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Flying comes naturally to teen

Ben Roddey IV's family loves flying. He solos in the family helicopter on his 16th birthday.

By ROBERT FARLEY

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 8, 2000


ODESSA -- At 100 pounds, Ben Roddey IV had to put 35 pounds of lead weights under his seat just to meet the minimum weight requirement for operating the helicopter.

At just over 5 feet tall, Ben could reach the pedals with his feet -- barely.

But what Ben lacked in height and weight, he made up for in planning and practice. The high school sophomore, who lives in Tarpon Springs, had prepared months to make his first solo helicopter flight on his 16th birthday. Monday was the day.

Late Monday afternoon at the Tampa Bay Executive Airport on State Road 54, a crowd of family, friends and a few journalists were on hand to witness the event. Ben, who attends Genesis Preparatory School in New Port Richey, acknowledged that he was a little nervous. But it was hard to tell. He was all business during a preflight inspection.

His mom and dad, "nervous but confident," looked on.

"I don't want this to be particularly newsworthy," said Ben's mother, Chris Roddey.

With instructor Ron Beasley playing co-pilot, Ben ran through a series of maneuvers, hovering just a few feet off the ground. After practicing a few takeoffs and landings, it was time for Ben to take the reins solo.

Beasley said young Ben has been one of his best students.

Beasley, a freelance instructor for 10 years, said most students, regardless of their age, require about 30 hours of flight-time instruction before venturing a solo flight. Ben took just over the minimum of 20 hours.

"He's a natural," Beasley said.

Beasley, who also taught Mr. and Mrs. Roddey to fly helicopters, said instruction includes simulated engine failures.

"Sometimes I reach down and snap the throttle off on him," Beasley said.

That requires the pilot make a split-second decision.

"I put a lot of pressure on him, purposely creating problems," Beasley said.

Every time, he said, Ben has reacted calmly and properly.

"He's definitely prepared to do it," Beasley said minutes before Ben's flight.

Now on his own, Ben practiced a few low-level maneuvers, and then headed off for the horizon.

"Wow, what a great feeling that must be," said Ben's grandmother, Friedel Roddey.

Nearly out of sight, Ben looped the helicopter back around. A neat, gentle landing. Then, applause.

Ben exited with a smile, though he looked a bit embarrassed as friends and family circled around to congratulate him and take pictures.

"You did great!" Ben's father said beaming.

Next up on Ben's to-do list? He had also planned to get his driver's license Monday, but the Department of Motor Vehicles office was closed. In two weeks, Ben plans to get his student pilot's license to fly airplanes. His father, Ben III, is his instructor.

Ben III was his wife's flying instructor as well. It's how they met.

"I started flying when I was 17," Ben Roddey III said. "I still get a little thrill every time I take off."

The family owns the helicopter Ben IV flew on Monday.

Chris Roddey said they use the helicopter to fly to horse shows (Ben III has been show jumping horses for three years) and other functions.

"It's a flying family," said Ben Roddey III, a 22-year commercial pilot.

At 16, Ben is among the youngest student helicopter pilots in the country. That is the minimum age to become a student pilot. In Canada, the minimum age is 14. Ben plans to get a license to allow him to take passengers on his 17th birthday. He'd need to be 18 to get a commercial license.

The Roddeys have four children, and Ben is the oldest. His three younger siblings all plan to fly, too.

Following tradition, Beasley cut off Ben's shirttail after his first solo flight.

Neighbor Steve Derderian, a pilot himself, presented Ben with a T-shirt that reads: "I like it solo!"

Asked to assess his first solo flight, Ben said it was exciting.

"It's kind of lonely," he added. "It's a lot different without Ron next to me.

"It was fun while it lasted," he said.

- Times researcher Caren Baird contributed to this report.

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