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    Flight of the fledglings

    Who are the kids that can fly before they drive? A few motivated minors reach for the sky and dream of the Air Force and commercial aviation.

    [Times photos: John Pendygraft]
    Caleb Johnson, 17, right, gets instructions from Marlin Lamb. Caleb has applied to the Air Force Academy.

    By DONG-PHUONG NGUYEN, Times Staff Writer
    © St. Petersburg Times
    published January 20, 2002


    Each night, Judith Sly would sit on her son's bed, reading Dr. Seuss to her inquisitive child. After a few stories, she would tuck him in and kiss him good night.

    But George wouldn't fall asleep. Instead, the 5-year-old would reach over for his favorite magazines, stacked neatly on his nightstand, and enter a fantasy world of freedom and flight.

    Pictures of airplanes. Diagrams of airplanes. Stories about airplanes.

    "As long as I can remember, he has been incredibly interested in airplanes," said Clint Sly, George's father. "For George, it's been just a love."

    For his 13th birthday last May, the Slys bought their son an introductory flight lesson at National Aviation Flight School at St. Petersburg-Clearwater International Airport. It changed his life.

    "There was such wonderment," Judith Sly recalled. "He absolutely loved it. It's his passion."

    The Clearwater eighth-grader, one of the youngest student pilots at National Aviation, is now well on his way to obtaining a private pilot's license.

    He makes up a part of a subculture of teenage aviation enthusiasts who can't yet drive a car but dream of maneuvering fighter jets, transporting passengers on commercial planes or jetting their families to tropical vacations.

    Inspired by movies, teachers or a parent, and lured by the magnificent skies, they fantasize about soaring 2,000 feet above their classmates, sleek machines at their control.

    They are mature, intelligent and motivated kids, say their flight instructors and parents, who dismiss the Jan. 5 crash into a downtown Tampa skyscraper by a suicidal Palm Harbor teenager as an aberration.

    "I think that the public perception that babies are flying airplanes is almost comical," said Robert Cooper, the owner of National Aviation. Young student pilots "tend to be exceptionally bright, academically. They tend to be more emotionally advanced than other kids."

    Because the plane that slammed into the skyscraper was stolen by the 15-year-old student pilot before a scheduled lesson at National Aviation, some lawmakers have called for tighter security at flight schools and for age limits on student pilots.

    Parents and teenagers now worry that young students will be grounded because of their age.

    "I think it's ridiculous," said 16-year-old Gary Bousman of Land O'Lakes. "They judge teenagers like we're crazy and we're not."

    Parents of young flight students believe aviation schools breed confident and mature adults, characteristics needed to successful pilot airplanes. Any law restricting the age someone can begin flying, they say, could delay a possible career in the flight industry.

    Steve Buss, executive director of Young Eagles, an international flight program that exposes children to general aviation, said a lack of interest by young people led to an overall decline in the number of pilots in the 1990s.

    The Young Eagles program, created in 1992, began offering free flights to youngsters in hopes of sparking interest. More than 760,000 children have flown since the program's inception. Hundreds have since obtained their pilot's licenses.

    "In some kids, seeing your hometown from a different view, rather than at ground level, it touches you inside somewhere and it lights a little spark," Buss said. "And just like other careers, they work their way toward that goal (of piloting.)"

    It is a relatively expensive hobby. Lessons average about $60 an hour for fuel and an instructor. Students spend between $3,000 and $5,000 on lessons to obtain a private pilot's license, which they can't get before age 17. Pilots can solo at age 16.

    While some parents pay for their child's lessons, others have used it as a carrot: good grades and after-school jobs can mean more time in the air.

    Caleb Johnson, 17, waits tables after school at his parents' business, Fred's Farmers Market Restaurant in Plant City. When he saves up enough for a lesson, he shows up at the flight school at Plant City Municipal Airport and plunks down his tip money, a bunch of $1 bills.

    Inspired by Tom Cruise in Top Gun, Caleb often thought about being a fighter pilot.

    A 16th birthday gift from his parents of $500 worth of flight lessons helped him decide. Once in the air, he saw his house, the dog, the family's cows.

    "Freedom," he said. "I can't really describe it. It's just . . . freedom."

    Caleb has applied to the Air Force Academy.

    "It's a confidence builder," said his dad, Fred Johnson. "It's changed him."

    Caleb Johnson performs a preflight inspection before a lesson at the Plant City airport.

    The Johnsons said watching their son fly doesn't worry them. Tammy Johnson used to say a prayer before each flight, but they trust their son, and his instructors.

    Flight instructors have full control of the aircraft and can take over at any time.

    The Johnsons, like other parents, said they support efforts to tighten security at flight schools, and National Aviation officials said they plan to change the locks on their planes so that different keys must be used for the door and the ignition.

    But regulating the age someone can begin flying remains a topic for debate. Now, any child, at any age, can learn to fly.

    How young is too young? It's up to the flight school to decide.

    In 1996, a 7-year-old girl hoping to become the youngest person ever to fly a plane across the United States died along with her father and a flight instructor when their plane crashed in Wyoming.

    Cooper, the owner of National Aviation, called it a case of child abuse and said the children who come to his school are the ones who have had the bug most of their lives, without pressure from parents.

    "If they're really, really young, we take them for a ride in an airplane with an instructor," he said. "We want them to continue to have an interest when they're older."

    That was the case with Angie Millar, 20, who just received her commercial pilot's license. Millar, of Odessa, flew solo as a senior in high school.

    "It was a feeling of such accomplishment," she recalled. "It's such an awesome feeling, you can't even describe it."

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