Sixteen-year-old Civil Air Patrol cadet Josh Thompson shut down the engine on the red, white, and blue Cessna 172 after completing his first solo flight, the experience at Allen C. Perkinson Blackstone AAF Airport etched in his mind forever.
“I’m just telling you, that was one of the best experiences of my life right there,” Thompson said. “For the rest of my life, I’ll always remember this day. I’m 16 years old and I’m pretty young to be doing this. I don’t even have my driver’s license yet,” he said, as his flight instructor swooped in for a congratulatory high-five.
Twenty-four students participated in the Middle East Region’s nine-day National Flight Academy solo camp at Fort Pickett Army National Guard Base in Blackstone, Virginia, during the Independence Day holiday week.
Maj. Gen. Joe Vazquez, CAP’s national commander, said the Virginia camp is one of five major national academies for powered solo flight instruction and there are several non-powered academies, too.
The flight camp included 10 hours of dual flight instruction with a dozen instructors and 12 of CAP’s Cessna 172s. Cadets pair up with instructors and typically fly twice a day—in the mornings and afternoons—working on their skills and their confidence to fly solo. Classwork is scheduled in between flights so the students and the airplanes can cool off.
Vazquez explained that two cadets and one instructor occupy each aircraft so one student can observe from the rear seat while an instructor and a student work the controls in the cockpit. They typically fly to an airport about 50 miles away, land, and then switch assignments for the return flight.
“We’re not just a solo academy. We’re really a flight academy,” said Vazquez. “We try not to pressure the students into soloing in 10 hours. It’s a great thing when it happens, it’s a morale booster, but not all students will make it in exactly 10 hours and we recognize that. Especially when weather and other things get in the way,” he said.
If the cadets have studied, shown the aptitude and drive to solo, but have some kinks to work out on landings and takeoffs, or are delayed by weather, they can still earn a “pre-solo” set of wings at the end of the academy, Vazquez said.
Prior to December, CAP cadets may apply for one or more summer special activity camps for the next year, said Col. Gene Hartman, CAP’s activity director. He cautioned that the programs are extremely popular; the 24 cadets at Fort Pickett had 112 more on a waiting list right behind them.
Vazquez had some practical tips for youths ages 12 to 17 interested in joining CAP’s cadet flight programs. “The easiest way to do Civil Air Patrol is to show up at a CAP meeting, meet the members, and find out more about it there,” he said. “We have resources online and gocivilairpatrol.com is the first place to start.”
A unit locator on the website allows potential cadets to enter their zip code and find out where the closest squadron is located. From there it’s just a matter of showing up for regular meetings and participating in CAP activities aimed at cultivating flight experience.
Thompson, the newly minted solo pilot, already has future flight plans. “In the end, my goal is to be an airline pilot,” he said. “Along the way I’m probably going to want to do some volunteer flying, definitely for CAP, kind of giving back to them … and taking cadets on their flights, that kind of thing. I’m never forgetting this.”