By Graeme Smith, EAA Lifetime 1047360
I fly Young Eagles often at rallies, but at Newport State Airport in Rhode Island (KUUU) the public side of the fence is next to the fueling station so if a young person is looking at the plane while I refuel, they get offered a chance to sit in it. If they express more interest they are sent home with Young Eagles paperwork to complete. In early 2012 one such young person was hanging on the fence with his dad and, according to my logbook, I gave him a Young Eagles flight on March 21, 2012, for 0.7 hours. After the flight I made my standard pitch: “Keep hanging on the fence — you might catch some more rides.” Not many young people actually do. However, 11-year-old Alex Bowley did. By late 2012 he had caught a few rides and been to a few breakfast and lunch fly-outs with our local group of Cessna 150/152 pilots.
Alex was painfully shy. Asking another pilot if he could see their plane was an angst-ridden exercise. One day while flying with me he admitted he had been kept back at school a year; reading and math were problematic. Fellow flyer Ron Stewart suggested a challenge. He asked Alex if he was coming to the Cessna 150/152 fly-in at Clinton, Iowa, that summer then issued the challenge: “Get your grades up at school and you can fly there with Graeme.” I spent most of the flight home with Alex asking me if we meant it. I assured him we did.
Days before the fly-in, Alex found out he had made better grades in school. Over the next two and a half days we flew the 850 nautical miles to Clinton Municipal Airport (KCWI) in Iowa and joined in the fun. He flew the whole trip and handled nearly all of the landings.
The Cessna 150/152 Club is a marvelous family and Alex was quickly adopted and caught some rides. Of course we took part in all the “not too serious” fly-in contests with Alex doing a lot of the flying. We knew we were unlikely to win a prize. We had a slight hope for the performance rally but we had pooched the fuel calculation slightly and we didn’t win. Alex was a little disappointed. Then, Chairman Mark Buchner announced the Top Gun trophy, “This year’s Top Gun trophy for best overall score across all the contests goes to someone who doesn’t even have a driving license yet. Alex Bowley!”
Mark assured me the committee had tabulated all the scores carefully and that Alex had won fair and square. Jim Campisi handed Alex a set of his Delta captain wings, which Alex still treasures. After the excitement in Clinton, Alex kept hanging on the fence, volunteering at Young Eagles rallies and FAA WINGS seminars. To earn money for flying he worked a multitude of side jobs. His grades at school continued to improve as we were able to help Alex comprehend his schoolwork by relating it to his flying. He started to take formal flying lessons.
On June 22, 2017, Alex turned 16. The stars aligned, the weather was perfect, and with permission he skipped his last day of school. His parents (who are teachers) skipped part of school too and we stood at the side of the runway while he flew with his CFI, Adam Ginn of Newport Aviation. Alex flew three perfect solo patterns with two greased landings and one that was absolutely acceptable though not to Alex’s personal standards. The tires “chirrupped” slightly!
Of the 75-plus young people I’ve flown in the last five years Alex is the fourth I know of to solo. His flying is of a self-imposed high standard I am proud of him. I’m sure he will make a fine pilot. More importantly, flying has taken a shy young kid and turned him into a fine young man who looks you straight in the eye when he shakes your hand as he greets you.
Sometimes it is about more than just the flying.