Students take to the skies in Philip Rash’s Aviation Mini-Term course

Landon Casstevens ’20 rides in the rear-facing back seat while commercial pilot Louis Panuski instructs Tristan Hostak ’20 (in the seat behind Landon, not shown in photo). Pictured in photos below: Ramki Annachi ’20 and Anna Jang ’20

Two thousand feet above the Person County Airport, the small plane bounces 17-year-old Tristan Hostak around a little as the wind pushes it side to side. The far horizon is hazy, but the space around the plane is clear and blue and deep, and below pass brown farm fields and tiny rooftops, subdivisions and shopping centers, ribbons of highway, ponds, lakes — the abstract art of Earth.   Through his headset, Tristan hears the pilot to his left: “Okay, put your right hand on the wheel and your left hand in your lap and just relax.” Tristan breathes deeply and does it. The buzzy hum of the propeller pulling the single-engine plane through the sky fills the cabin.   The pilot lets go of his wheel. “Ok, good,” he says. “The plane is yours now.”   Just like that, Tristan ’20 is flying the Piper Saratoga. It’s the first time he’s ever put his hands on an aircraft’s controls.   Tristan, like the 15 other students in Philip Rash’s Aviation Mini-Term, has completed nearly 12 hours of instruction and simulator training during the Mini-Term’s “ground school” earlier in the week. He’s prepared. Beside him sits Louis Panuski who is the father of Mini-Term student Benjamin Panuski ’20, a commercial pilot for American Airlines and, most importantly in this moment, a certified flight instructor. Louis Panuski arrived earlier in the morning from the airport in Concord, North Carolina, to volunteer his time and plane for the Mini-Term.   Like Seasoned Veterans “A little choppy,” Panuski says as the plane slips and slides and bumps a bit more.   “I think people are afraid for the plane to move around a bit,” Tristan says through the headset. His voice through the speaker is metallic and, oddly, very professional. Though flying for less than 10 minutes, already he sounds like a veteran pilot.   “Yeah, you just gotta let it ride,” Panuski says about the plane’s natural movements. He looks out the window as casually as if a fellow American Airlines colleague is piloting the plane.   Landon Casstevens ’20, who already had his turn in the front seat, is a passenger this time, riding in one of the rear-facing back seats. He looks over his shoulder, casually, to the cockpit. “It got a lot better once we were at altitude the first time up,” he says. “Up at three.”   Up at three. Three thousand feet. He sounds like a pro, too. He looks down at his phone like it’s just another day in the sky.   “Once we get over the bumpiness, the airplane is going to fly on its own,” Panuski says. “We just need to direct it where we want it to go.”   Up they go toward — and then past — three thousand, where Landon says they’ll find smooth sailing. At 3,800 feet Tristan levels us off, reduces throttle, and they cruise. Landon was right; the ride is smoother up here.   Panuski gives easy, casual instruction. Ease back on the throttle just a bit more. Pull your nose up just a touch. Little more to the right, a little more to the left. Tristan responds flawlessly. They fly a circle without losing much altitude, which is a tricky thing to do for novice pilots. Tristan practices descending — nails it all.   “Wonderful,” Panuski says. “Perfect. These students, all of them, are natural pilots.”   Finding NCSSM Before long, Panuski’s detailed instructions transition to general input. Fly toward that lake, he says and points through the windshield. Turn toward that powerline. Follow that highway. Tristan takes it from there, piloting on a southerly heading, retracing in the sky the terrestrial path the plane took earlier that morning from Durham. Everyone onboard is looking for NCSSM.   Two other planes are in the hunt for the school as well. Dan Page, husband of one NCSSM grad and parent of two others, is a small-aircraft icon on the Piper’s radar, slightly ahead of and just below at 2,000 feet with more Mini-Term students in his Beechcraft Bonanza. Page has been volunteering with the Aviation Mini-Term for eight years. Math teacher and certified flight instructor Rash, who has been leading this Mini-Term for 14 years, is also out there, with yet more students, cruising the sky somewhere between NCSSM and the Person County Airport in his Piper Cherokee. A tiny little airforce, the Uni Air Patrol.   Ramki Annachi ’20 in Philip Rash’s plane First Time Flying Ramki Annachi ’20 thought he was only going for a ride in Philip Rash’s plane until Rash told him to climb into the pilot’s seat. “Are you serious?” Ramki said, his anxiety rising.   But it was a moment Ramki had often thought of. “I’d been very interested in aviation and things like that [for a long time],” he said. “Whenever I’d go into an airport I’d be sitting there looking out the window at all the airplanes, thinking, ‘Alright, the pilot’s going down this taxiway and he’s passing these signs.’ So I’ve been interested in it for quite a while and that’s what led me to applying for the course.”   Fellow junior Anna Jang was another first-time pilot, having never been in a small, private plane before, either. Her first moments in the air with Dan Page were with her hands on the controls. “I never even imagined,” she says, “I would have this kind of experience.”   Surprisingly, she felt more confident with the plane under her control at thousands of feet off the ground than she did in the classroom. “It was a lot easier than the simulation, that’s for sure,” Anna says. “In the simulator you can’t feel anything, you have to look at all the stuff, all the panel readings and stuff. But on the plane, in the air, you feel it. Since there’s actual drag it’s so much easier to control.”   NCSSM from Aviation Mini-Term Orange Rooftops NCSSM is hard to find among the mish-mash of buildings below from nearly 4,000 feet in the air scanning tens of thousands of acres of trees and buildings and parking lots and highways. But there it finally is, in the distance, just to the southwest. Tristan sees it first. “I got it. Right there,” he says. “That group of orange rooftops.”   And there it is, indeed, as though materializing from nothing.   Tristan dips the right wing and the Piper circles the school. “It’s so small,” Tristan says, perhaps voicing a sudden and new understanding of life at NCSSM. So small. So contained, the dorms, the ballfields, the auditorium. A thumb against the window can almost cover it up. For nearly 40 years, NCSSM has been home to thousands of students during two of the most formative years of their life. From it they have ranged the world and changed it, from this tiny collection of buildings among a vast landscape.   Air traffic control at Raleigh-Durham International Airport comes on the headsets, updating area air traffic. “Be advised,” the controller says, “a Saratoga is orbiting Durham.”   The pass over NCSSM complete, Tristan levels the wings and points the plane north. On he flies.

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