Gazing out the bay windows at Augusta Aviation, Jamail Larkins quietly takes in the muffled bustle of takeoffs and landings at Daniel Field. He smiles as he recalls his earliest experiences at the airport that, for much of his life, has been his field of dreams.
The reprieve is broken by a hand, warmly pressed against his shoulder and the sound of a familiar voice.
"This is the greatest pilot I've ever seen," said Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue, using his free hand to press palms with the young flyer. "I've never seen him fly, and he's still the greatest pilot I've ever seen."
What sounds, at first, like a hollow compliment actually contains several grains of truth. Certainly Mr. Larkins, the 19-year-old Evans native who will perform his aerobatic routine at the Boshears Skyfest this weekend, has considerable skills behind the stick of his Christian Eagle biplane. While flying on the air-show circuit, he also manages to maintain a 3.99 average at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Fla., serves as the national spokesman for the Experimental Aircraft Association's Visions of Eagles education program and runs Larkins Enterprises, his Web-based aviation and advertising business. But Mr. Larkins, still the boy with the dream of flying in his eyes, said school, speeches and business opportunities are just the tools that allow him to get airborne.
Trim, fit and well-spoken, Mr. Larkins said he can easily divide his life into two sections - everything before June 29, 1996, the date of his first flight, and everything since.
"It opened a completely new life for me," he said, "I was hooked, completely inspired. I remember thinking, in the middle of that flight, that this is what I would be doing for the rest of my life. It motivated me to do whatever was required for me to stay involved in aviation."
By the time he was 14, a scant two years after that initial flight, he had soloed and received his pilot's license in Canada. By age 15, he had Larkins Enterprises up, running and funding his flying habit. Last year, he completed the Airshow Competency Evaluation, making him the youngest of about 500 pilots eligible to fly aerobatic air shows at low altitude.
"Aerobatics is definitely a thrill, and it has been a great opportunity," he said. "I've been able to travel across the country and perform in front of audiences of as many as 75,000 people. There aren't many places you get those kinds of opportunities, all while doing something you love. It's definitely something I plan on doing as long as I keep having a blast and am physically able."
Later, as he prepares for takeoff, Mr. Larkins slowly circles his tiny white biplane, allowing his fingers to trail along the edge of the multicolored eagle that stretches from prop to tail. Examining every inch, he takes a silent inventory, checking off in his head each step in his pre-flight inspection. It's a ritual he has repeated countless times, as often as three times a day during the school-free months of summer.
"The thing is, the more time you spend in the airplane, the better off you'll be," he said. "There are a lot of things in aerobatics that you have to build a tolerance or ability to do. If you stop flying for an extended period of time, that tolerance begins to fade."
He said that training the body to withstand the stresses of extreme flying is important, but training the mind to react quickly and decisively is far more vital.
"Here, the aerobatic box is 4,000 feet long," he said, gesturing toward the stretch of runway over which he'll perform. "Now, that might seem like a lot, but when you're going 200 miles an hour, it goes quick. You have to stay focused - on where you are going, where you are and the next maneuver."
Still staring out at the black stretches of tarmac intersecting in front of Daniel Field's metal hangers, Mr. Larkins admitted that having the opportunity to perform at his first Boshears Skyfest is special.
"I started flying here," he said quietly. "I did 90 percent of my flight training right here. This is like a homecoming. I've flown in bigger shows, but I'm more nervous about this. It does have special meaning."
Reach Steven Uhles at (706) 823-3626 or firstname.lastname@example.org.