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The Sky is the Limit

A hesitant voice crackles through the speaker of the Fargo Jet Center.

“Fargo tower this is Cessna-N10897 at runway two seven, ready for takeoff.”


Freshman Grace Lenhart gives the little white plane full throttle.  The dual screens freckled with lights and levers begin to blink as the engine whirs.  She gives the controls a steady pull, and the wheels almost unnoticeably detach from the ground.

“You’re airborne,” says flight instructor Danny Blaha.

At that moment, Lenhart recalled, “I was thinking ‘Oh my gosh, I’m going to fly this plane.’”

In the next moment, they were off soaring through the rainy October skies and headed toward Concordia College for the first part of a one-hour flying trip.

For $130, Grace and 27 other freshmen from Professor Scott Olsen’s inquiry courses became amateur pilots on Oct. 8 and 9. Most of the students are in Olsen’s Inquiry course, “Adventure Exploration and Risk.” This course provides the opportunity to not only read about adventure but also to experience it first-hand.

Olsen, who is a registered pilot, an experienced travel writer and an expert in adventure, explained that these opportunities “are meant to make real the stuff that they are reading about.” Throughout the course, which requires a book a week, students read about sailing, scuba diving and other daring tales.

“Our next two books are about flying,” Olsen said, “and they are going to be a much more perceivable and more intimate experience for readers to say ‘I’ve done that, I know that feeling.’”

Many of the soon-to-be-pilots expressed similar emotions to those experienced in the book while sitting in the polished lobby of the Fargo Jet Center, waiting for their turn to fly.

“I’m afraid I’m not going to remember what to do,” freshman Shannon Koepsell said.  “My pulse is accelerating.”

If anyone qualified to feel anxious, it would be freshman Melody Peterson who boarded a plane for the first time that day.

“I’ve never been on a plane so if I’m gonna be on one, I might as well fly it, right?” she said. “I was so scared, but like professor Olsen told me, there’s no better reason to go than if you fear it.”

Despite the high levels of anxiety prior to strapping into the cockpit and placing both hands on the wheel, the new Cobber pilots offered encouraging words. Alicia Schroeder was one of the few freshmen whose flying performance had her boyfriend, her mom and a plane-loving little boy from her mom’s day care as an enthusiastic audience.

“It was awesome,” Schroeder said upon returnimg to earth. “I was smiling the whole time, and now my cheeks feel permanently frozen.”

Her mother, Linda Schroeder, also denied feeling any anxiety while watching her daughter fly a large vehicle through the air.

“What a great class,” she said. “The more things you can do, you should do it.”

The hour-long flying session includes a sky tour of West Fargo, West Acres mall and Concordia’s campus. Additionally, the instructor pulls some stomach-dropping steep turns and simulates an engine failure to demonstrate how to glide. Although the instructor is sitting beside each pilot during the flight, students are responsible for takeoff, a brief touch-base landing and second takeoff, where they will then circle around and make a final landing.

Throughout the flight, the instructors are helpful in explaining each miniature-sized building visible far below the plane. From the winding trail of the Red River, to the gentle fields of the farmlands outside Fargo, students all commented on the beauty of a birds-eye view. Perhaps the most exciting part of the flight for students is the traditional pointing-out-the-dorm-room experience.

“The dorms looked like a miniature dollhouses,” Lenhart said.

The instructors don’t hesitate to add a little fun as well. Lenhart shared a moment where she and her instructor sang over the headsets to each other “Does that make me crazy? Does that make you craaaazy?”

After their flight, Olsen greets each beaming new pilot with a handshake and the question “How was it?”

This is usually met with an expression which Olsen described as the “there is no word I know to tell you what just happened” face.

Students are then given a certificate of achievement “for exemplary performance and knowledge commensurate with the aviator accomplishment of 1st flight” that is signed by the flight instructor.

“The worst that could happen,” Olsen said, “is you get the edge and suddenly realize, ‘I have to do that again.”

He is sure to encourage his students not to make the same mistake he did; he too got this edge at 16 but put off getting a pilot license until later in life for fear it was “impractical.” Through this class however, he is inspiring people to seize their chance here and now. For first-time plane traveler Peterson, for instance, the flying experience as well as Olsen himself have illuminated an adventurous streak in her that even she didn’t know existed.

“Its like ‘a whole new world’ sort of thing, to quote Aladdin,” Peterson said, “because you see things from a different perspective. I think its something everyone should experience if they have the chance. And yes, I think if I have the chance, and the money, I will definitely fly a plane again.”

Classmate Grace Lenhart expressed equal praise of the experience.

“Now that I’ve flown, I want to fly more,” Lenhart said.  “After all, the sky is the limit.”

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