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‘First Flight’ organizers plan June 15 raincheck day after near-washout
Over 125 kids signed up for May 18 event at Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport, but weather grounded all but 5
First Flight
In this file photo, Thrill of First Flight organizer John Ratcliff, in blue event T-shirt and suspenders, has children gather around for an impromptu paper airplane flying contest in the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport terminal during the May 18 rainout. First Flight, offering free rides in real planes, will try again on Saturday, June 15. - photo by AL HACKLE/Staff

The nonprofit organization Black Pilots of America and area volunteers have set Saturday, June 15 as the re-launch day for “Thrill of the First Flight” at the Statesboro-Bulloch County Airport, 9 a.m.-2 p.m. Their first try on May 18 drew a crowd of willing participants, but cloudy skies and intermittent rain kept all but five of the children and teens on the ground.

“We’re back on for Saturday, June 15th with clear blue skies and more aviation experiences,” event coordinator Beth Williams writes hopefully on the new “First Flight-Statesboro” Facebook Events page.

Youth who registered for May 18 will have their registrations automatically honored for flights June 15, she said in a phone interview. But she asks that parents or youth who registered but will not be able to attend on June 15 notify her by email at to make room for other participants.

Eligibility to participate in free flights remains limited to children and teens in third through 12th grades. A parent or guardian must accompany them to the event, but the youth will fly in groups of up to three with a pilot, not with parents.

Others who do not register or wish to fly can attend to “check out the food trucks, static displays and watch the planes fly by,” Williams notes.

Last Saturday, lead organizer John Ratcliff, Air Force combat veteran and retired Ford Motor Co. chief corporate pilot, was at the airport long before the 9 a.m. scheduled opening time to set the event in motion. He and was soon joined by other Black Pilots of America members, National Guard soldiers from the neighboring armory who helped direct traffic, food truck operators, Statesboro Fire Department firefighters with a fire engine, Civil Air Patrol Statesboro Composite Squadron members, at least one airport employee and probably others.

Event Brite had been used for the original registration, which soon filled up with 125 youth signed up, but some parents had called and added a few others to a waiting list.


Undeterred by rain

Undeterred by clouds and gently falling rain, more than 100 children, teens and parents or guardians filled the terminal building lobby at the general aviation airport. Rain would stop and start again, before and after the 10 a.m. plan time for the flights to begin, but a hoped-for clearing of the skies never arrived.

Electronic flight simulators were set up to give some of the youth a flight-like experience.

Ratcliff had his aviation-minded friends and recruited volunteers lead a few informal discussions. For example, Billy Willis, retired Southwest Airlines reservations supervisor, was there to talk about available careers in aviation, for “everything from pilots to aerospace engineers to baggage handlers,” he said.


Young pro pilot

Tyrone Johnson, 23, who graduated from high school in Beaufort, South Carolina and now lives with his grandparents in Hinesville, also chatted with some high school students and parents about his experiences as a professional pilot in the making. He attends Middle Georgia State University’s aviation school at Eastman. On track to graduate in December with his Bachelor of Science in aviation science and management, he has already earned his commercial pilot’s license and is awaiting his “check ride” in July to obtain flight instructor certification.

Johnson received his private pilot’s license at age 20, then his instrument flight rules license, then the commercial license last November. But 1,000 hours of flight experience are required to actually get a job as a commercial pilot, and he had about 350 hours upon his arrival Saturday, he said.

But he can take up private passengers and, after he gets the instructor certificate, students who pay for lessons while he logs additional flying hours. If weather permitted, Johnson was prepared to pilot a plane owned by Ratcliff.

Elder Howard Rushing, who lives in Statesboro but pastors Garden City Primitive Baptist Church, said a prayer for blessing and protection, and Joseph Atteberry came in from setting up a sound system to stand at the counter and sing the National Anthem.

Ratcliff had hoped to have six pilots with single-engine, multi-seat planes to take the children and youth on approximately 20-minute flights, taking off from and returning to the airport, but some of the pilots, including two in Metter, were elsewhere waiting for the rain to stop.

Ratcliff and Williams eventually told families they could leave and come back for possible flights if the skies cleared by the early afternoon. He then organized impromptu, indoor paper airplane flying contests for the children who remained.

The reporter left. But around midday Saturday, the sky reportedly cleared enough, briefly, for visual flight rules flying. Five of the children and teens – three in one airplane and two in another – were then taken up for one brief, closed loop flight before the pilots decided not to try to fly again, Ratcliff said Monday. By then, he had preparations underway for the June 15 relaunch.

He had provided for free hotdog lunches for the youth and arranged for food truck vendors to sell food to other family members.

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