Tom Tippin probably isn’t the first high schooler to skip school on his sixteenth birthday. However, rather than out being a juvenile delinquent on Dec. 1, that milestone day, Tippin was prowling around the Upper Cumberland Regional Airport in Sparta, Tennessee, at 5 a.m., prepping three airplanes for his first powered solo flights.
Even inside the heated hangar, space heaters blasted warm air onto the big radials powering the Stearman and T-6 Texan, trying to warm their gallons of oil. Meanwhile, the 1946 Piper J-3 Cub sat in the corner, its little Continental engine not quite so fussy.
After Tom settled into the cockpit, his flight instructor, father, and country music singer and songwriter Aaron Tippin spun the metal prop, lighting off the Continental’s four-cylinder engine.
As the younger Tippin taxied to Runway 22, Aaron and a cadre of friends and family jumped into a pickup truck, dashing to a spot along the runway to observe. In a scene played out millions of times over the decades, the flight instructor waived the student on, and away he went, the Cub launching into a crisp breeze, Tom alone in the cockpit again, as he was when he soloed a glider on his fourteenth birthday.
Power off on the downwind, Tom brought the 70-year-old Cub around for a two-point landing. Thumbs up and a few words of encouragement from his dad were the green light to taxi back for another, and another.
With three successful takeoffs and landings, the team scrambled back to the hangar to pull out the 1942 Stearman while Tom donned a leather flying suit to fend off the cold in the open cockpit. Three times he came and went successfully as his dad watched diligently from along the runway, humming what might become a new song for his next album.
Next up, the imposing 1943 T-6, the World War II advanced trainer meant to transition young pilots into fighters. Tom scrambled up onto the big wing and slid into the front cockpit while his dad helped him latch the safety harnesses. After just a couple of blades, the big radial roared to life. “He even starts it better than I do,” remarked Aaron, shaking his head as he once again headed out to the runway to observe.
Tom handled the big Texan with aplomb, soon headed back to the hangar after three full-stop landings. There he was congratulated by his proud father and uncle, Billy Tippin, also a pilot, and mother Thea, who has soloed. Tom's older brother Ted, a private pilot, was off at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University working on an aeronautical engineering degree.
Later, Aaron memorialized the event by describing it on the back of Tom’s shirt and then cutting off the shirttail, noting to observers that not many 16-year-olds solo in a high-performance, complex airplane.
While Aaron started his career as a pilot and turned to music only when his airline aspirations were dashed by an economic downturn in the 1980s, Tom, already an accomplished musician, plans to go to college to study music and songwriting. “But aviation will always be a passion,” he said after his eventful morning. “I can’t imagine not being able to fly. I love it.”
For most 16-year-olds, the driver’s test is a birthday milestone. Dec. 2, when Tom passed his Tennessee driver’s test, must have seemed a little mundane for the not-so-ordinary teenager.