20 Dec Attorney’s passion is the sky
by Dwain Hebda
From an early age, Robbie Wills seemed destined to fly.
The Conway native, attorney and former state legislator came by his aviation bug honestly. His grandfather — Wilburn Adams, creator of Pickles Gap Craft Village — was an Army Air Corps cadet late in World War II. So late, in fact, he never got his pilot’s wings before the war ended.
“(My grandfather) was never able to own his airplane after that, just didn’t have the financial ability to do that, but he always talked about aviation like it was his long-lost love,” Wills recalled. “He always had this twinkle in his eye when it came to airplanes. That stuck with me. I’ve always been obsessed with making model airplanes, going to the airport and watching planes take off and land.”
Wills grew up and began building a career, earning a law license and getting elected to the Arkansas House of Representatives where he would serve as Speaker of the House. After his stint in politics, he founded his own firm, providing strategy and lobbying services and becoming, in his words, “a million-miler on Delta” in the process.
In fact, he might have never taken the rudder himself had it not been for a passing encounter with an acquaintance about five years ago.
“It never seemed realistic to me to become a pilot or learn how to fly,” he said. “Then one day I heard Dr. Steve Magie, who’s a state rep from Conway now, talking about his airplane. I said, ‘Are you a pilot?’ and he said, ‘Yes.’ I said, I’ve always wanted to do that. He said, ‘You should do it,’ and he gave me the name of his instructor.
“A couple days later, I took a lesson there at the Conway airport and I was just hooked from the very first flight.”
Wills enlisted Steve Stansel for his flight training. A retired Drug Enforcement Administration officer and longtime pilot, Stansel was long on experience and more importantly, Wills points out, long on patience.
“At the time I was 45, so I was kind of an old dog that he was trying to teach some new tricks,” Wills said. “It took me quite a while.”
Federal Aviation Administration guidelines dictate a pilot complete a minimum of 40 hours to earn a pilot’s license. Wills clocked in at more than double that enroute to earning his flight card in 2014.
“I was a slow learner,” he said with a shrug. “I passed my FAA check ride on my 99th flight hour.”
Since then, Wills has spent a great deal of time in the air, both for business and for pleasure.
“I fly about 300 hours a year, which is a lot for someone who doesn’t do this for a living,” he said. “I’m right at 1,300 hours right now. I’ve kept that pace pretty well and I’ve progressed from the instrument rating. I’ve got a commercial pilot certificate, so at some point I could do this as an occupation.”
No one spends that much time in the cockpit without a few near-misses, but thus far Wills has been lucky. About the worst thing that happened was losing electrical power in a rented plane heading into Jonesboro.
“This was in the middle of the day and fortunately it was nice weather,” he said. “(The plane) did have retractable landing gear which goes up and down without electricity, so I had to manually lower the gear. I didn’t have a radio to communicate. Fortunately, there were no other aircraft trying to land at Jonesboro at the time.”
As harmless as Wills makes it sound, the situation was a serious one. He couldn’t work the flaps on the wings — key to slowing the craft down — so his landing was, in his words, “very hot, very fast, very quiet.” But to talk to him, you’d never know he’d just been in a near-miss.
“I wasn’t worried at all. I knew exactly what to do. I’d been trained well and relied on that training,” he said. “Statistically speaking, it’s a lot safer to get on an airplane and fly than get on a motorcycle. My joke is I have an airplane because my wife (Dana) wouldn’t let me buy a Harley.”
Besides, he says, the occasional mechanical malfunction is a small price to pay for the joy he gets when he’s aloft in his beloved 1969 Beechcraft Bonanza E33A four-seater.
“Every flight I’ve ever taken I find myself amazed that I’m able to do it and I thank God for giving me the ability to do it,” he said. “It’s something I dreamed about as a kid and I have to pinch myself every time I’m in the cockpit. Every flight something amazing happens that just makes me so thankful I’m able to do this.”