Standing in front of a Cessna 172 four-seater plane at the Covington Airport, Rusty Horton displays the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award he earned for being an accident-free pilot for 50 years. (Staff Photo: Karen Rohr)
On Rusty Horton’s sixteenth birthday, he earned his driver’s license — and his pilot’s license. At 17, the Federal Aviation Administration awarded him his commercial pilot’s license. From there, he obtained his instrument rating and by 18, Horton was a flight instructor.
“I was just fascinated with airplanes. I wanted to be around airplanes,” said Horton, who earned money to pay for his flight habit by cutting lawns.
Now 67, Horton has flown for 50 years and throughout all of those decades he’s never had an accident. To recognize his half century of safe flying, the FAA recently presented Horton with the Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award.
The award is designed to “recognize pilots who have demonstrated professionalism, skill and aviation expertise by maintaining safe operations for 50 or more years,” according to the website www.faasafety.gov.
Members of the Experimental Aircraft Association Chapter 1025, which is based at the Covington Airport, nominated Horton for the award. He joins roughly 2,800 other pilots across the country in holding the designation.
“I was tickled to death. I was elated, happy and glad that I could qualify,” said Horton, who was presented with a plaque and lapel pin.
Horton said he learned to fly in 1964 at a small airfield off of Panola Road, Gunn Airfield, in DeKalb County. Horton’s mother and other family members viewed flying as too risky, but his dad, Gus Horton, encouraged him.
“He said, ‘If this is what you want, I’ll support you.’ He thought it was a fad and it would fade out but it never did,” said Horton.
Horton earned a degree in teaching from what is now the University of West Georgia and during his college days joined the National Guard in Winder, which was equipped with airplanes used in the Vietnam War.
Horton taught high school science for a few years and worked as a flight instructor during the summers.
When his dad started an oil distribution business in Decatur, Horton joined him and worked the business for two decades, all the while employed part-time as a flight instructor at Stone Mountain Airport.
After the family sold the oil business, Horton worked full-time at the Stone Mountain Airport and then got a job as a pilot with an air freight company, Dodson Transport, at the Covington Airport.
These days, he continues to instruct, part-time out of Covington and part-time out a Lenora Airfield in Snellville. He estimated he’s taught between 300 and 400 people to fly.
Horton said he’s been extremely careful and meticulous during his career as a pilot, and that attention to detail has prevented any mishaps over the years.
“Flying is dangerous but it’s a controlled environment. You just have to be thorough and very diligent and vigilant about maintenance of the airplane and the rules and regulations,” he said. “Preparation is 90 percent of it. If you are well prepared, then everything else falls into place.”
Horton recalled only one time when a flight required maneuvers to avoid a crash. In his early 20s, he and his dad were traveling to a fly-in at Burlington, N.C. Flying out of Charlotte, N.C., his two-seater Champion airplane developed an air lock in the gas tank which prevented the gas from flowing into the main compartment. With the airplane’s gas tank just about on “E”, Horton’s dad told him to act quickly and land.
“My dad said, ‘You’d better pick a spot, before a spot picks you,’” said Horton.
That spot was a deserted dirt road that led through soy bean and cotton fields. Horton landed and proceeded to repair the gas flow problem. The landowner, a farmer, came out to see if they were OK. Horton told the farmer they were fine and he’d be obliged if the farmer would walk to the end of the road and stop any traffic that came up so that he and his dad could use the road to take off.
Horton said his dad kept a level head throughout the entire emergency landing.
“Dad’s have a way of doing things like that, guiding you through things like that,” said Horton of his late father.
Horton said in addition to instructing he does fly into locations, such as St. Simon’s Island, accompanied by his wife, Lynne, just for pleasure, and on those Carolina Blue Sky days he can’t resist climbing into a Cessna.
“It’s just a thrill every time you go up,” said Horton. “It’s just an adrenaline rush, just excitement. You never get over it. You’re just hooked.”