Sitting behind the control panel in an aircraft for the first time nearly 40 years ago in Oklahoma, Ken Brewer was intrigued.
"I don't know what bit me," he said standing next to his own plane Wednesday. "The thrill of being in charge of the airplane is amazing." He shares a hangar with his friend, Gary Rodgers, at the Brazil-Clay County Airport.
But time was limited then, and he didn't get to finish the lessons. He never forgot the flight instructor sitting behind him that first day he took the driver's seat, nor would he forget the plane getting up to speed and propellers whipping the wind after the instructor commanded, "Let's go." He pointed out that a flight student didn't have to know a thing in the 1960s and away they went.
Today, the 71-year-old will walk across the stage at Ivy Tech State College commencement ceremonies. The oldest of his class, Brewer officially finished coursework in the Aviation Maintenence Technology program last summer. He was a straight "A" student, yet laughs as he says he asked a lot of questions during the courses.
A retired Army National Guard major, he earned bachelor and master degrees from Purdue University and spent many years teaching high school students. When he decided to return to the classroom as a student many years later in the seniors program at the technical college, it was with the goal to follow a dream that began that first day, years ago, on the runway.
"It felt good. It was in the back of my mind all these years," Brewer said.
With a sharp mind, the thought lingered through retirement. The entire idea couldn't take full flight until he had the time on his hands to go back to the hobby. When he and his wife, Darlene, moved back to his hometown of Brazil in 1991, constructing a house occupied much of his time. Finally, three years later he found the free time he had yearned for.
"I ran out of things to do," he remembered, "so I built a shop next to the house to build a plane."
He sent off for a kit plane. But when it came down to the radios and electronic components, he asked himself if he fully understood the technology involved. He admitted that he needed help with the project and enrolled at the Hulman Field campus in Terre Haute. His first mission would be to overhaul a used engine for his Van's RV 6A two-seater plane. There were only a couple of students in that first class back in the late 1990s, and Brewer appreciated the personalized attention he received as a result.
Rodgers, who shares the love of airplanes with his good friend and neighbor, remembers the process of watching the plane being built from the very beginning. In all, it took about 5 1/2 years to complete.
"It's not something that can be slapped together under a shade tree," Rodgers, a union carpenter, said. "It's way more sophisticated than that." He added that without perseverence like Brewer possesses, it couldn't have been a successful project.
Brewer soon was able to bolt the reconditioned engine onto the plane. "I might as well learn the rest of it," he remembered thinking then. Two years later, the coursework for his associates degree was complete and so is his plane. It took flight for the first time at the end of October and is registered with the Federal Aviation Association.
He credits instructor Chad Williams with getting the project off the ground.
"He (Williams) was a driving force behind it," Brewer said. Williams flew the gold and black-colored plane he helped paint to the Brazil airport where the builder spends much of his free time now that he's not in the classroom anymore. He anticipates earning a pilots license by the end of the year, so he can enjoy his airplane to the fullest.
"It's my baby," Brewer said while glancing over at the 1,000-pound airplane.