Share this article

print logo

High ambition; 16-year-old girl has a passion for flying and is studying to earn a permit that will allow her to pilot a small aircraft by herself

When most teenagers think of extracurricular activities, flying airplanes is not the first thing that comes to mind. For 16-year-old Abby Sullivan, however, flying is almost second nature.

Abby, a junior at Sacred Heart Academy, began flying planes when she was 14 years old. Her experience with recreational flying began long before that, however. Her father often took her up in her family's plane when she was younger, and she has had an interest in flying ever since. In her family, flying is not just a method of transportation; it is a hobby.

Although it might seem difficult (not to mention nerve-racking) to learn how to fly a plane before ever driving a car, Abby did not think twice about it when she first started out. In fact, she was eager to learn herself after flying with her parents so many times.

"I can see how people who only fly in commercial planes would be intimidated by it," she says, "but flying smaller planes is completely different."

That small plane that she flies is called a Skycatcher, a light sport aircraft that she has dubbed a "lawnmower with wings." Right now, Abby, of Orchard Park, is training to get a permit that will allow her to fly by herself. To do so, she will not have to take any written tests like teenagers hoping to get their driver's permits must take; instead she will have to "solo," or complete an entire flight without her instructor in the plane.

The only requirement for soloing is to be 16 years of age, but it takes a lot of practice to learn to fly a plane alone. Abby's current training consists mostly of short flights in which she takes off and lands in the same airport; after her lessons, she usually flies with her dad for fun, sometimes to Pennsylvania and back. She says that flying schedule usually depends on her other activities, as she also rides horses, plays the piano and performs in school musicals.

"I fly a lot during the summer," she says, "but during the school year it's more sporadic."

We often think of pilots as relying solely on GPS to track their routes, and for commercial airlines that is usually true. However, pilots of small planes like Abby's have to be much more focused on their surroundings. All planes are required to have at least basic navigation systems, but to get a permit, it is important for pilots to know where they are and where they need to go just by looking out the windows. Abby says that although student pilots have a tendency to pay more attention to the GPS screen than to what is going on outside, instructors stress the importance of flying by sight.

"I have GPS," Abby says, "but you're supposed to fly visually as much as possible."

This can be tricky when flying in weather conditions with low visibility, so Abby says that to solo, you have to "learn what your aircraft can handle." Essentially, this means being able to tell if the weather is clear enough to rely more on sight than on GPS.

Once she has soloed, Abby will be able to fly alone in a single-engine plane, which can fly only in good weather conditions. She says that most people stop training after they can solo, but those who do continue can obtain a license to fly multiengine, or propeller, planes. This certification is more difficult to earn because you have to learn to fly through clouds and conditions with low visibility; these conditions require much more reliance on GPS than the "VFR (visual flight rules) conditions" -- good conditions -- that single-engine planes fly in.

To get a multiengine license, pilots have to perform a "cross-country" flight, meaning that they must fly to different airports that are at least 50 nautical miles from their starting location. However, this extra training is worth it for more serious pilots, because only multiengine planes can fly on days when visibility is poor. Abby says that her ultimate goal is to get a multiengine license.

In Abby's type of plane, you can fly wherever you want as long as the conditions are good. Her family flies to different places around the country when they go on trips, but she says that they try to avoid the busier airspaces where commercial airlines fly.

"We try to stick to uncontrolled air, and not to fly into the huge airports," she said.

It's much easier for small planes to fly where they will not interfere with large commercial planes. Still, she says that pilots of small recreational planes can fly to any airport as long as they are registered.

Like most 16-year-olds, Abby is also learning how to drive a car; she says that it is hard to compare driving and flying because the two require entirely different skills. When flying a plane, takeoff and landing are the trickiest parts, but once you are in the air, you can relax more than you can when driving a car.

"I think it's a completely different skill set," she said. "With flying, there's not much to do once you're in the air."

Her advice to teenagers who are interested in flying is to not be intimidated, and simply try it.

"Don't be afraid of not being capable," she says, "because if you really want to, you can do it."

Although she is not currently interested in a career as a pilot, Abby says that flying is something she plans on doing for the rest of her life.

"I really love doing it," she says. "I love going up and flying. I see myself doing it as a hobby and a passion."


Meredith McCaffrey is a junior at Sacred Heart Academy.