Originally created 08/06/02

Taking to the air



LINCOLNTON, Ga. - Savannah Collins didn't grow up like most little girls.

Instead of a dollhouse and swing set in the back yard, the home-schooled senior had three planes to play with.

Real planes - with rotating propellers and loud engines.

And when she turned 1, her birthday present from her uncle, Gary Ward, was a plane ride. It's a family tradition.

"We all did it," Savannah said, referring to her six siblings. "Most kids have their first school picture. We have our first plane picture."

Mr. Ward runs Gary Ward Aerobatics from a grass airstrip behind his Lincoln County home, right next to Savannah's home.

"Most Saturdays, instead of the alarm clock, I would wake up to the sound of planes buzzing around my house," Savannah said.

But aviation wasn't one of her interests when she was very young.

"I used to be really scared of it," she said. "I mean, I would actually get sick."

Ditto for her father.

"My mom thinks it's cool, but it actually scares my dad," she said.

While her father still doesn't like the thought of planes, it's safe to say Savannah has overcome her fear.

At 17, she is hours from earning her pilot's license. At least once a week, she makes the hourlong trek to Augusta to log the necessary flight time with her instructor, Craig Cornell of Augusta Aviation.

She became interested in learning to fly after working as a volunteer one year at the annual Boshears Memorial Fly-In.

"I thought to myself, 'I might like to do that. That looks kind of fun."' she said. "My uncle said that if I (flew) a solo by the time I was 16, he would pay for my first 15 hours of flight instruction."

Savannah acknowledges that she couldn't have done it without the support of her parents, Larry and Emmye. She pays for flight lessons, but they help her out when she can't foot the entire bill.

Savannah said most teens don't understand her passion for flight.

"(Teen pilots) are very far from normal," she said. "No matter who we are or who we are with, if we hear an airplane above we'll stop and look. Most teenagers think we are weird because we're so focused on flying."

Savannah wants to earn a degree in aerospace engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology and then work as a corporate pilot.

She also enjoys golf, mountaineering and rock climbing - shesaid she wants to climb Mount Everest one day.

For now, she's taking it one flight lesson at a time.

As her flight hours have accumulated, Savannah's passion has turned from run-of-the-mill aviation to aerobatics. The same loops, rolls and turns that used to make her ill thrill her now.

She wants to earn her license by November so she can apply for an aerobatics program in California, which will help her perfect her craft.

"(Aviation) kind of takes over your life," she said. "You can't do it just a little bit. I have more flying books than I do school books."

And one day she wants to return to the place it all began.

"For me, to be asked to fly at Boshears would be the ultimate thing," she said. "It would be a wonderful way for me to repay them for all they've done for me."

Reach Jennifer Hilliard at (706) 823-3223 or jennifer.hilliard@augustachronicle.com.