Learn To Fly: Solo At 14

A 14-year-old boy, trained in Compton, solos both a helicopter and fixed-wing aircraft!

Learn To FlyIf anyone thinks that they can't do what they put their mind to, they should meet Jonathan Strickland. Like any typical teenager, his vocabulary gravitates toward words such as "yeah" and "cool." But what sets him apart from the rest is quite extraordinary. Jonathan can't drive a car yet, but he can fly both an airplane and a helicopter!

In June 2006, the 14-year-old carved a place in aviation history by soloing a Cessna 152 and a Robinson 22 on the same day. To accomplish this goal, he had to travel to Canada (where the age requirement is 14, as opposed to 16 in the United States). But Jonathan didn't mind---"it's just another excuse to fly," he said of the 32-hour round-trip journey in a Robinson 44 from Southern California to British Columbia and back. The momentous trip earned him four world records: the youngest person to solo both a helicopter and airplane on the same day; the youngest African-American to solo a helicopter; the youngest African-American to fly a helicopter internationally; and the youngest African-American to fly a helicopter on an international round-trip.

Accompanying him was Robin Petgrave, an accomplished helicopter pilot, with more than 11,000 hours logged flying Hollywood stunts, sightseeing tours, flight training and ferry flights for his company, Celebrity Helicopters (www.celebheli.com). Robin also runs Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum (www.tamuseum.org), using proceeds from his other businesses as well as donations. The nonprofit organization at Compton/Woodley Airport in Los Angeles provides mentoring and outreach programs to motivate economically disadvantaged minority children.

At the museum, kids perform community service, such as cleaning planes and running an on-site cafe, in order to earn museum dollars that can then be used to purchase flight time. Children can start training as young as eight years old. "At an earlier age, they just catch onto it real quickly," said Robin.

But the organization is far more than a flight school. By filling a void of after-school activities (there's a computer lab with flight simulators) and offering positive role models (the Tuskegee Airmen serve as mentors), it helps keep youth off the streets and out of trouble. To remain in the program, participants must maintain good grades.

As a child, Jonathan lived near Los Angeles International Airport and enjoyed watching the air traffic, an interest that grew when his mother bought him a flight-simulator program. After seeing a television feature about two young boys, Jimmy Haywood and Kenny Roy, who trained at Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum and became two of the youngest pilots to solo, Jonathan was inspired to join the program. After more than two years of community service and maintaining B grades, he earned his dream trip.

I joined Robin and Jonathan on their quest in Canada. Upon arrival, Jonathan passed two written tests, scoring in the 90s on both. "It can get confusing because the emergency procedures between a fixed-wing and helicopter are totally different," said Robin. "To pass both exams on the same day is something else!"

Not to mention that Jonathan, who had just used his passport for the first time, had a few culture-shock distractions. "I can't find a Taco Bell anywhere," he lamented. "And, where are the cops? I've only seen two in Canada." He giggled at Canadian accents with each use of "eh?!" and the novelty of replacing "point" with "decimal" when stating frequencies.

The young dreamer soloed in the fixed-wing aircraft first. At Pacific Flying Club (www.pacificflying.com) at Boundary Bay Airport in Delta (just outside of Vancouver), British Columbia, he flew a Cessna 152 alone. While Jonathan was in the air, Robin was a little bit tense on the ground: "I feel like a nervous hen! That kid worked his butt off, and here he is setting the world's imagination on fire."

Although Jonathan was supposed to do three patterns, he did four---a victory lap, Robin decided. Did he lose track while having too much fun? At the time, Jonathan couldn't explain it. But looking back, he is thankful for the miscount: "After the trip, it was two months before I flew in a 152 again, so I'm glad I got the extra flying time in."

Upon landing, the solo star was greeted by newscasters. How did it feel up there all alone? "I looked to the right and I didn't see anyone and I was, like, cool!" smiled Jonathan. "No one was there to tell me how to land, so I did it my own way."

The next stop of the day was Heli College at Langley Municipal Airport (www.heli-college.com), where only 2.5 hours after his Cessna 152 solo, Jonathan soloed in a Robinson 22. To fly alone, oil cases were loaded for additional weight. "You have to weigh 130 pounds to solo," he explained. "I only weigh 90 or something."

On the ground, the crowd of flight instructors and media fell silent in awe and nervousness as Jonathan hovered and flew a traffic pattern. "It was phenomenal. This kid was the sole manipulator of the controls," said Robin. "His destiny was in his hands right then and there. I was looking at it, and I still don't believe it. To solo both an aircraft and a helicopter is a tough order, but he did it. He's an inspiration to everybody, not just African-Americans."

As for Jonathan's modest take on the event: "Anybody can do it. It just takes a lot of hard work."

I sat backseat as Jonathan flew a Robinson 44 back to Los Angeles from Canada. He piloted through mountains, around the Space Needle, along the Golden Gate Bridge and low over California's coast. In Malibu, we hovered in a friend's yard for an early-morning wake-up surprise. At the time, the young aviator preferred flying the Robinson to the Cessna: "Helicopters are cool. If you see something, you can just stop and look at it. In a plane, you'd have to make circles." (Today, however, it's evident that he has caught the speed bug: "Planes are cooler because they're fast. Even cars pass helicopters.")

Smooth and steady on the controls, Jonathan flew and navigated like a pro. Because of extensive media coverage, people recognized Jonathan at our fuel and overnight stops. I definitely had a hero-in-the-making as my pilot.

Two days and 1,000 miles later, we touched down at Compton with great fanfare, greeted by Jonathan's friends and family, media, Compton Mayor Eric Perrodin and former Tuskegee Airmen. The Air Operations division of the Los Angeles County Fire Department arrived in a Black Hawk helicopter and, during a ceremony for Jonathan, presented him with a job application for future employment consideration. "It feels good," was Jonathan's typical unassuming brevity when addressing the crowd. "I'm a little tired, though."

By now, Jonathan has caught up on his rest, is midway through freshman year in high school and is rarin' to go. This March, he'll take the written exam for his private-pilot license. The results remain valid for two years, and Jonathan is already planning to take his checkride on his sixteenth birthday, March 1, 2009. What's after that? "I want to fly commercial," answers Jonathan without missing a beat. "I'll fly CRJs for a bit and then move on to the bigger planes like the 747." Not bad for a little kid who dreams big, eh?


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