Gene Burnett, Ross Razak and Nancy Milleret have something in common -- they'd rather not have their feet on the ground.
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The three pilots are separated by 65 years of age and 5,750 hours at airplane controls. But they all share the same fascination with aviation that led Orville and Wilbur Wright on the first manned flight 100 years ago today.
"It's the act of flying," Milleret said. "Just being above the world."
As the world marks the centennial of that first flight, the Journal-World asked Burnett, Razak and Milleret -- who represent the past, present and future of aviation -- to reflect on why they chose to live much of their lives up in the air.
WWII nurtured flying itch
Gene Burnett was born 16 years after the Wright brothers first took off at Kitty Hawk, N.C.
But airplanes already were becoming mainstream. The U.S. Postal Service had established airmail service, airplanes had been introduced as war machines, and William Boeing had established the company that later would become an aviation powerhouse.
In those days, it was hard not to be excited about the world's newest form of transportation.
That excitement led Burnett and a friend to spend part of their Saturdays washing planes at Lawrence Municipal Airport. In exchange, pilots would give them rides.
"That was a big reward," he said.
After high school, Burnett, now 84, went to work for a Kansas City electronics manufacturing firm. While there, he saw an ad in the newspaper for the War Training Service Program, which trained prospective recruits to fly.
He still remembers the date of his first training flight in a Rearwin Sportster -- Feb. 15, 1941.
"I really wanted to go" fly in World War II, he said. "I thought I was going to be a fighter pilot."
But government officials refused to allow Burnett to join the Army Air Forces. The work his firm was doing to develop radar-jamming equipment was too important for him to leave, they said.
So Burnett decided to get his flight instructor's rating. He taught future pilots at Kansas City Municipal Airport for 10 years starting in the mid-1940s.
He said he loved teaching students the more dangerous maneuvers. That included rolls and spins, which require students to recover a plane that is out of control.
"It was the worst thing -- it scared the hell out of all my students," he said. "I loved it. My wife's at home with two little kids, and I'm doing this stuff. I'd just tell her, 'Oh, we just went for a ride.'"
Burnett later moved back to Lawrence, where he founded a medical equipment company. He owned several airplanes over the years, including a Cessna, a PT-17 military trainer, two Beechcrafts and a biplane.
He often flew to business meetings across the country, accumulating more than 6,000 hours at the controls. He saw the addition of radios, starters, GPS technology and many Federal Aviation Administration regulations to aviation.
Burnett gave up flying in 1994 because of health reasons. But that doesn't mean his thoughts are centered on the ground.
"I know when I'm out and I hear an airplane, I look up," he said. "I always look up. I never fail to look up."
Career started with dreams
When Kansas University Chancellor Robert Hemenway is aboard, Ross Razak feels a little more pressure to make smooth landings.
"Well, obviously, he is our boss," Razak said. "We want to fly everyone as if it was the chancellor. We want to give them the best ride possible."
Razak is one of four pilots employed by Kansas University. He flies both of KU's planes -- a Cessna Citation and a KingAir.
Razak, 31, wanted to be a pilot for as long as he can remember. Airplane posters lined his boyhood bedroom, and models filled the shelves.
He received his private pilot's license while a high school sophomore in Abilene, with hopes of becoming an Air Force fighter pilot. He joined the Air Force after high school, but less-than-perfect eyesight kept him from becoming a military pilot.
Razak later attended Kansas State University's flight training program in Salina, where he obtained his commercial rating. He flew a year for Great Lakes Airlines, based in Denver, before coming to work at KU three years ago.
Many of the KU pilots' flights involve taking doctors from the KU Medical Center to see patients around the state. They also take top KU administrators to meetings in Kansas and throughout the country.
But Razak has had his share of more famous passengers. He's flown former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole to Lawrence for meetings at the Dole Institute of Politics, and he flew former U.S. Rep. Jack Kemp to the Dole Institute dedication this summer.
And he makes regular recruiting trips with KU coaches. Former men's basketball coach Roy Williams was a regular passenger, and Razak already has taken new coach Bill Self on one trip.
"(Williams) was pretty much business all the time," Razak said. "Bill Self seems to be the same way."
Though he has more than 3,500 hours in the cockpit, Razak says he still gets excited when he's in the air.
"It's a different type of excitement," he said. "When you take your first flight by yourself, it's a nervous excitement. But now, when the air is really smooth, or you see a nice sunrise, it's like, 'Man, I'm glad I'm doing this. I have a great job.'"
Flight student eyes future
If all works out, Nancy Milleret will reach a personal milestone as a pilot the same day the world celebrates the 100th anniversary of Orville and Wilbur Wright's milestone.
Milleret, a sophomore learning to fly at KSU in Salina, will take a test today with the Federal Aviation Administration to receive her certification to be a flight instructor.
"It's a little more pressure, having it be on that (anniversary) day," she said.
At age 19, Milleret would not only be flying, but she'd be qualified to teach others to fly.
Ironically, a love of KU basketball helped lead Milleret to flight school at KSU.
When she was growing up in Tonganoxie, one of Milleret's cousins had a plane he flew to all away Jayhawk basketball games. She wanted to do the same thing someday.
So she received her private pilot's license during her junior year of high school, then started attending KSU after graduating from Tonganoxie High School in 2002.
Milleret now has about 250 hours of flight time, learning mainly on a Beech Bonanza. She flies two or three times a week.
She'd like to fly a corporate jet after graduating from the four-year program.
"It's more personal" than flying commercial, she said. "You get to know the people you're flying."
Though some in her generation take flight for granted, Milleret realizes how much has changed in the last 100 years.
"It's pretty amazing, the transition," she said. "I didn't see the first jet. I didn't see the first space shuttle. They were already there when I was born. It doesn't seem too significant until you realize how much the technology has changed and how much people have done."