Lifting Spirits Sky High

Zoe Morris, then a Carrboro High School student, scanned the horizon as she flew over Jordan Lake with Robert Epting ’67 in his Piper Cub. (Contributed photo)

Robert Epting ’67 spent countless Sunday afternoons of his childhood imagining himself behind the controls of planes taking off and landing at the old Greensboro airport. The High Point native told anyone who would listen that he intended to be a pilot one day, and he even chose UNC because of its role in World War II’s Navy preflight program.

Had he not been turned away because he needed glasses, Epting might have followed in the footsteps of his twin brother, Jim, who became a decorated military pilot and flew with the Air Force’s renowned Thunderbirds.

“Not getting into the Navy program at Chapel Hill was a huge disappointment to me,” recalled Epting, who also earned a law degree from UNC in 1970. “In those days, if you weren’t trained for the military, the door to becoming a pilot was pretty much shut.”

Since the 1990s, Epting has taken nearly 3,200 young people on their first flights. (Contributed photo)

More than 20 years would pass before Epting earned his wings and began a life of flight-related volunteerism. In 2019, he received the Phillips 66 Aviation Experimental Aircraft Association Young Eagles Leadership Award for taking nearly 3,200 children on free rides to help them see brighter horizons ahead.

Epting had been providing free first-flight opportunities to Boy Scouts in the early 1990s when a friend asked if he would do something similar for children being treated for devastating injuries at the N.C. Jaycee Burn Center at UNC’s Memorial Hospital.

“The idea is to get a child up in the sky, where they can realize the world is bigger than they can imagine,” said Epting, who received the Young Eagles National Humanitarian of the Year Award in 2001. “It helps, not just with healing, but decisions that will shape their lives and careers.”

Some of his passengers were so inspired that they have become pilots. Several have flown fighter jets. A few even provide Young Eagles rides to children experiencing health crises similar to their own.

While most children embrace flying with the sort of boundless optimism he felt at their age, Epting has had to circle back soon after takeoff to return some uneasy passengers to solid ground. So he was especially concerned about a child recovering from burns so severe that she lost her hands and was unable to speak. But what he worried initially were murmurs of fear proved to be the sounds of delight. The girl even managed to steady her arms on the handlebars to guide the plane.

“She was a miracle in my life,” he said. “All of the children are, in their own way.”

Epting, left, with brothers Jim and J.C. in front of a 1943 Howard airplane while on a family trip to the old Greensboro airport. (Contributed photo)

Epting was 17 when he took his first flight on a small plane owned by a friend’s father. His buddy had just received his pilot’s license and convinced his father to let the pair fly to Myrtle Beach for the weekend. “That first ride turned out to nearly be a calamity,” Epting said.

His friend suggested a detour over Chapel Hill to get a look at the campus where they would soon enroll. Misjudging the landing, they got stuck on a muddy grass runway at Horace Williams Airport.

Epting has spent his career as a lawyer, establishing Epting & Hackney with classmate Joe Hackney ’67 (’70 JD) in 1974 and since 1984 has been general counsel to the Orange County Water and Sewer Authority. Until the Horace Williams Airport closed in 2018, Epting often would drive the mile from his law office to take breaks. It reminded him of the times his parents took him, his two brothers and sister to the Greensboro airport. Now he focuses on lifting others’ spirits through flight.

“Some of these children weren’t expected to survive, yet I get to see them run to their parents and boast that they flew the plane,” he said. “It’s incredible when a parent trusts you with their precious child and that child comes back a different, more confident creature. For me, to get to experience that over and over is a gift.”

— Jill Warren Lucas


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