A local student and aspiring pilot earned his wings earlier this month. On his uniform rests a shiny metal badge depicting a set of wings. Billy Epperson, a junior at South Laurel High School and a Flight Commander in the AFJROTC program, is on his way to earning his pilot's license.
"To have my wings... it means everything to me," Epperson said. "I've wanted to fly since I was a little kid. It's always been a dream of mine."
For piloting an aircraft on his own, Epperson is one of the first students at the South Laurel AFJROTC program to be awarded the wings insignia. Since June, he's been learning to fly at the London-Corbin Airport.
His AFJROTC instructor, Colonel Mark Jones, was pleasantly surprised to see Epperson undergoing pilot training after running into him at the airport one day.
"I was picking up my brother, who owns a plane there, when I spotted Epperson finishing a flight," said Jones, "I can't speak for when the AFJROTC program started here at South in the '90s, but Epperson is the first student since I got here in 2008 to have gotten his wings."
Epperson dreams of becoming an Air Force pilot. He hopes to one day take control of aircraft such as the C-130 cargo plane or the B-52 Bomber.
"My great grandfather was in the Army in World War II, and it always interested me, so I joined ROTC to learn about it," Epperson said. "We started learning about pieces and parts to airplanes, and I told mom I'd be interested in seeing what age I'd have to be to get my pilot license. So the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I contacted Marvin Bargo, who's an instructor at the London-Corbin Airport. I contacted him on a Thursday and he had me flying on Monday."
Epperson said his first flight was an exhilarating, albeit "overwhelming" experience. When flying, pilots must ensure their aircraft is steady, taking caution to angle the plane just right when banking.
"You have to think about your next move constantly," said Epperson. "We talk about that every day in ROTC. I didn't know what that meant until I started flying. Depending on where you're departing from to where you're landing, you need to make sure the weather is going to be clear or if you need to stop and get fuel."
On his flight, Epperson flew over his home and across Laurel Lake. He said the view was unlike anything he's seen.
"I love how peaceful it is up in the sky. Me, up there by myself, in control of the airplane, being able to go anywhere I want to in London. After I landed, I wanted to go back again. I didn't want to quit. The more you do it, the more you want to go back and do it even more."
Colonel Jones shares this passion. Having first flown in college, he realized he couldn't get enough of it.
"When the flying bug bites you, it keeps biting you through your whole life," said Jones. "I'm excited that we've got a young person that's excited about aviation and seeing how they can turn that into a future career."
Jones added that Epperson has many other talents in addition to flight. He participates in South's choir at a state level. During the auditorium events, Epperson is often asked to troubleshoot the soundboard and audio/visual equipment.
To get his pilot's license, Epperson must conduct another solo flight. He will also have to take two exams -- one written and the other oral. Once he gets his license, he will receive another insignia, depicting two wings with a star above them.
"I'm currently starting the application process for the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs," said Epperson. "My advice for aspiring pilots is not to get cold feet. A bunch of people that I've tried to get into aviation say 'I don't know if this is for me.' I thought the same thing. But when I got up in the air, it was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen. You really don't know just how vast Appalachia is until you get up in the air. It's incredible."
South's students can learn more about aerodynamics, how airplanes operate and aviation employment opportunities through the AFJROTC program. To learn more about the London-Corbin Airport's aviation school, contact the airport at (606) 878-9100.