Pilots and flight instructors David and Laura Thorburn-Gundlach with one of their planes at the Pickens County Airport. The couple offers flight lessons through their company Get Inspired Flight.
By Angela Reinhardt
I was a teenager the last time I was in a small private airplane, but that didn’t keep David Thorburn-Gundlach from handing me the controls of the compact two-seater Jabiru J250-SP.
David, who along with his wife Laura gives flying lessons from the Pickens County Airport, spoke enthusiastically as we taxied up the runway. The fiberglass-bodied Jabiru (aka “Kanga”) is their high-tech gal, he told me, with her Primary Flight Display, GPS, and two-axis autopilot. The controls were fascinating, but nothing about the array of switches, buttons, or the multi-colored digital panel was familiar to this ground dweller. I listened as he explained altitude gauges, wing flap toggles, and a variety of other controls in the snug cockpit, a grin across his face the whole time.
As we traveled along the runway in preparation for takeoff, David invited me to press the rudder pedals, which turned the nose of the plane left, then right. He had me click a toggle switch a few times to adjust the wing flaps, we picked up speed, and the ground began to fall away. Buildings gradually became smaller as we ascended into the sky, and the new and expansive view of the place I was so familiar with from below turned my world on its head. You couldn’t help but grin.
“I like to think that we sell smiles,” David said through our in-flight headsets as we glided over the green hills and foliage that dominate the landscape, the rural-ness of Pickens County becoming apparent when you view it from above. “I love seeing people when they get up here, when they get a new perspective of the world. I mean, look at the view. I love my office.”
As we steadied to a cruising position a few thousand feet in the air, it was time for me to take the proverbial wheel (it’s not actually a wheel, but a control stick positioned between the two seats.) His hand ready to take over if need be, David instructed me to push forward and alternately pull back and the nose would move up and down. I was nervous (would I push too hard and plunge us into those pretty green hills?), and I was sweating (admittedly mostly from the heat, but likely in-part because I’d never steered a plane before). Still, I timidly followed his instructions. The nose moved very slightly, up and down, when I moved the stick. The goal was to stay in line with the horizon.
David Thorburn-Gundlach in his happy place. David and Laura are pilots and flying instructors. They operate Get Inspired Flight school from the Pickens County Airport, and want to share their love of aviation through rides and lessons. Here, David gives this reporter a ride as they overlook Jasper.
After I relinquished control to David he demonstrated climbs, descents, turns and other maneuvers, all the while pointing out familiar landmarks down below. After our 20 minute ride he landed, without as much as a bump.
Although my role in that flight was minimal, it was exceedingly fun and (like their business name implies) inspiring. This hands-on experience is part of the “Discovery Flight” David and Laura offer through their company Get Inspired Flight - where people can take short, fun trips like the one I did, but where they also give more serious folks lessons to become a certified Sports Pilot, and offer other services. They’re in the business of fun, with safety at the forefront of everything.
For the love of aviation
Both David and Laura have been interested in flying individually since they were children. Laura recalls the thrill of growing up near an airport in Carrollton, Ga., watching planes take off and land. The couple, who are disarmingly friendly and down-to-earth, are driven to undo the mystique surrounding aviation.
“We want it to be more accessible to people,” Laura said. “It’s something worth pursuing, its challenging, and gives people a different perspective of things. Everyone should be able to feel like they can do it.”
The couple attended flight school together in 2008 and earned their private licenses on the same day. Laura went on to earn a variety of other certifications, including her instrument rating license, commercial license, she became an instrument ground instructor and certified flight instructor, and both are sport pilot instructors and advanced ground instructors. They have goals of attaining other certifications.
Along the way, the Thorburn-Gundlachs discovered sports flying and adopted a different approach to teaching aviation. They started out giving short joy rides, then they said teaching “snuck up” on them as friends starting asking for lessons. After David was laid off from his IT job, “That’s when we dove right in,” Laura said. “David found his calling. I’ve never seen someone so passionate about teaching.”
They initially operated from a different airport, but relocated to Jasper.
“Look at the view,” Laura said. In more urban areas students would see suburban sprawl, not the lush green hills and mountains in Pickens County. “We love the landscape, the porch on the terminal building, and how friendly people are here.”
Too much too soon
Laura and David were turned off by the classic flight school method they say can put too much pressure on pilots too early on. Laura recalls her first solo flight as a student as “terrifying.”
“My teacher sprung it on me,” she said, “and I felt pressured. They say soloing early helps build confidence and people like to brag about only having eight or 10 hours of flying time before they solo, but we think there is another, safer way to do it.”
They pride themselves on an educational approach they feel produces pilots that are safe and comfortable when they get licensed. Solos don’t happen until later in their training process, so “by the time you solo you’re a pilot and almost at the finish line to getting certified.”
“We want it to be about flying, and getting there needs to be enjoyable,” Laura said. “We also want flying to be a household word, and to make aviation more accessible to people who think it’s out of their reach or unsafe. When someone says I’m a thrill seeker I just laugh. Think about the number of car crashes versus the number of plane crashes. Safety is a priority, and flying is safe.”
For the time being, David does most of the teaching, and Laura (who runs their vacation rental business) develops curriculum. They both have their FAA Light Sport Repairman certificates and work on their own planes, which lets them know repairs and maintenance are being done right.
“We’re out here until 2 a.m. sometimes, making sure things are right,” Laura said laughing. “We take it very seriously.”
Sport flying – good for most hobbyists
In the world of aviation there are different levels of certification – private licenses, commercial licenses, and many more. The couple told me that earning a sport license requires fewer training hours (a minimum of 20 hours per FAA standards versus a minimum of 40 for a private license), which makes it quicker and less expensive to earn - but said it does have some limitations. Sports pilots can’t fly at night, they can only have one passenger in a light-sport aircraft, and they can’t fly over 10,000 feet or in clouds. Still, David and Laura say despite those limitations a sports licenses satisfies the vast majority of hobby pilots’ goals.
With few sports pilot resources, the couple decided to offer training as a way to make getting a pilot’s license more affordable and accessible. They operate from Hangar 10 at the Pickens County Airport, where they hope to expand their hangar and also increase their fleet from two (currently “Kanga” the Jabiru and “Kitty” the BushCat), to three.
They also offer additional certifications, like the “Tailwheel Endorsement,” which is for planes that have a tailwheel and make the aircraft more challenging to fly. They can perform flight reviews as well.
Right now their youngest student is 16, and the oldest is 72. They have two female students, one in her 60s one in her 40s.
Looking ahead, they’d like to increase the number of Discovery Flights and Introductory Flights they give ($99 and $179, respectively), and continue teaching people who want to become pilots.
“We want you to be a pilot,” David said. “We absolutely love what we do – it’s such a joy and wonder. As long as we love it, we’re going to keep doing it.