Ears begin to pop as the pressure gets higher. Thin, white wisps of clouds flash by in the blink of an eye. There's not a soul to see, just patches of land intersected with a never-ending maze of roads that fade off into the distance.
The pinpoint line of the river is almost unnoticeable. There's no need to worry about stoplights turning red, the bumper-to-bumper traffic of rush hour or the overly cautious driver ahead going 10 under in this early-morning commute. All that lies ahead is air, miles and miles of open air.
For Dr. Andrew Fulkerson, a criminal justice professor at Southeast Missouri State University, this is a normal view on his ride to work -- his ride being a 160-horsepower, four-seat Piper Cherokee Warrior airplane that cruises smoothly at 110 mph.
Fulkerson has made the 130-mile commute from Paragould, Ark., to Cape Girardeau twice a week throughout his 10 years of teaching at Southeast, flying his plane whenever the weather allows.
Fulkerson said the drive time from his home to work is about two hours, but the fly time normally averages about 50 minutes.
"Usually it's faster coming [to campus] because the prevailing winds are out of the southwest, but every now and then that's different," Fulkerson said. "The fastest I've ever made it was like 38 or 39 minutes at a real good tailwind."
Born into a family with a passion for aviation, Fulkerson had no choice but to love flying as well. His father was in aviation his entire life, working as an instructor for the Air Force, an examiner and instructor for the Federal Aviation Agency and a crop duster. His mother has her pilot's license as well.
With the help of his father and other instructors, Fulkerson earned his student pilot's license at 16 years old, the youngest one can be to obtain a license.
A student license allowed Fulkerson to fly solo or with other licensed pilots, but that was not enough. A year later he moved on to his private pilot's license, which allowed Fulkerson to have passengers fly with him.
"I probably would've been disowned had I not learned how to fly," Fulkerson said. "It was just one of those things that was expected that I learn how to fly, so it was great that I had that opportunity."
Although flying always has been a big part of his life, Fulkerson has gone through spurts of flying frequently to hardly flying at all, he said.
"I always kept my medical certificate and my license up," Fulkerson said. "I wasn't really flying much until I got the job here. I thought ‘This will work real well', and so I've flown a lot the last few years."
Fulkerson rented an airplane during his first couple of years at Southeast before he bought a plane in 2005 or 2006.
"There's not a lot of airplanes for rent, at least there weren't in Paragould, Ark.," Fulkerson said. "So the first couple years it wasn't difficult to [rent], but then it got to where it was becoming more of a problem to have access to an airplane that I could rent, so I bought one."
Fulkerson is in a partnership with two other pilots in order to make the cost of ownership more affordable.
"They [co-owners] know that I want it to fly to Cape and one of them wants it on the weekend to do certain things and the other one is just trying to build up as many hours as they can, so it has worked out real well," Fulkerson said. "It's been a good partnership. It helps make it a lot more economical."
Fulkerson flies to work when the weather conditions permit. When flying, the airplane has to be at least 800 feet off the ground, and the sky must be clear of clouds and bad weather.
"I try to avoid bad weather," Fulkerson said. "You don't want to get stuck in a storm. I've been in some really turbulent weather that I didn't particularly like, just really bouncing around. It's just hard to control the airplane. It's like a ride at Disney World."
Fulkerson said he usually flies between 5,500 feet and 7,500 feet above ground.
Fulkerson lands his plane at Cape Girardeau Regional Airport, where he keeps an old car he owns to make the drive to campus. Conveniently, there is an airport located about three miles from his home in Arkansas where he can store his airplane.
"The airport here [in Cape] is great," Fulkerson said. "They're wonderful. It's a controlled airport, controlled air space. They've got a control tower. The people at Cape Aviation are really wonderful."
Supervisor of Cape Aviation Derrick Irwin said he sees Fulkerson on a daily basis flying in and out of the airport.
Irwin compared Cape Aviation to a gas station for airplanes. It handles commercial airlines as well as general aviation, such as corporate jets and flyers like Fulkerson.
"It's common to see people fly to work like he does," Irwin said. "A lot of the businesses here have aircrafts here."
Irwin explained a lot of medical professionals and executives for Drury Hotels stop in at Cape Aviation.
Cape Aviation averages 66 operations per day between commercial and general aviation and Fulkerson is just one among several others flying to work.
Fulkerson said he does not have any problems trying to land in Cape, except for once, which led to the only time he was late for class.
"I've only been late once, and that was because I misjudged the fog," Fulkerson said. "The Cape airport in the fall -- there is about a month, a three-to-four-week period, where it's real susceptible to fog early in the morning. There had been times when I would take off, and there had been fog here [Cape], but I felt pretty confident that it would burn off by the time I got here.
"I did that several times, and it worked out fine. One time, it didn't and I requested permission -- clearance -- for landing and they said no. They gave a negative. I landed in Sikeston and somebody came and picked me up. That's the only time that's happened."
Cape Girardeau is not the only place Fulkerson has flown to, though. Being on the Arkansas Education Television Network commission, Fulkerson flies to the commission meetings at its headquarters in Conway, Ark. He is also the coordinator for Southeast's online criminal justice graduate program, which is in cooperation with Missouri Southern University in Joplin, Mo. Fulkerson flies to those meetings as well.
The farthest trip Fulkerson has made was to El Paso, Texas, shortly after he earned his pilot's license.
Fulkerson plans to continue flying to campus as long as he can because, although he enjoys driving, flying is more relaxing to him.
"When you're driving you can't look at any scenery or anything, but when you're flying you can," Fulkerson said. "There are some days I can look on my right and see the Mississippi River, and I look on my left and I can see the edge of the Ozarks if I'm high enough."
In order to keep a pilot's license, the license holder must complete a full-body physical every two years to ensure he or she is eligible to fly.
Fulkerson has reason to not be completely confident he will pass his next exam due to surgeries he had last year.
"I had three eye surgeries last year, and I'm cautiously optimistic that I'll pass my medical exam," Fulkerson said. "If I don't, then I may not be flying anywhere, but I think I will."