At Air Orlando, safety is at a premium.

ORLANDO – The first question that John F. Painter always gets asked is a familiar one: is it something that’s safe to do?

Anyone was got in their car, fought traffic and drove over to Crystal Lake Drive to visit Painter’s office, he noted, should keep in mind that getting behind the wheel of a motor vehicle always has been, and will continue to be, a lot more dangerous than flying.

“I’m always asked, ‘Is flying safe?’ “ said Painter, who operates the flight school Air Orlando Aviation, Inc. at 319 N Crystal Lake Drive in Orlando. He suspects the question comes from media coverage of plane crashes that make people feel too scared or vulnerable to fly – even though television coverage of fatal car accidents doesn’t stop anyone from getting in their car the next morning.

John Painter gives a presentation on his company, Air Orlando Aviation.

“Somehow when an airplane accident occurs, it really sticks in our minds, and makes it seem more dangerous than it is,” Painter said.  “More often when an accident occurs, it’s the pilot who could have intervened and done something about it.  It goes back to the judgment of the pilot.  Judgment is absolutely essential.

“One of the notions we teach,” he added, “is that flying is really risk management.  The pilot has a ton – a ton – to do with it.  Flying is not forgiving if you make bad choices.”

That’s one of the lessons Painter teaches at Air Orlando Aviation, which was incorporated in September 2002.

It can, however, make for a very strong employment option in an otherwise weak economy.  As Painter noted, aviation represents a wide number of possible career paths.

That includes becoming a commercial pilot for one of the major airlines, going into corporate jet aviation, flying for charter companies, flying missionary airplanes overseas, joining the military, using those skills to work for local law enforcement, joining the Coast Guard’s Drug Enforcement Agency patrols, doing Medivac rescues, and working for the American Red Cross – all good options for those who can fly a plane.

“The careers are amazing and diverse,” Painter said.  “Aviation can be the enjoyment of flying, something you want to do on the weekend.  It can also be a lifelong career, something that can be very rewarding.   For those people that want to do it, it’s a great thing to do.”

Painter recently spoke about what it takes to become a professional pilot during a program at the Orange County Public Library.  Painter said he started training to get a pilot’s license in 1985. 

“It’s an interesting business,” he said.  “It’s a company absolutely founded on doing the right thing for the customer and doing the right thing in terms of safety.”

He now has a 3,000 square foot pilot shop.

“Most of the people who become our clients live locally, have a job, and want to fly for pleasure,” he said.  “We also rent airplanes.  Those people can come to Air Orlando and rent a plane for pleasure.  People have a lot of fun.  We also manage airplanes and have a charter company.”

Charter flights have become a popular alternative to booking through the major airlines, he noted.

“Let’s say I want a plane to take me from Orlando to Miami, and I don’t want to take a commercial flight,” he said.  “A lot of business owners use charter flights because there are a lot of places that are not convenient to get to on a commercial flight.  You can fly down, conduct your business, and be home in time for dinner.”

Painter said his customers are pretty diverse in terms of what they’re interested in.

“I’ve interacted with people since 1985, and heard a lot of reasons why we learn to fly,” he said.   “For most people, there’s a certain level of passion that drives them to do it.  For many people who fly, there’s a distinct passion.  Since I was knee high, there was no way I was going to go through life without learning to fly.  When we talk to our customers, many of them feel that way.” 

Air Orlando Aviation's customers share a passion for riding the skies.

The average age of Air Orlando’s customers is between 20 and 45, he said, and some want to train to become professional pilots.  Air Orlando has also done training for the Federal Aviation Administration, and the company has submitted a proposal to do training for the Air Force.

But not everyone who applies wants a career.

“I’ve heard people say ‘I want to use it for pleasure travel,’ “ he said.  “I’ve heard people say, ‘It sounds so cool to fly.’  If you don’t have that drive, you’ll probably find it too time consuming or too costly.  It takes a lot of effort and I don’t want to undersell that.  It does take a lot.”

Getting a commercial pilot’s license, Painter said, can cost between $55,000 and $60,000, and in these days of tight credit, it’s a challenge for some of his customers to secure a bank loan for this purpose.  Painter recommends they simultaneously enroll in Utah Valley University to get a two year degree while also taking flight training from Air Orlando Aviation.

“What that allows them to do is get access to student loans,” he said.

Not all of the instructions are done in the air.  Painter said students can also expect to study physics – how planes fly – and engineering, including how the airplane system works.

They study math to learn how to navigate long distances; geography to find where places are and how to read maps; and meteorology, which “is a big part of it,” Painter said.  “Understanding the basics of weather and how things happen is very important.  You learn that because it helps you make better judgments on when to fly.”

Most of all, he said, students learn how to operate safely.

“Every rule has its roots in safety,” Painter said.  “One of the great things about the U.S.  is we have more freedom to fly than anywhere else in the world.”

At Air Orlando, he said, “You learn techniques for controlling the airplane, but the biggest thing you learn is responsibility and judgment.”

It’s also a great field, he said, for women.

“Is it for girls, or is it a guy thing? Girls make great pilots, and in some ways, better pilots,” Painter said.  “Men are more ego driven.  We’ve trained many women, and often they’re very good.  They’re more inclined to show good judgment.”

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Freelining with Mike Freeman: The woes of a careful driver.

It only takes a few seconds to let your guard down while you're driving ...

Just a matter of seconds, that’s all it took, for me to open my eyes ….

… and, it turns out, avert a tragedy.

I saw the car in front of me, and for a second, it looked like that red car on Interstate 4 was moving in reverse, speeding right at me. I thought the driver had accidentally fallen asleep at the wheel and mistakenly shifted his car into reverse. And there it was, the back of his car, zooming right for my front hood.

I slammed on the brakes, and then within seconds … all was fine again.  That red car started moving faster and faster away from me on the highway, as my own car slowed down. Several  cars behind me shifted into the left and right hand lanes to zip around me, because suddenly I was moving too slowly for their taste.

And it hit me, then, that the motorist in front of me hadn’t fallen asleep at the wheel.

I had.

It wasn’t even late at night. It was about 5 o’clock on a Friday afternoon, the sun was still out, and I was confronting rush hour traffic to get from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs. Traffic was slow, but not the worst I’ve ever seen it.  It was at least moving, if not very quickly.

But I was dead tired from a long, exhausting week.  Sitting there in that bumper to bumper, move-then-stop kind of traffic, I allowed myself the luxury of leaning my head back against the seat, taking in a deep breath, and refusing to get annoyed by the road congestion.  I ignored the traffic altogether, in fact, and started thinking about other things.  Outside of feeling very worn out, I was upbeat, in a good mood.  Suddenly the traffic started to pick up again, so I pressed on the gas pedal.  And then, still lost in my thoughts, it happened…

For just a few seconds, I faded.

The only other time in my life that I can remember nodding off while driving was in 2002, when I moved from Massachusetts to Florida.  Stuck in a UHaul truck with six cats — all of them, it seemed, much happier than I was — I had stopped for a quick nap, and then, figuring I was nice and refreshed, decided to make an all-out effort at driving throughout the night from the MidAtlantic into the Deep South. But after a few hours it caught up with me again, and, behind the wheel of that big UHaul, sleep beckoned — rudely, and constantly.  My eyes struggled to stay open, and it was just like being on a couch, when you’re perfectly relaxed and comfy, and you really want to stay awake to see your favorite TV show and — suddenly you’re out. That’s how it was in that UHaul that night. So I gave up and pulled into a rest stop and slept some more. That helped.

This incident was different. I opened my eyes to see that I was moving fast, and heading right for the car in front of me that, well, wasn’t going quite as fast as me.  It’s a good thing I’m not the tailgating type, because the car in front of me would have gotten very intimdately involved with mine if I had.

And the rest of the drive?  Uneventful.  A shocker like that has a good way of waking you up once and for all.  I made it to the Altamonte Mall unscathed.

I thought about this afterwards in part because I kept thinking about Russell Hurd.

I met him on Jan. 3, during a ceremony in Davenport marking the official dedication of the Heather Hurd Memorial Highway along the stretch of U.S. 27 in Northeast Polk County. Heather was his daughter, and in January 2008 she was driving on U.S. 27 near the Berry Town Center shopping plaza when she stopped at a traffic light.  That move turned out to be the last few seconds in her life.  What she didn’t know as she put her foot on the brakes and came to a stop is that the driver of a tractor-trailer right behind her, David Lunger, hadn’t noticed that the light had turned red.  He slammed right into Heather’s car. She was killed at the scene in what turned into a multi-car pileup.

Lunger, who later pleaded no contest to a citation for careless driving and was fined $1,000 — and has since died of cancer — had been distracted by a cell phone text message.

As I stood there talking to Russell Hurd on that brisk January morning, he told me about how that tragedy had changed his life, and made him a tireless advocate for new laws that ban people from texting while driving. He serves on the board of directors for Focus Driven, a group promoting laws that prohibit sending texting messages while operating behind the wheel of a car.  He hopes to model their efforts on the success of Mothers Against Drunk Driving in raising awareness about the dangers of drinking and then getting behind the wheel of a car.

But I also found Russell Hurd to be practical.  He knows passing a law won’t eradicate this kind of behavior altogether.  (Florida is now among the states without a ban on texting while driving.) As he noted, the law bans drinking and driving but some people still do it. The key, he said, is to change the mindset of a culture — a culture where more than a few people feel comfortable reading a text message or even drafting a text response while they’re driving. According to some statistics, that could be as much as 90 percent of the U.S. population.

There’s a lot of truth to what Russell Hurd says. It’s easy to view the problem as being isolated to people who are completely, totally irresponsible. They go to bars, drink too much, and then get behind the wheel of a car, intoxicated.  They pay for that in the lives they claim when they smash into someone, and the prison term they face afterwards, if they even survive the crash.

But as Russell noted, the bigger problem is with those of us who think we’re being safe for precisely the opposite reason: we’re not intoxicated or under the influence of anything. We’re sober, maybe even buzzed from a fresh cup of coffee.  We figure nobody could be better prepared to start driving safely.

I can’t say how many people I’ve seen talking on their cell phone while speeding down I-4 — or how many times I’ve done it, too.

I’ve also seen people texting behind the wheel while on I-4. I’ve read text messages while driving, but only sent out text messages while stopped at a red light.  But just the same, I’ve joined that 90 percent of the public that figures, Hey, I can do this safely. I know what I’m doing.

Do we? What if we’re driving safely, but the people around us are not? Do we lower our guard just long enough to let them smash into us?

When I set out from downtown Orlando to Altamonte Springs on Friday, I felt fine. No reason to think I’d have problems behind the wheel. I was in a good mood, and while I was tired, it was Friday, after all. Who isn’t run down by the end of a long work week?  And it was only 5 o’clock at night.

And as I opened my eyes to see the car in front of me zooming toward me, for a second I thought, oh, no, crazy driver …

I was wrong.  That driver was doing fine.

The problem, I was forced to admit, was me.

Contact Mike Freeman about this column at

Insect-infested food served at the Orange County Jail is an isolated case, jail spokesman says.

ORLANDO – The recent shipment of food to the Orange County Corrections Department that included an unwelcome ingredient — insects — was an isolated incident that shouldn’t happen again, the spokesman for the jail said.

“There was one other minor incident, not exactly the same, in the mid-1990s, and that was it,” said Allen Moore, public information officer for the jail.

Earlier this month, inmates at the jail’s medium-security Whitcomb building found insects in the food being served to them.  The inmates quickly pointed this out to a corrections officer.

The county jail houses not just inmates who have been sentenced to a term of less than two years, but anyone who has been arrested for committing a crime  in Orange County, awaiting a court date.  If that inmate doesn’t have the money for bail or to hire an attorney, they can sit in the jail for weeks or longer waiting to get into court.  In the meantime, they haven’t been convicted of a crime – but they’re still stuck in jail.

“Sixty-six percent of most jail populations are not yet convicted of the crimes for which they were accused,” Moore said.

That’s one of the reasons, he said, why “Our goal is humane treatment.”

That includes providing decent meals to inmates, he said.

“We’re watching everything very closely, and so far everything is going well,” Moore said.

Moore said food is provided to the jail by Trinity Food Service.  The parent company, Trinity Services Group, is a part of Canteen Correctional Services, which provides commissary services to more than 70,000 correctional inmates across the U.S.

Trinity blamed the infests on the trucks they used to transport it to the jail, and Moore said those trucks are no longer in use.

“They’re replacing those trucks being used, and it only reached a small number of inmates that we serve,” he said.  “I don’t know how many trays got into the hands of inmates, but they saw it had insects and pointed it out to an officer, who had the trays removed. It wasn’t a whole slew of bugs, just one or two running here and there — which is bad enough.”

Overall, he added, Trinity has a good record.

“They’re done a very good job,” he said.  “Some jails run their own food service, like Polk County. Ours is a mega jail — we’re roughly the third largest jail in the state.  The jail menus are approved by a nutritionist, and we have to meet Florida Model Jail standards, and we’re inspected by the American Correctional Association, the national accrediting agency for jails. We need to show that we meet national standards of care and control.” 

Trinity has been under contract with the jail since 2001, he added, and “We have no complaints with Trinity. Those trucks are no longer in use. Ironically, that same week that occurred, those trucks were supposed to come off line. It only appeared to be involving that one truck. They cleaned out all the trucks, not just that one, with a bleech solution, and after that meal was served — there was no evening meal – they fumigated the truck.  Just to be sure, they brought in rental trucks for the meals as well.”

Based in Tampa, Trinity notes on its web site that it has “become the predominant correctional foodservice contractor in Florida. By 2000 Trinity was successfully operating every major County Jail foodservice contract that had been awarded in Florida.”

Canteen’s site emphasizes the importance of “quality and nutrition” in their commissary services.

“We understand that mealtime plays a critical role in the overall stability of a secure facility – and we take that responsibility very seriously,” the site notes.  “To help reinforce a sense of order and control within your facility, we make sure that all food is properly prepared and presented.  Canteen is committed to providing food service programs that achieve these objectives three times a day, seven days a week.”

As far as the nutritional requirements, “Canteen’s on-staff registered dietitians meet with clients and medical staff to develop nutritious menus,” the site claims.  “We exceed federal, state and local guidelines, and respect individuals’ dietary and religious requirements.”

The Orange County Corrections Department’s Inmate Handbook states that prisoners have “the right to expect to be treated fairly by all staff members,” and that they have “the right to nutritious meals, proper bedding, clean clothing and a laundry schedule for exchanging county issued clothing, an opportunity to shower regularly, availability of toilet articles, and accessibility of medical treatment.”

As for meals, the handbook notes that three meals are served daily: breakfast at 5:30 a.m., lunch at 11 a.m. and dinner at 4 p.m. 

“There are no extra helpings,” the handbook states.  “Meals will be eaten at meal times.  No food (including condiments) will be taken back to the sleeping area.  No pork products are served. If for medical reasons, you need a special diet, you must be seen by the Health Services Division for an evaluation of dietary needs.”

Inmates at the Orange County Jail found insects in the food served to the Whitcomb building earlier this month.

 The Southern Center for Human Rights, which advocates human rights for prisoners, notes that the United States has the highest incarceration rate in the world, with the highest incarceration rates in southern states.

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