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Fly Before You Drive: Solo on 16th Birthday

For as long as I can remember, I could not wait to become a pilot. I was so impatient to fly that I wanted to be ready to solo on my 16th birthday, the very first day I could legally fly an airplane by myself. This is the story of how I made that dream come true, and the people who helped and inspired me along the way.

It all started when my dad got his pilot’s license and started Flight Outfitters because he thought there should be an aviation brand that celebrated and promoted general aviation. I was 8 years old at the time, just beginning to lose interest in “cartoonish things” and beginning to gain interest in “real stuff ” like trucks, tractors, boats, an—you guessed it—airplanes. If it was planes I wanted to see, I found them at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh later that year.

My dad tells the story over and over again, to anyone that will listen… how he caught the aviation bug at AirVenture when he attended it as a young boy with his grandfather and the rest of the crew from their B-24: the “UNINVITED,” 7th Air Force, 11th Bomb Group. I don’t know if it was destiny or just a coincidence that the aviation spark would be lit at the very same place, Oshkosh. For me, it truly was love at first sight.

That first year I saw all kinds of different general aviation planes in one spot, many of which I had never heard of before, let alone seen in person. I was introduced to the aviation community that week and met a variety of pilots. Everyone from military fighter jocks to YouTube sensations was down to earth and eager to help feed my hunger for aviation knowledge and experiences. The ones I remember having the biggest impact on me over the years of attending Oshkosh were an F-18 pilot named Sam Christian, Trent Palmer from YouTube, airshow announcer Rob Reider, Chris Palmer from Angle of Attack, Josh Flowers from Aviation101, and Mike Patey from Draco/Best Tugs.

I left there with a true sense that I wanted to be just like those guys, or at least a member of their club some day. That night I started my negotiations with my parents. These negotiations would continue for the next seven years. I found I had to pick my battles with Mom and Dad. For example, I would start with a good explanation for why I needed to skip school to go with Dad to Sun ’n Fun, or how I could help “work” the Flight Outfitters booth at AirVenture.

My arguments never really had much merit, but they were successful in getting the message across to my parents that I loved flying and wanted to be around the activity and the people in it—and do as many things associated with it as I could. Willing to feed my interests and imagination, my parents more times than not let me tag along with the Flight Outfitters team.

The more I hung out at the airport and talked to pilots about airplanes and flying, the more invitations I got to go flying with Dad and his flying buddies. It was not long before I found myself on the “breakfast run short list,” which included my dad’s flying friends, flying club members, and some of the guys from Sporty’s Pilot Shop. Soon it became common for me to meet at I69 at 7:00am before school to sit in the right seat in a formation flight to Urbana or Portsmouth, Ohio. After a nice $300 egg breakfast, I could make it back in time for the second bell.

If OSH was the hook, the breakfast runs with that crew were the line and sinker. It was no longer a question if I was going to get my pilot’s license, it was a matter of when. To me the answer was as soon as possible! Legally, you can solo at 16 and get your private pilot license at 17. So that became the goal.

Things really started to get serious for me in March of 2021. I was a year away from my 16th birthday. I approached my dad about a “marketing idea” that we could film me working towards my solo flight and use it on the Flight Outfitters YouTube channel. My dad could clearly see through my manipulations, but I honestly don’t think he cared because he loved the idea and agreed that I could start taking flying lessons once a week—if and only if—I put GoPros on the airplane. You know, for the very big “marketing project.”

Late one Friday, my mom and dad accompanied me to Sporty’s Academy at the Clermont County Airport, where we met with Eric Radtke. Eric asked us all kinds of questions about what my goals and aspirations in aviation were. Naturally, my mom had a series of questions for him about the safety equipment and syllabus.

About a week later I was introduced to Reagan Alley, who became my flight instructor. Reagan was a perfect fit for me. First and foremost, he was closer to my age so it made it easier to relate to him. He had also soloed at age 16, which gave him the unique ability to understand some of the things that were going on in my head that you might only know if you’d been there and done that.

My first lesson didn’t feel much different than riding in the right seat with the guys to breakfast. That is, until the end of that first flight when Reagan let me take it down to the runway, rather than take over the airplane on downwind. I know his hands had to be somewhere on the controls during that landing, but feeling that first touchdown, and the sense of accomplishment that came with it had me addicted.

For the weeks and months that followed, we would fly on Sundays for two hours at a time. The time blocks were filled with takeoffs, landings, steep turns, power-on stalls, power-off stalls, simulated engine outs, and turns around a point. You know it, each lesson we would pick one and focus on it to create the muscle memory that can only be accomplished by actually flying. This once a week schedule continued from March to December.

In December of 2021, with my solo date approaching in February, we upped our lesson frequency by flying three or four times a week. In January, we focused only on takeoffs, landings, and emergency procedures. In mid-January I felt ready to go and then it became a waiting game. I continued to take lessons to stay sharp and the only thing I could do was pray for good weather for my birthday.

Solo day arrived before I knew it. Full of excitement, at 10:00 zulu time, I woke up and opened up ForeFlight… only to find a 20-knot direct crosswind at I69. Despite my year of planning and practice, it looked like Mother Nature had different plans for me than soloing on my actual birthday. When I came downstairs it was clear my dad had already looked at the weather as well: he was already on the phone with my flight instructor and one of the videographers who was set to film that day for our “little marketing project.”

The TAF showed the weather was improving as the day went on, so we all agreed to meet at the airport later that afternoon to “take a look.” My dad reminded me of the old Richard Collins weather quote: “What you see is what you get.” Meaning, no matter what the forecast says or the radar shows, if you’re about to fly into a big black cloud – do something!

My dad emphasized that just because we were going to the airport didn’t mean we were going flying. We talked about making go/no go decisions both generally and specifically in terms of what that meant for my decision making process for the day. He did not want me going up to make a cool video or impress people at the airport; I was going to solo if I was ready, the weather was right, and my instructor agreed. It was a nice mental exercise to go through and in many ways one more valuable lesson in my flight training.

The winds started to calm and Reagan and I set out to do a few laps around the pattern together. It was still a little bumpy, with about a 7-knot direct crosswind, but still conditions were improving. “I’m ready,” I said to Reagan, “can we go?”

He smiled and said, “yes, you’re ready.” We taxied back to the main Sporty’s building. I had to go sign some paperwork with Reagan and while I did, others set up cameras in N536SP, a Cessna 172S model that would be my solo airplane and a tail number I am sure I will remember forever.

I gave my family and friends a hug and set out to fulfill a lifelong dream. I was nervous but also very excited and confident. At the hold short line for runway 22, I had a brief moment of confusion: “do I do another run-up or not?” I almost hit the Unicom to ask but then settled my nerves and thought, aviation is all built-in redundancies, so even if I am not required to do it, I am going to do it. I did my run-up, told myself it was just like every other time, made my radio call, and headed out onto runway 22 for the first flight of the rest of my pilot career.

I rotated at 55 knots and right away I could tell the airplane was much more spunky without the weight of Reagan. I remember thinking, well no choice but to land now, and this is awesome. The winds had died down significantly, so much so that I even reference how calm it was in the video several times. What got me was the sun right down 22. I was not expecting that but thank goodness I had my Flying Eyes on. I made sure my math was spot on: altitude 1000 feet above the airfield (1800 feet MSL), 85 knots on downwind, 75 knots on base, and 65 knots on final. I followed the numbers and found myself touching down safely on the centerline of runway 22. Mission accomplished!

I did two more laps around the pattern that day and finally, with the sun setting, I had to call it quits so I taxied back to the main building, where my family and friends were all waiting to greet me. Hugs and photos galore—it was one of the best moments of my life. Paul Jurgens from Sporty’s Academy was there to say a few nice words, officially welcoming me to the pilot family and presenting me with a really cool Sporty’s Academy challenge coin.

Reagan cut my shirt tail off, which is an old aviation tradition where the instructor cuts the shirt tail of their student when they no longer need assistance from the instructor to fly the plane. In the old days the instructor would pull on the student’s shirt tail to get their attention. The symbolism today is you no longer need that way for your instructor to get in touch with you because you can do it yourself.

After Reagan cut my shirt tail, my dad surprised me with a replica of my great grandfather’s WWII bomber jacket. Family sidenote: unfortunately my great grandmother had sold my great grandfather’s actual bomber jacket in a yard sale in the ’70s. If anyone out there finds an authentic UNINVITED bomber jacket, please contact us!!! I know how much my great grandfather meant to my dad, so it was definitely a teary-eyed moment for me. Not only did I have my great grandfather’s name as a middle name, I was now a fly boy like him—with the leather to prove it!

The day ended with a nice family dinner. I went to bed with a full belly and a head still in the clouds. Over the next 12 months, I will continue my flight training with the goal of passing my check ride this coming February to try to get my ticket on my 17th birthday.

I’ve learned a lot so far in my aviation journey, but one thing above all others I want to pass onto others is to not be intimidated by your dreams. I encourage you to take steps towards accomplishing your goals, because if I can do it, you can do it too—no matter your age.

2 replies
  1. Kelly Wing Folds
    Kelly Wing Folds says:

    Congratulations to you, sir! My dad also soloed on his 16th birthday, and it was a proud moment in time that he talked about all his life. You will do great things. Fly safely!

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