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50 years of making Sparks fly50 years of making Sparks fly

It’s a funny thing about aviation: Many people are drawn to it because they can’t shake their curiosity about what makes an aircraft fly, but once they learn the secret, the wonderment remains.

FAA Manager Jeff Slaughter presents Dennis Sparks (right) with the FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award. Photo courtesy of Dennis Sparks.

Dennis Sparks, a flight instructor from Hopewell, Virginia, can attest to that personally. Fifty years ago, he acted on his urge to become a pilot, and now, 3,700 flight hours and many ratings later, he’s still flying and sharing aviation’s beguiling mystery with others.

“It always amazed me how something heavier than air could fly,” he said. “It still amazes me.”

Last June, Sparks marked the fiftieth anniversary of one of those amazing ascents—his first solo, at Petersburg Airport in a Cessna 150. In early September the occasion became the focal point of an official celebration as Sparks headed off to the Richmond FAA offices to receive a Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award—the most prestigious award the FAA offers—that recognizes “individuals who have exhibited professionalism, skill, and aviation expertise for at least 50 years while piloting aircraft as ‘Master Pilots.’”

Sparks became a private pilot in July 1968, a commercial pilot in April 1969, and a flight instructor two months later. Over the years he added certificates and ratings as a pilot and a flight instructor. He notes that his last attempt to subdue the unquenchable thirst occurred on May 29, 2018, when he acquired a remote pilot certificate for small unmanned aircraft systems.

Sparks served in the U.S. Air Force and earned degrees in business administration. Now 77 and retired—but still the holder of an FAA medical certificate, he points out with a hint of pride—his work experience lists a variety of jobs in aviation and executive positions in municipal and county government. Many pilots might envy him being able to infuse his career with overlap of multiple job genres as when he managed five airports in several states and served on the Virginia Highlands Airport Commission.

A gold seal instructor who also represents the FAA Safety Team, Sparks said he has flown 22 kinds of single-engine-land airplanes, two kinds of seaplanes, 13 twins, and a helicopter. He figures he has taught 97 people how to fly, including ex-wife Sally Neblett. “I taught that lady to fly in 30 days and then I married her,” he said in a recent phone interview.

For those readers who may still be 50 years short of eligibility for a master pilot award but are tempted to give into the same fascinations that shaped Sparks’ joyful life in aviation, here is his advice for how to go about it: “Get a qualified flight instructor and go fly. See if it is something you like.”

If it is, “Go for it, don’t drag it out,” he said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: Pilots

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