It’s a beautiful Friday early afternoon. It’s hot, it’s sunny, and the brilliant blue skies above Southwest Florida are polka-dotted puffy white with whimsical, picturesque clouds. At zero altitude, or specifically on the tarmac at Page Field in Fort Myers, my 13-year-old son is going through his first 30-minute pre-flight inspection with his instructor, in preparation of his first 30-minute “Discovery Flight” lesson — his pre-birthday gift for his official celebration to commence two days later. Needless to say, he’s excited — and so am I, the “passenger” on his maiden voyage (besides, of course, his instructor).
A lot of people experience various levels of angst when it comes to flying — by Googled estimates, upwards of 25% of all Americans. But that’s sitting in the plane, and most often, sitting in a commercial plane flown by experience and supported by experts. Climbing into the cockpit and settling into the pilot’s seat? That’s a plane of a different color, and although there aren’t any statistics to cite, it’s safe to say most people would prefer passenger status.
Paragon Flight Training exists to enable those daring people who wish to command their own flying machines with the sound, professional and accredited training, experience and expertise to take to the skies. For some, it may be a once-in-a-lifetime adventure. For others, it may be the course of their lifetime as a professional pilot. And Paragon has pretty much seen them all, and provided them all moments that they’ll probably remember for the rest of their lives.
“The mystique of being a pilot changes you for the better and changes you forever.”
Kevin Schoensee is a highly successful entrepreneur, real estate developer and hobby pilot who in 2006, relocated with his wife Nicole to Southwest Florida from Detroit. Following a poor experience from a flight school in the market at the time, he figured he could do better and opened Paragon Flight Training with three planes that same year — and watched his business literally take off during the economic downturn. In 2010, his son Chris had the opportunity to assume control and carry on the school’s focus of providing state-of-the-art aviation and avionics for flight professionals, hobbyists and wannabes.
“I learned to fly with my dad and got my license in 2009,” Chris Schoensee notes. “Our philosophy is all about customer service, a strong curriculum and high technology. Today, we operate 13 aircraft — none older than 2006 — and staff 15 instructors. The pilot community worldwide is less and one half of one percent, so you’re in a unique group. Acquiring these skills is a major confidence booster. The mystique of being a pilot changes you for the better and changes you forever.”
At Paragon Flight Training, a variety of options exist to experience flying on a much more up close and personal level — whether you’re eight years old or celebrating 94 years on earth (true and true). If you’re simply curious, the “Discovery Flight” pairs you with an instructor for one hour — 30 minutes of pre-flight, and 30 minutes in the air where you actually pilot the craft with your instructor (with his or her own controls) at your side — for only $125. “These are really popular gifts for birthdays, anniversaries and other special events,” explains Brynn Polonitza, client ambassador and licensed pilot herself. “Sure, you can be one and done, but once I took my Discovery Flight here, I was hooked and I haven’t left.”
Individuals who wish to obtain their pilot’s license must log a minimum of 40 hours of flight time with an instructor (along with other book and simulator instruction) — and can solo as young as 16 years old. Stay with it another year and pass a “check ride” with a Federal Aviation Administration instructor (along with a variety of other tests), and you’re good to go — flying with passengers at the ripe old age of 17.
Rather leave the driving to someone else? Paragon Flight Charter offers flight services for both leisure and business travelers too. If you’d enjoy a scenic flight over the islands and coastal communities, up to three passengers can partake of these breathtaking journeys, with sunset flights available. For business commutes, the charter company flies from the Keys to points north in Florida, carrying up to four passengers.
But flight instruction is where Paragon Flight Training excels, as witnessed by its 60 to 80 active students at any given time, and approximately 300 graduate pilots annually. Those who graduate are rewarded by being able to autograph a “Wall of Fame” at the school, along with their date of graduation.
“The people who are bitten, it captures you and holds you forever. When you fly a plane, you never really look down again. You spend the rest of your life looking up at the sound of an engine.”
As for our birthday boy, once airborne our instructor relinquished control of the yoke to my son — with the assurance to worry not, because “you really can’t do anything I can’t fix” — and like that, Jackson was a pilot, flying us westward across Fort Myers, over the Sanibel Causeway, north up the coast to Captiva before bearing east again to the airport, where more experienced hands took over and guided us to our landing.
That was it. Thirty minutes among the clouds. And just maybe, a young man’s destiny was discovered, as he’s now pursuing his private pilot’s license, researching colleges and universities specializing in aviation, and contemplating a profession.
“That’s the bug,” Brynn Polonitza says. “The people who are bitten, it captures you and holds you forever. When you fly a plane, you never really look down again. You spend the rest of your life looking up at the sound of an engine.”
“The third dimension is wild,” Chris Schoensee adds. “Once you fly, driving a car is so boring. On one of my first flights, I opened the window and touched a cloud. Flying is unique, beautiful, peaceful, serene. It never gets old.”
By John Sprecher | Photographs by Milissa Sprecher Photography