A flaming red sunset begins to take hold over the nearby Pacific Ocean as a graceful, long-winged motorglider appears over Santa Paula Airport.
After several low passes and tight, precise patterns, the single-seat aircraft that resembles a baby U-2 touches down on its single main wheel and taxis to the open door of a hangar beside the single, east-west runway.
The aircraft, a German-built Fornier RF4-D, and the pilot, Sam Mason, are both rarities. Only a handful of the 156 Volkswagen- or Limbach-powered motorgliders designed in the 1960s were ever imported to the United States, so they’re an uncommon sight. And now, at a time when airport kids and youthful pilots seem like increasingly endangered species, Mason and several teenaged friends are on their way to becoming accomplished fliers.
“I’ve been lucky to grow up around airplanes and have parents who support my desire to fly,” said Mason, whose parents, Pete and Rowena Mason, own an aircraft restoration firm and manage the airport at Santa Paula. “My friends make it fun because we all challenge each other to learn more and do more.”
Evan Byrne, Zach Corr, Seth Horton, and Mason are close in age, and they met at the airport. On many days, they can be found flying, working on airplanes, or riding unicycles around the nontowered field, long one of Southern California’s premier launching pads for vintage, aerobatic, and experimental aviation.
At a time when the average U.S. student pilot is 34 years old and the average U.S. private pilot is 48 years old (up from 45 a decade ago), Mason and his youthful friends stand out—and they watch out for each other. When one makes a jumbled radio call on the common traffic advisory frequency, the others are quick to point out the error. And when another friend fails a private pilot knowledge test before passing the second time, his fellows tag him with a barbed new nickname: “Two-Test.”
“We’re always challenging each other to fly better and try new things in aviation,” said Byrne, 17, of Ojai, California, a coastal valley about 20 minutes by car from Santa Paula. “We’ll do spot landings, short-field landings, one-wheel landings. And we’re all into aerobatics. We all want to fly the latest, greatest aerobatic airplanes.”
Byrne’s parents, David and Vickie, own a clipped-wing Piper Cub, and David, an airline pilot, taught his son to fly it. Teaching a family member to fly can be fraught with peril, and some parents or spouses avoid it completely. But Byrne has only praise for his dad’s flying and teaching abilities, and he says the experience has brought them closer together.
“My dad’s the best instructor I’ve ever had,” Byrne said. “He really understands tailwheel airplanes and aerobatic airplanes, and he can get the information across in a way that’s clear and understandable. He’s very direct, and he makes it enjoyable. I didn’t really appreciate him until I got checked out in other airplanes with other instructors, and they weren’t nearly as good.”
Byrne’s mother also is a pilot and instructor. “She and my dad met when she was taking flight lessons and he was her CFI,” Byrne said. “They’re both pilots and CFIs, and they made sure I was around airplanes my whole life.”
He became interested in flying when he took glider lessons at age 15. Since then, he’s obtained a private pilot certificate and more than 100 hours of flying experience, mostly in the family’s Cub. Byrne is home-schooled and flies several times a week.
“I hope to become a professional pilot the way my dad did,” Byrne said. “Right now, that seems like it’s a long way off. My friends and I talk about it. But right now we’re all just trying to learn as much as we can, as fast as we can. And we fly as much as we can.”
Mason’s parents have been preparing him for a life in aviation for as long as he can remember. When he was a cranky infant, Mason’s mom would take him flying in the family’s Piper Pacer, and the rumbling engine would lull him to sleep. He started flying at age 12 in a Piper J–3 Cub with his dad, a CFII. Mason soloed a glider, a Schweizer 2-22, on his fourteenth birthday.
“My parents bought the glider as a project when I was 5,” Mason said. “Dad flew it for years and kept it in great shape until I was ready.”
Mason is home-schooled, too, and gets most of his education curriculum online. One of his parents’ unbreakable rules is that he can’t come to the airport until all his schoolwork is complete each day. Mason helps with the family business from time to time by assisting with aircraft reconstruction projects.
“I’m pretty good at rib-stitching,” he says, “although I really ought to do more.”
Long before they were born, Mason’s and Byrne’s mothers used to fly Cubs together. Now, their two teens spend their spare time drawing up Aresti figures for the formation/aerobatic routines they hope to perform together someday. Both have logged aerobatic flight time in airplanes ranging from Cubs to Stearmans to an Extra 300.
Mason’s parents are restoring a 1953 Piper Pacer in their hangar at Santa Paula, and they anticipate Mason will take his private and instrument flight tests in it when the time comes.
“We’re putting an electrical system, radios, gyros, and an IFR-approved GPS in it,” he said. “It’ll have everything our Cub lacks. I’ll be able to do my IFR training in the Pacer and get my instrument rating in it. It’s going to be a lot different, and a lot more capable of flying in the weather, than our other airplanes.”
Pete Mason said the family’s favorite aircraft over the years, like the gliders, have been acquired as dusty, discarded, or incomplete projects. “All our best airplanes always seem to arrive in pieces,” Pete said. “We usually trade for them. And I don’t mind the fact that they’re unfinished because, that way, we can complete them the way we think they ought to be.”
The younger Mason pays for his own aviation fuel through his job mowing the airport grass and taking care of the grounds. The Fornier burns only 2.5 gallons an hour, so it doesn’t take much. So far, Sam has logged more than 200 hours aloft. His father says he’s glad his son is showing such an avid interest in flying and building his own community of friends who share his enthusiasm. But the family well knows the dangers of flying, too.
Mason is named for an uncle, a former flight instructor, who was killed at Santa Paula Airport at age 19 while giving dual instruction in a Cessna 150. The airplane collided with a Cessna 182 in the traffic pattern, and five people lost their lives in the accident. Pete Mason said he rarely allows his son to fly on the weekends when the traffic pattern at Santa Paula is frequently filled with an unbroken string of aircraft. And he’s not convinced that formation or low-altitude aerobatics are good ideas, either.
“You can fly all the airshows you want,” he tells his son. “As long as you have a 5,000-foot hard deck.”
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