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Veterans, first-timers take to skies at annual Cracker Fly-In
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E.J. and Kayla Radich, 5 and 7, work the controls Saturday of the local Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172 at the annual Cracker Fly-in at Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport in Gainesville. The Radichs, including sister Chloe and parents Kimi and Eric, are from Gainesville. CAP Major Ross Statham said, “Education is part of our mission — educating our community on the role aerospace plays in our community. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Buzzing off the runway onto the grass, Covington resident Willie Williams slowly parked his blue Zodiac in a long line of Cessnas and biplanes at Saturday’s Cracker Fly-in at Gainesville's Lee Gilmer Memorial Airport.

Its two passengers in the bubble cockpit were separated greatly by experience: While Williams, the pilot, has been in aviation since the boom of the World Wide Web; his passenger, Brandon Ferrell, was enjoying his second time flying.

“The first time was just overwhelming, just the fact that we could get this big thing to lift off the ground,” said Ferrell, an Atlanta firefighter.

Ferrell and Williams landed in the Cracker Fly-in among 140 other aircraft from Georgia and neighboring states. Last year’s event was canceled by bad weather.

Organizer Winn Fletcher of the Experimental Aircraft Association Gainesville chapter believed turnout would be higher this year than past years because it was scheduled after the Fourth of July.

Sky Soldiers offered Cobra gunship rides on the outskirts of the fly-in, allowing families to soar through the air with veteran military pilots.

Among the crowd was Congressional Gold Medal recipient Philip Brice of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., a seasoned pilot and Civil Air Patrol member during World War II.

Because he was stationed in Philadelphia, Brice wasn’t able to serve as a pilot for the air patrol, as many of the missions were flown off the East Coast. It wasn’t until the early 1960s, almost two decades after his service in the Civil Air Patrol, that Brice began flying lessons with his brother.

“My brother would get out of the plane sopping wet with sweat, and I would get out dry as a bone,” he said.

On May 30, President Barack Obama signed a bill to honor members of the Civil Air Patrol during World War II, awarding the group for their volunteerism. The patrol was started one week prior to the Pearl Harbor attack and included more than 150,000 members.

“Many of them went on to careers in aviation, and it’s really been a lot of fun meeting these guys,” said Maj. Ross Statham, director of public affairs for Georgia’s Civil Air Patrol wing.

For Williams, the passion for flying arose from working with airplanes but not taking them off the ground.

“I guess the building and understanding how they work and not being able to fly them was a great mystery to me, and I wanted to learn the whole aspect of it,” he said. “And it was a real awakening.”

The growth of information technology in the early 2000s allowed Williams to discover more and more about his craft.

“If wasn’t for the Internet with all the information in the world, it would have been hard,” he said.

Privately, Ferrell works on building a Cozy Mark 4, a light, homebuilt aircraft that he says “looks like something off of ‘Star Wars.’”

For pilots, there comes “the moment,” an “aha” feeling when zipping across a picturesque landscape. An abundance of farmland and open pastures, Williams and Ferrell said, fill your view after escaping the gridlock on the streets.

“Once you get off the ground, you see all the roads disappear and all the trees reappear,” Williams said.