Duane Life’s head is, and almost always has been, in the clouds.

“I’m just sure my first word was airplane, not mom or dad,” Life joked.

In elementary school, teachers quickly learned to never let him sit by the window because if the weather was nice, his eyes and mind were in the clouds.

Life, who will turn 80 in November, is a flight pioneer of sorts.

He’s the first sport pilot in Kansas to complete a ground-to-air flight check done by Federal Aviation Administration examiners.

He did it in an airplane he built himself, at his own airstrip on 190th Street.

“Those guys had never done anything like that before,” Life said. “They said after that they had a much better understanding of sport aviation.”

The sport license exists for those who want to fly something a little heftier than an ultra-light, but not go to a full-size craft that would require a private pilot license.

In Life’s case, that means flying one of the five airplanes he has built. Each has a maximum fuel capacity of 10 gallons.

The first craft he built is hanging in a museum in Nebraska. The other four are hangared in north Sedgwick County, just waiting for Life to take them for a spin.

“You know, I built this hangar for two airplanes, and I have four in it,” Life said. “There is a piece of my life in every one of these.”

Two of his planes resemble a small version of a Piper Cub. Another is a low-wing craft that has lines harkening back to the ’40s.

All of his planes are unique, and all took at least two years to build.

“When my wife and I uncrated the first one, I asked myself, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Life said.

But two and a half years later, he flew the small plane — and if he wasn’t hooked on airplanes before, he was pulled in hook, line and sinker.

Life has 1,500 hours in his log book, most of those hours in ultralights.

And he can remember his first flight. An uncle let him try flying a Piper Cub over the family farm.

“Later, my father wanted to know why the plane wobbled so much in the sky,” Life said. “I told him it was the pilot’s first flight”

Life was 18 at the time, fresh out of high school. He was building model airplanes and watching TWA Tri-motors fly over the family farm on the way to Wichita.

He was able to land a job and learned to fly while working for Clearwater Air in the repair shop.

“My instructor would take off for me, then cross his arms and tell me to fly,” Life said. “He taught me. He wouldn’t tell me anything, unless I asked a question.”

And there was plenty of flying to do — both airplanes and ultralights. Life was helping rebuild both types of aircraft for the company, which had hired him because of his construction of flying airplane models.

“The shop rule was anything you worked on, you took the first flight in,” Life said. “I think that is a good rule for everyone. You pay attention when you have to fly it after fixing it.”

Life said without that job, he would have never learned to fly — it was and is an expensive hobby to pursue.

After spending time in ultralights, Life decided it was time to go to a sport certification and planes that could go farther and faster.

That meant a written test, oral test and check ride.

It also meant flight lessons, as the sport license requires time with an instructor.

He didn’t have to look hard for one — Life’s grandson Dustin Smisor was hooked by aviation the moment Life sat him in an ultralight. He is now a flight instructor.

“He has taught me a lot of stuff,” Life said. “He’s one of the best instructors I have ever had.”

It was several years before he tried to build an ultra-light, but once he finished the first, another was soon to follow.

He then tried building kit airplanes, and now hangars three of those including one with folding wings to make the most use of storage space.

On a clear day, Life can be found putting a few gallons of gas in one of his planes and spending an hour or two aloft.

“When those wheels come off the ground, I still get the same thrill as the first time,” Life said. “Flying is one of the best things that ever happened to me.”