The dream of flying is as old as dreaming itself, and as young as any number of youngsters watching a kite flutter against a blue sky, but only a few of us become inspired to make the dream come true. For Derek Campano and Nick Stoker of Hendersonville, the dream is even more ambitious — to use their love of flying for a good cause. The two 17-year-olds, both juniors at Hendersonville High School, are planning a cross-state flight to raise money for victims of spinal cord injuries, an affliction with which both of them have a personal connection.
“The plan to do it for a charitable cause such as spinal cord injury came tragically to me when a cousin was severely injured in a car crash last summer,” Derek explains. “He suffered from a coma, and is still suffering, but gradually recovering from an incomplete spinal cord injury that has paralyzed his legs and his hand movement.”
Nick, too, became sensitive to the issue after a family friend suffered a diving accident and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. “Derek showed me the story on his cousin and I knew I wanted to help out,” Nick says. “Since then, I’ve done research on my own which has made me feel even stronger about this unfortunate injury. It makes it even better when I have a great friend in Derek to share it with.”
Both boys have been fascinated with flight for years and have been racking up hours in the cockpit toward obtaining their private pilot licenses. Derek’s grandfather and great-grandfather were both pilots, while Nick’s goal is to become the first pilot in his family. “I’ve been interested in flying since I was ten,” Nick says, echoing Derek’s nearly six years of enthusiasm for the pursuit. Both of them train and fly from Asheville with Western North Carolina Aviation, and Derek’s also gained some hours training with the Civil Air Patrol as a cadet. Both of them favor the Cessna 172 Skyhawk, a four-seater popular with leisure pilots.
The catalyst that joined the boys’ flying with raising money for a cause was Flight Of Passage, a best-selling 1997 memoir by Rinker Buck, about piloting with his brother a broken-down Piper Cub on a 1966 cross-country journey inspired by their father, a barnstormer from the early days of civil aviation. Derek had also heard stories of other inspirational flights and, with his cousin’s tragedy in mind, worked with Nick to establish a fund at the Community Foundation of Henderson County called Wings of Support. Even before the actual flight, Wings of Support has raised a little more than half of the $3,000 goal.
Among the airports the pair will visit on the flight is Kill Devil Hills, enshrined in aviation history thanks to the Wright brothers, as well as airports in or near Concord, Hickory, Chapel Hill, Winston-Salem and Hatteras — 13 in total. They’ll be collecting donations at each stop, with all funds going to the North Carolina Spinal Cord Injury Association. The pair will split the costs of each flight out of their own pockets, so that money donated goes directly to Wings of Support and the NCSCIA.
Meanwhile, both of them continue to pursue their private pilot licenses, flying on learner’s certificates with an instructor from WNC Aviation. They’ve ranged as far afield from Asheville as Anderson and Clemson in South Carolina and over the Smokies to Gatlinburg in Tennessee. Both have about six flights left before they’re ready for the private pilot’s test, probably during the spring or early summer in anticipation of their Wings of Support adventure.
After graduating from Hendersonville High next year, Derek hopes to pursue a career as an astronaut while Nick is interested in commercial aviation and hopes to spend a summer in Alaska as a bush pilot. But both of them agree that nothing compares to that first, heady solo flight, when the instructor puts the plane entirely under the learner’s command. Even better, Nick says, is the second solo the training requires. “You’ve gotten the nervous bugs out and can really enjoy the skies. I remember on my second solo, I was holding short of the runway and found myself with a huge smile on my face, and I said to myself, ‘I’m really a pilot now!”