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Virtual friends will meet, fly cross-country

By Jill W. Tallman

Randy Lewis met Kendall O’Brien four years ago, and the two have been friends ever since. They’ve shared a lot of aerial adventures; taking turns flying as pilot in command and co-pilot—virtually, that is.

Randy Lewis (pictured) will meet his virtual friend, Kendall O’Brien, and fly with him across the country.

Lewis, 18, and O’Brien, 19, live on different sides of the country—one in Wisconsin, the other in California. They’ve been able to share their love of aviation via the multiplayer online mode offered through Microsoft Flight Simulator, which allows users to log onto the Internet and fly together or act as air traffic controllers in a simulated environment.

This summer, however, they’ll meet in person and fly together for the first time.

Lewis, of Fitchburg, Wis., and O’Brien, of Murrieta, Calif., plan to fly O’Brien’s Cessna 150 from California to Wisconsin later this month to attend EAA AirVenture. If weather is on their side, they’ll launch from French Valley Airport (F70) around July 23 and make their way to Middleton Municipal-Morey Field (C29). As both Lewis and O’Brien are fairly new private pilots—Lewis got his certificate in March—they don’t plan to fly into the big show itself. They’ll drive in from Middleton, which is where Lewis rents Cessna 152s and 172s. After the show, they’ll fly back to California.

Lewis says he and O’Brien got the idea from reading Rinker Buck’s “Flight of Passage,” a memoir of the author’s flight with his brother from New Jersey to California in a restored Piper Cub. “We started crunching some numbers. All of a sudden it seemed like a possibility.”

The two are paying for the trip by working “small, minimum-wage jobs,” Lewis says. They’ve been flight planning almost constantly in preparation and have chosen a route to Wisconsin that will take them south of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Coming back, they’ll fly nearly down to El Paso, Texas, “and then we will actually be brushing the Phoenix area, then north to the Grand Canyon. That will be one of our stops,” he adds. AOPA’s Internet Flight Planner has been a useful, convenient tool, Lewis says. As an added precaution, he has asked his flight instructor to review their routes.

It’s a momentous trip for Lewis, who has loved aviation since he was a young boy, according to his mother, Sherry Lewis. “There was a book called ‘Flight’ that he checked out in the school library every week for the whole year; we’d read it to him at night,” she recalls. When he was 14, her son became an avid sim pilot using Microsoft Flight Simulator and external rudder pedals. The constant practice paid off when he began taking flight instruction, she adds, because he was able to take off and land the airplane with very little assistance from his flight instructor.

Sherry hasn’t met O’Brien in person either, but she has chatted with him via telephone and online and has seen his photo. And she is confident that the two young men will be up to the challenge of flying cross-country. “Being pilots, they have to take things seriously,” she says.

“I don’t know how she is” OK with the trip, Lewis says of his mother. “Somehow, she just has that trust in me, I guess.”

Following this summer’s grand tour, Lewis will head to the University of North Dakota. He hasn’t decided his major, but “commercial aviation will definitely be in the mix,” he says.

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