It was love at first sight for Louisiana resident Gerald Herbert. The only problem was that Herbert, a news photographer with roots in New Orleans, lives 330 miles from Lucy Sikes, a well-established professional in Shreveport. His speeding tickets from spending weekends together began piling up after zooming up and down the interstates to meet for dates. “I figured there’s got to be a better way,” Herbert told AOPA, and there was.
Herbert was previously based in Washington, D.C., and covered the George W. Bush and Barack Obama administrations for the Associated Press. While there, he developed an interest in aviation after flying in Air Force One and other military aircraft during his assignments for the wire service.
Because of his previous White House experience, the AP tapped Herbert to cover an Obama family trip. “I was sent out to cover Obama’s vacation in Hawaii and I was already in love with Lucy. There was a government shutdown so I was stuck out there and took some vacation time after the trip. On my last day in Kauai, I flew with a pilot in a light sport aircraft over the waterfalls and mountains. I guess it was my first ‘lesson’ because that’s what they called it. The pilot told me the path to a pilot certificate, and that’s when I began to think, ‘Hey, I can do this.’”
He began flight lessons after returning from the Obama trip and found that the fixed-base operation “was kind of like a sitcom where everybody knows each other and we all became really close,” he said. However, Herbert was deeply affected after his mentor, Burt Lattimore, a helicopter pilot and fixed-wing instructor, was killed in an aviation accident.
“There was a C172 crash in Lake Pontchartrain a mile off the runway at New Orleans Lakefront and I found out it was Burt and a student. I was stunned," recalled Herbert. "Burt was a fixture because I flew with him during a lot of [aerial photo] missions—he was my go-to guy. I’d see Burt at the FBO and chat with him in the cafeteria about lining up my landings and he explained it all to me. It was an ‘aha moment’ when, all of a sudden, my landings became perfect.”
After Lattimore's death shook the tight-knit aviation community, Herbert recognized the need to keep student pilots at the airfield motivated. He purchased a 1976 Cessna 172 and added a commercial insurance policy and arrangements to make the aircraft available for fellow aviators. Going a step further, he outfitted his hangar with a comfortable study nook and encouraged flight school students to use the facility as a place to meet.
Herbert earned his private certificate in 2014 with instructor Juan Lionel Asturias and built an ongoing rapport. The relationship led to unique vantage points for Herbert’s photography assignments, including the aftermath of chemical plant explosions and tornadoes, and dramatic aerial images after Hurricane Harvey made landfall that called attention to struggling Beaumont and Port Arthur, Texas, communities.
His employer publicized Herbert’s hurricane coverage. He noted it was “a mark of pride” to be in the air at first light to make “pictures no one else could get because of my added skill set of being a pilot with access to a plane.”
He pointed out to AOPA that “safety comes first” on aerial assignments, so Asturias is at the controls of the IFR-equipped Skyhawk when Herbert works his cameras.
Herbert complimented the pragmatic and supportive Sikes, the "woman of my dreams," for encouraging the Cessna purchase that brought them closer together. “Lucy is a bankruptcy trustee so she is used to checking on finances,” he recalled. “When I was thinking about the airplane, she said, ‘Baby you can have that plane by yourself right now, and always take on a partner in the future.’ I said, ‘Really?’ and all I could think of was, ‘I love you!’”
Sikes and her two teenagers from a previous marriage, Ardis and Avery, quickly embraced Herbert and aviation. The first time he flew into Shreveport’s Downtown Airport in the white-and-tan Skyhawk, he was met by an enthusiastic welcoming party who cheered with delight and ran up for hugs.
Access to a pilot certificate and the Cessna 172 has allowed Herbert and Sikes to grow their relationship despite the geographic distance. Herbert shuttles himself and the family to and from various events and locations, cutting the five-hour cross-state drive to a manageable two-hour-and-change flight.
“We’re working it out, and the airplane really helps,” he explained. “I spend time up there on weekends as much as I can and then I fly back down to New Orleans” to begin the Monday work week.
The four have also taken the Skyhawk for family vacations to Florida and the Gulf Coast. Herbert regularly makes sunset flights above the New Orleans riverbanks and bayous to document cloud formations and weather events for a future photo project.
“For them [the children] to love me back and sleep on my shoulder during flights, the joy I feel, and the memories we make, it’s unique,” said Herbert. “It really makes me feel like a dad.”