Actor Joseph Dickson rises above the clouds


Joseph Dickson is an actor, director and head of a theater company that closed over two years ago.  Flying has been a way to keep creative while the stage is dark.

“Without theater, being able to focus on flying has probably been the only thing keeping me somewhat sane,” Dickson said.

Since founding Over the Ledge Theatre in 2011, Dickson has been the president and executive director.  Because of COVID, “The Great American Trailer Park Musical” in September 2019 was OTL’s last production at the playhouse in Fitzgerald Park.

“Pretty much everyone ended up in the dark in the summer of 2020,” he said. “Vaccine availability in 2021 didn’t really happen until fairly late in order to be able to plan and implement a summer season.”

“Even with vaccines, trying to figure out how to safely and successfully hold events is tough,” Dickson said. “Several local productions have been delayed or canceled due to outbreaks. There’s no easy path. My OTL duties have mostly been trying to research and educate myself on what protocols need to be put into place to return to theater safely.”

With no play productions, the daytime IT director of a small company was able to complete a childhood dream. In September, he became a licensed private pilot after earning his pilot’s instrument rating. 

“The time-off definitely gave me the time I needed to work on my instrument rating,” Dickson said. “Without that time, I probably would still be chipping away at it.”

“Gaining the skills and knowledge to get that rating has definitely been the most challenging for me so far. It was also great, though, because I got to fly with my dad for a good chunk of time,” Dickson said.  “He was in town and able to act as my safety pilot for some required training hours.”

His father was always an inspiration. “My dad got his pilot’s certificate when I was probably 10 years old, so I had experienced small airplanes when I was a kid,” Dickson, 42, said.  “Growing up, we’d go to airshows all the time.”

 Dickson’s certificate process started about two decades ago while living in Ann Arbor.  “Then I ran out of spare money for a good while — flying has always been hideously expensive — and ended up taking a long break from aviation,” Dickson said.  “I had just picked aviation back up again a few months before COVID hit.” 

 “The primary flight training process is pretty simple,” Dickson said. The first 10 flight hours focus on skills to fly solo. Then tasks like navigating longer distances and flying at night are learned.  There is a knowledge test and a practical exam with an examiner.

“You need a minimum of 40 flight hours, though it takes most folks a bit more than that,” Dickson said. “I think I did it in around 55.”

He often compares being a pilot and being on stage.  “Both acting and flying demand 100% of your focus on the task at hand,” Dickson said.  “That aspect is one of the things I love most about both acting and flying. When you’re in command of an aircraft, that’s the only thing that you can focus on. It’s very relaxing to me.”

Cost and license limitations keep Dickson flying single engine planes. 

“I’ve flown mostly small Cessna and Piper aircraft. I just recently started flying some newer Diamond aircraft, which are fairly different,” he said. “I’ve been having a blast flying them. I’ve been flying as often as my schedule, wallet, and the weather will allow. I flew about 140 hours in the last year.” 

 Because of difficulties in scheduling friends on short notice, and mostly because of COVID risks, most flights were done solo since getting licensed.

Dickson has frequented a significant number of little airports in lower Michigan. His longest day flight was around 500 miles. “Highest altitude I’ve personally flown an aircraft up to was 12,000 feet, which is 500 feet below where you start thinking about supplemental oxygen,” Dickson said.

Getting cleared to fly solo and flying through clouds alone were major triumphs.  

“I’ve always loved airplanes. There’s a great feeling of freedom and peace from earthbound stresses,” he said. “It’s just a unique way to view the world and I really enjoy that perspective, especially these days.”

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