May 27, 2022

A perfect end to the school year


‘A perfect end to the school year’

By Tyler Meister

– There is nothing quite like fulfilling a dream. There is a swelling of pride as you fulfill your long-term goal, an overwhelming sense of accomplishment or excitement that fills your chest, accompanied by a fleeting bittersweet feeling of needing to move onto the next phase to find something new. It is an affirmation that you, an individual, are doing what you are meant to do.

On Friday, May 20, Houston County High School; student Lakoda Gleason experienced some of these feeling as more as he took flight in a PT-17 Stearman — a biplane previously used by the United States Navy and Army Air Forces as primary training plane for upcoming pilots during World War 2 — alongside his pilot, Rick Mantei. He was even able to fly it.

Lakoda and his mother, Carrie Gleason, met with Mantei at the Warner Robins Air Park on Highway 96, under the ruse that Lakoda would just be receiving the opportunity to look at the Stearman. After a pop quiz on plane knowledge and Army Air Force facts, Mantei asked Lakoda if he was ready to fly.

Lakoda was strapped into the front seat of the biplane, goggles in place and gloves pulled snuggly over his hands within five minutes. The aircraft raced down the runway, lifted into the air and passed over the tree line, leaving behind those that had gathered to see them off.

Mantei took Lakoda over Warner Robins, flying high above busy thoroughfare like Highway 96 and Watson Boulevard. From above, the usually busy roads looked like small paths, the heavy mid-day traffic not a concern.

Robins Air Force Base, usually so intimidatingly large, was plainly visible as well, stretching across the horizon as Mantei brought the plane higher into the air.

The whole of Warner Robins, its streets, homes and businesses, its parks, schools and the many people who populate them, were all visible from the sky above.

Looking up from the Stearman, the blue sky and the clouds that migrate across its plain were closer than ever before. The sun, high above in its noon position, warmed the two passenger’s arms and heads, while the passing winds cooled their faces. So high above the city and its requirements, yet still open to the elements, the flight brought on a feeling of weightlessness – of freedom.

“It felt like being a bird,” Lakoda said. “You’re up there, and you can look down on everything you’ve ever known and loved. It really gives you the feeling that you’re on top of the world – you get a chance to relax and forget all the chaos on the ground.”
For a brief moment, Mantei even allowed Lakoda to take the stick and steer the biplane

while thousands of feet in the air.

Only after a few short minutes, the plane returned to the earth. Its wheels pressed into the grass and dirt of the runway and began to slow. When the plane whipped around and stopped in front of the hangar where a small group waited for Lakoda’s response, he called the experience irreplaceable.

“I’m ecstatic right now; that was so cool,” Lakoda said. “I will never forget it – that feeling of being up in that canopy, having a control of it for a few, you can’t replace that -– it’s what I wake up for every day and what I live to do.”

For Lakoda, this experience was on the path to fulfilling a dream. In August he will be starting his junior year at Houston County High School, and is a member of their JROTC. He also has autism.

Lakoda is also a black belt in Tae Kwon Do and bowls with the youth league at Robins Air Force Base.

But he is best known amongst his peers and superiors for wanting one thing: to be a pilot. He has been working towards that goal since he was three years old, having logged several flight hours at aviation camps.

Currently, he is working to get his Private Pilot license. After graduating high school, he plans to enroll into the military. When it is all over, he hopes to be a pilot for the United States Air Force.

For Mantei, it is about something else. It is about helping the next generation, guiding them along the path so they can succeed.

Matei is a former pilot for the United States military and a stockbroker. The owner of several planes, Mantei has been flying since he received his appointment and went to the Air Force Academy. He bought his Stearman after leaving the military and has been flying it ever since.

He got word of Lakoda’s dream to be a pilot, and decided that he wanted to help him along the way, to give him a taste of what the future could be like.

“I believe that if the older generation does things like this for the younger regeneration, they’ll feel important; they’ll feel valued,” Maantei said.

“If more people stopped thinking about themselves and started thinking about other people, this would be a better place -– a lot better place all the way around. You may look at it and think: ‘What is one litter ride going to do in an airplane?’ — come back. It wouldn’t surprise if in 40 years, that kid is the president. It wouldn’t surprise me one damn bit. Those little things matter hugely.”