By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
On a recent Thursday afternoon, the moon was in front of 17-year-old Cortney Foote, the sun was behind her and there was nothing but a Cessna 152 II and about 2,500 feet of air between her and the ground.
“I hate going without flying for too long. After a week or more, it’s like you have the DTs,” she said, referring to the delirium tremens, a jittery, anxiety-ridden state that accompanies withdrawal from an addiction.
The wild blue yonder stays on Cortney’s mind, especially since she got her pilot’s license Aug. 1, but it’s impossible for her to spend as much time in the air as she’d like.
She’s got responsibilities on the ground. She’s a senior at Itawamba Agricultural High School and has to stay on top of her class work. She plays trumpet in the marching band, so practice time cuts into flight time.
“I’m one of those people that if I hear an airplane, I’m always looking in the sky for it,” she said. “They got mad at me in band because we were supposed to be set and I was looking around like crazy.”
She comes by her obsession for flying machines naturally. Her dad, 46-year-old Jimmy Foote, has been a pilot for 20 years, and Cortney logged plenty of hours before she could say, “airplane.”
“Her first flight?” Jimmy Foote said. “She was a baby, a little baby. She doesn’t remember it, put it that way. She’s been flying all her life.”
At some point, Cortney decided she wanted to be at the controls. Her dad encouraged her, but not too much. He waited until she took an interest in the exacting groundwork necessary before takeoff.
“I was testing her until she proved she really wanted it. She started acting on it probably a year and a half ago,” said Jimmy Foote, who served as his daughter’s flight instructor. “She’s ate up with it. I want to tell you what: She loves it.”
Courtney regularly flies out of Tupelo Regional Airport, and Tupelo Aviation has three airplanes she can pilot. She’s most comfortable with a white and blue Cessna 152 II two-seater. It’s the plane she trained on.
Her private pilot’s license means she doesn’t need anyone in the cockpit with her, but she likes to take passengers along. She’s been known to ask off-duty Tupelo Aviation employees to go with her.
“If they’re around and they have the time, I’ll ask,” she said. “I took up my best friend. She’s the only one of my group of friends I convinced to go up. It’s not that they’re afraid of me. They’re afraid of flying. They haven’t been up before.”
Her mom’s flown with her, and both sets of grandparents have had the privilege. One grandmother had to get over her fear of flying, but she accepted Cortney’s invitation.
“She was amazed,” Cortney said, “and she got a beautiful flight. It was a great day.”
Glyn Hilton is a commercial pilot who was quick to catch a ride with Cortney, though it took a while for her to agree to fly with him. As Cortney explained, his helicopter doesn’t have wings so it couldn’t glide to safety the way a plane could if something went wrong.
“But you had fun,” Hilton said.
“I did finally go and it was fun,” she agreed.
“You need to get your M.D. or Ph.D. or something else, so you can afford your own plane,” he said.
“I’m going to fly for FedEx,” she said.
“Then you’ll be poor,” he said, “but you’ll have fun, though.”
Airplane pictures, flight magazines and a model of a Blue Angels F/A-18 Hornet decorate her room in Fulton.
“My friends get sick of hearing about it, I imagine,” she said. “They think it’s cool I have my license, but all they hear is, ‘Airplanes, Airplanes. Airplanes.’”
She expects that fascination to follow her forward. Cortney said other people, including her dad, are full-time pilots, so why can’t she join them?
“You can’t get better than flying for a living, personally,” she said. “That’s how I see it.”
Up and down
While the future sorts itself out, Cortney plans to spend as much time in the air as her dad will allow. He pays the $60-an-hour rental fee for the Cessna.
She prefers to fly in the early morning or late afternoon because the planes she has access to don’t have air conditioning.
“Unless you count this,” she said, tapping a window.
She tends to talk during her preflight check’s, which is something she learned from her dad.
“Prop clear. Master switch on,” she said. “Oil pressure.”
Before taking off from Runway 1-8 at Tupelo Regional Airport, she made another check of the weather and revved up the engine to make sure everything sounded right.
“We do not provide an in-flight snack,” she said about 30 seconds before the plane left the ground.
She flew east with a waxing moon at the 2 o’clock position in her windshield. The sun slowly set behind her. She pointed out houses belonging to friends and family.
“When I have my dad, I’ll circle their houses,” she said. “It really gets them excited when you circle their houses. I don’t know why.”
She checked the weather over the radio and used an iPad app as a navigational system. Her iPhone has an app that provides current weather information at the airport, but she doesn’t use it while flying.
“I pretend it doesn’t exist while I’m in the air,” she said. “They talk about the dangers of texting and driving. Imagine texting and flying, or talking while flying.”
Throughout the flight, her eyes scanned the ground for potential landing strips so she’d be ready if something were to go wrong with the engine. She also watched for other planes. The Federal Aviation Administration trusts her to be safety conscious.
“I’m more important than the FAA,” her dad said. “I’m probably harder on her than the FAA. I have to answer to her mama if something happens.”
After about an hour of the responsibility that makes the freedom of flight possible, it was time to take the Cessna down. She wasn’t 100 percent happy with her approach to the runway, but touchdown was smooth.
“I hope you enjoyed your flight with ‘Foote Air,’” Cortney said with smile.
Clearly, she enjoyed herself.
“I don’t know how to explain it to someone who doesn’t live it,” she said. “It gets in your blood. I love the challenge. A lot of it is the challenge. I love the views you get to see that most people don’t see. I love the sense of community you have with other pilots. They’re all great. I love knowing I can get in a plane and go. I love all of it.”