 3 of this year to celebrate the 50th anniversary of earning his licence.
As far as Inman knows, he’s the oldest licensed pilot on P.E.I., and has also held a licence for the longest length of time. He said he’s never had any serious mishaps in the air.
There is a mandatory medical exam every two years that must be performed by a doctor certified to examine a pilot’s capability to fly. Inman has always passed with – pun intended – flying colours.
Still, he knows accidents or health problems could happen out of the blue, no matter the pilot’s age.
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