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Lifting Off

Take to the Sky With Mentone Flying Club

Writer / Angela Cornell
Photography Provided

It was an experience I never expected to have, nor is it one I will ever forget. When I drove up to the hangar at the airport in Rochester, the Cessna 172 Skyhawk – and my imminent future – sat there as it was inspected for takeoff. Tim Peters, one of the flight instructors for Mentone Flying Club, introduced himself. He finished the plane inspection with ease, cracking good-natured jokes the whole time.

I, on the other hand, was a bundle of excitement, eager to see Lake Manitou from the air. Fortunately I didn’t have to wait long. Within minutes, Peters and I were taxiing to the runway. Almost before I knew it, we were circling the town, the buildings looking like toys below us.

Since it was incorporated in 1957, the Mentone Flying Club has offered an economical way for people in Fulton and surrounding counties to achieve their dream of becoming a private pilot.

“A good friend of mine, and the general manager at the Plymouth airport, said about five years ago, ‘Why don’t you join our club? You can learn how to fly and go to a free ground school,’” says Emeric Szalay, the club’s president. “I was like, ‘Why not?’ I chased that dream and now here I am.”

As Peters flew me in a wide loop around Rochester, I could see why someone would want to chase that dream. The sun was casting a golden glow toward the south and providing a stark contrast to the flashing storm clouds to the north. I’ve always been a nature enthusiast, and as Peters pointed out different landmarks I was filled with awe. I almost felt like a bird myself.

It’s little wonder that throughout the last 64 years, hundreds have enjoyed the education and opportunities the club offers to the public.

“We are a teaching club,” Szalay says. “That’s our mission. We like to teach the young, old, male and female. It doesn’t make any difference. If you have a passion, you should try it.”

Even nonmembers can take the free ground school, offered at beginner and intermediate levels, and can enjoy a discovery flight around Rochester.

After we looped around town once, Peters looked at me, a twinkle in his eye, and said, “Your controls.” My palms were sweating slightly against my yoke, but I was too excited to say no. “My controls,” I responded. With that, Peters removed his hands from his yoke. At 800’ above ground, I was flying the plane.

After a prospective member has taken ground school, they have the opportunity to join the club as an owner-member. Then they can take private lessons from one of the licensed flight instructors, some of whom initially earned their wings at the flying club.

“People always think, ‘I can’t really afford this,’ but to buy in as an owner-member, it’s relatively inexpensive,” Szalay says.

Since the members own the planes together, much of the overhead is taken care of by club dues. Once a member has their private pilot license, they are welcome to schedule a plane whenever they want and go wherever they want, even for overnight trips.

All of this went through my mind as I gently turned the plane around the southern tip of Lake Manitou, now 1,800’ in the air. The plane almost felt alive, responding to my lightest touch, with the engine’s purr echoing in the cockpit. “I could get used to this,” I thought.

All too soon, it was time to land. “Your controls,” I told Peters. “My controls,” he replied. I watched the world slowly rise to meet me as Peters set down the bird.

As our discovery flight ended, my desire to take ground school was starting to take root.

“Don’t say you wish you did,” Szalay told me in the hanger. “Life is short. You should do the things that interest you, and that you enjoy and find meaning in. I did. I showed up at a class and I’ve never looked back.”

I thanked both men and left the hangar, my mind nearly bursting with euphoria. As I passed the airport gate, the last of the sunlight winked out over the horizon. Hopefully someday I will again fly into the sunset.

Mentone Flying Club is located at 445 State Road 25 in Rochester. Contact them by calling Szalay at 574-298-4000. The next ground school will be offered on Thursdays from January 20 through March 17 in 2022, from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. For more information, visit mentoneflyingclub.org.

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