The Sky is No Limit
By Cynthia Robinson
Photography by Mike Force Photography
Professional horse trainer, aircraft mechanic, first mate, business owner, realtor, artist, yoga teacher and pilot—those are just some of the hats St. Simons resident Annie Harper has worn. “My mother loved everything I did. That’s why I’m so weird,” she said, with a laugh. “I’m serious!”
She currently splits her time between serving as pilot for the local Civil Air Patrol’s Sundown Patrol; first mate on the 71-foot restored yacht, the Cloister Belle; a realtor with Don Wright & Associates; and yoga instructor at Balance Wellness Studio.
Annie’s adventurous spirit was nurtured growing up along the coast in Wilmington, NC, and Charleston, SC. “People ask about my various adventures and talents. My mother always told me I could do or be whatever I wanted, and I believed her. Whatever I came up with, she supported wholeheartedly.”
Annie also had the love and support of her father and two brothers. “We did everything together, including fishing, hiking through the woods and learning to shoot. I was the ultimate tomboy. I hated pink! I had more fun climbing trees, playing with my pet frogs, turtles and anything else that caught my eye.”
Her first real love was horses. “At a young age I learned to ride and then train and instruct. My parents hauled me all over the Southeast to different horse shows where I competed.” And, she often won.
Soon, the skies beckoned. “In between showing horses, I would sometimes accompany my first husband to the airport on weekends, where he flew his glider. Powered planes towed the lightweight sailplanes up to altitude and turned them loose. It didn’t take me long to work my way into the cockpits of the power planes. No gliders for me! I wanted an engine.”
A few weeks later, a former Delta pilot and flight instructor told her she needed to learn to fly. She accepted his offer to teach her. Having an instructor who was a former military, commercial airline, glider and aerobatic pilot was a definite plus. “Not only did I learn to fly by the books, but also by the seat of my pants.” Annie said she felt extremely proud when she earned her wings, but soon found herself longing for more adventure.
The next step was a doozy. “All our seasoned pilot friends insisted I wasn’t a real pilot until I mastered the skill of flying a taildragger airplane, one with two wheels in the front and a small one under the tail—an altogether different animal.” She searched for a plane she could rent finding only one—an older aerobatic plane. “I told the instructor I only wanted to learn how to take off and land. I did not want to go upside down!”
After about 10 hours bounding down the runway, she finally mastered the technique. “On my last flight, I asked the instructor if maybe I could just go upside down for a second to see what it was like. So, we put the nose down, built up speed, and then pulled up into a loop. Hanging upside down by my seatbelt, I couldn’t stop laughing! It was so much fun.”
She and her husband eventually bought the plane, which needed extensive work. Since it was fabric-covered, few people knew how to tackle the restoration. Luckily, she found Ben Epps, the son of Georgia’s first aviator.
“I knew how to fly it, but not how to work on it. Since I always like a challenge, I told him I wanted to help.” She quit her job and dedicated herself to aviation. Not only did she help restore the plane by apprenticing with Ben, but she also went to technical school at night and earned her aircraft mechanics license. For two years she worked restoring antique aircraft and working part-time in the maintenance hangar (at Peachtree-DeKalb Airport) assisting as an expert sheet-metalist.
About the same time, as her marriage was ending, the company’s flight school asked her to be their chief mechanic, caring for 13 aircraft that flew constantly. “They required after each inspection or engine change, the aircraft be test flown before being released back to the line. So, for years, all my flight time was either upside down or test flying school planes!”
Eventually the flight school changed hands and Annie and a business partner opened their own aircraft sheet metal business. “We worked on everything from helicopters to Lear jets.”
After re-marrying, she embarked on yet another adventure when she and new husband, Art, decided to move to St. Simons Island in 2000. One day, while enjoying a stroll on the beach they met a retired Delta pilot. When he found out Annie flew, he suggested she attend a local Civil Air Patrol meeting. Once again, she was hooked.
The volunteer organization, founded in 1941, is the civilian auxiliary of the U.S. Air Force. The group takes part in search and rescue operations, as well as provides disaster relief, aerospace education, cadet training and other humanitarian efforts. “Our St. Simons Squadron is one of the oldest in the country. Pilots flew missions during WWII, searching for German submarines that were sinking large numbers of tankers off our coast.”
Annie is honored to be a part of such a distinguished organization and currently flies sundown patrols, where the organization’s pilots fly their Cessna planes over area waters searching for any boaters in distress. This volunteer position is the perfect fit for our high-flying adventurer. “Being in the Civil Air Patrol allows me to fly again and be of service to my community. I love the freedom and beauty of flying. We see this island and water all the time, but when you see it from the air, it is spectacular.”
Life on the Water: “I love the water. It’s what feeds my soul. I love being out in nature on my paddleboard. You see so much—the sharks, the stingrays, the dolphins. I’m in heaven. You never see the same thing twice.”
Teamwork: Works as a realtor team with her husband Art, a retired Special Forces Green Beret. While they share a love of the blue skies, they have different perspectives. “He only jumps out of planes. He doesn’t fly them, and I don’t understand how anyone could jump out of a perfectly good airplane!”