Retired pilots at The Cliffs still fly as often as possible
Camaraderie is in the air.
Sipping cocktails at The Cliffs at Glassy during a particularly glorious sunset, three friends gather to talk planes. One of the guys tells about flying Russian MiGs around Moscow. Another mentions his 250-odd touchdowns in a Navy A-6 fighter on aircraft carriers. The third, well …
“You could call it barnstorming, if you wanted to—fly low and slow and land at grass airstrips, pastures,” Owen Waggoner says during Happy Hour with Chuck Ferguson, a onetime Navy lieutenant commander, and Gere Gaige, who served in the Air Force as a fighter-pilot instructor and later worked as a real estate consultant in Russia.
Many a member at The Cliffs spent some or all of their careers in military, commercial, or corporate cockpits. A few still fly as often as they can, soaring maybe another thousand feet or so above where they sit on the patio in the Carolina mountains.
Tonight, their stories are as disparate, and often as multilayered, as the cloud formations they navigate.
Soon, for instance, Waggoner gets to talking about his airborne assaults on Southwest Florida’s most nefarious aerial enemy: mosquitos.
Back in the ’90s, when he lived near Fort Myers, Florida, and worked in the insurance industry, he also flew for Lee County Mosquito Control.
Waggoner recalls the six twin-engine DC-3s flying in tight formation, barely above the treetops. Once, just before sunrise, they zipped around the second floor of a 10-story building, waking up the residents, many of whom watched from their upper-floor condos. Sometimes, they would buzz a golf course’s long par 5, he says.
“You’d hear ’em coming, right down the fairway,” says Chips, Waggoner’s wife of 55 years. “It was great. Everybody loved the mosquito-control people.”
These days, Waggoner owns a Piper J3 Cub, his seventh airplane, which he picked up—in boxes—in Wisconsin.
“Rented a U-Haul truck and bought this basket case. The entire plane was in boxes, the engine was falling apart,” he says, explaining that, yes, he assembled the bright-yellow contraption himself in his garage at The Cliffs at Glassy.
Meantime, Gaige enjoys a far more elaborate model that flies higher—and faster. His Cirrus SR-22 even packs a full-plane parachute in the fuselage. One pull on a cockpit handle, and the aircraft floats to safety.
Back in Moscow, though, where Gaige met his wife Larisa, he could rent a Russian fighter jet for $300 an hour. These days, the Gaiges fly several times a year to their second home in Mountain Home, Arkansas. When he’s local, he enjoys weekly swings over his beloved community, The Cliffs at Glassy.
“The facilities, the waterfalls, the meadows, right down to the social life,” he says. “It’s just unbeatable in terms of the range and variety of activities for an active lifestyle. I don’t think there’s another place in the world that has the variety of activities and amenities that we have here.”
Waggoner copies that. He takes to the air once a week, sailing along at only 60 mph (Gaige’s aircraft exceeds 200 mph). At this leisurely pace, he circles at about 500 feet—the same bird’s-eye view of the native Cooper’s Hawk.
“It’s just a beautiful place to fly,” Waggoner says. “Mountains. Hunting for waterfalls.”
Ferguson, a former, long-time member at The Cliffs at Mountain Park, spent 12 years in the military and then flew for 30 years with Flying Tigers and FedEx. Today, he taxis his Vans two-seat RV plane out of a Greenville Downtown Airport hangar, from which a turn in any direction leads to somewhere pretty.
“I mean, it’s stunningly beautiful flying up here,” he says.
This story was featured in Cliffs Living magazine. To read more stories like this one and learn more about The Cliffs, subscribe here.