After touching down in a blue-and-white Van’s Aircraft RV-12 that her Circle Christian School classmates had built, student pilot, aircraft builder, and junior golfer Abbey Carlson tweeted, “Flew my first solo flight this morning, one of the greatest feelings ever!”
With her auburn hair pulled back into a ponytail and a golfer’s tan on her forearms, Carlson was all smiles as the Winter Park, Florida, high school senior posed for photos commemorating the event in February.
Carlson bubbles over with enthusiasm as she talks about her favorite activities: golf, aviation, and Harry Potter.
In between classes and flying, Carlson, who is ranked No. 22 on the Junior Golf Scoreboard, has been keeping herself busy by climbing up the leader boards of local, regional, and national golf tournaments, and putting in a lot of time on the practice range.
In the beginning, her golf career wasn’t so stellar, Carlson told AOPA. “I played in a bunch of junior tournaments on normal courses but the tee boxes are moved up to make it fair for someone who could only hit the ball 60 yards. In my first nine-hole tournament I shot an 81.” Her game has steadily improved since then. In addition to several invitational Annika Foundation golf events in Florida supported by Ladies Professional Golf Association player Annika Sorenstam, Carlson ventured into Canada for a 2015 summer tournament.
She initially wasn’t interested in the small airplane her classmates were constructing for their experimental science class and passed up joining the first Eagle’s Nest Projects RV-12 aircraft build during the 2014 school year. The class, conducted in partnership with Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, counted as college credit.
However, that all changed after Carlson found out how much fun her friends were having learning science, technology, engineering, and math concepts by bucking rivets and running fuel lines.
“I heard about it the first year, then I watched one of my best friends go through the program. The next year they offered it I knew I had to do it or I’d regret it,” she said.
The experience of helping a dozen classmates fashion boxes of parts into a sporty airplane was transformational, she said. “Once we got halfway through the program, I went up in an RV-12 with one of the program’s mentors and I knew I had to learn to fly," she said. “When I got that feeling, I was hooked.”
Family members initially weren’t thrilled about Carlson’s budding aviation interests. “My mom’s first thought was, ‘You’re crazy, you really want to build an airplane and fly it?’ Then she said go for it. I have incredibly supportive parents. My dad has wanted to fly for his entire life but he hasn’t had the time,” she said.
Carlson and her fellow students are using the Eagle’s Nest Projects’ first airplane, N910EN, for their training. As a constant reminder of the students’ engineering accomplishments, the sprightly two-seat airplane has all of the builder’s names stenciled on its fuselage. The students are kept in check by program director Scott Malcomb, an airline mechanic and private pilot who supervises the twice-weekly after-school build courses.
“Whether they go into this field or not they’ve learned a lot from building the airplane. They’ve learned how to follow a plan, and work with mentors and work with a team,” Malcomb told Bright House Sports Network reporter Despina Barton during a TV interview. “The kit alone is $80,000 before painting, insurance, and fuel.” Malcomb said students meet in the back of the church building for ground school courses on Mondays and participate in the build project on Thursdays.
Malcomb complimented Carlson on her engineering ability as well as her piloting skills. "Abbey has been great and I counted on her to do some of the harder portions of the project," Malcomb told AOPA. "She also definitely has the cockpit communication skills down pat. If Abbey can fly out of Sanford International Airport, she can fly anywhere."
Carlson will enter Vanderbilt University on an athletic scholarship in the fall of 2016 and said she wants to study mechanical engineering.
Carlson said she can draw several parallels between aviation and golf.
“The biggest thing about flying is the focus it requires. It’s the same way with golf. I have to make decisions best suited for that day and those conditions. Definitely, you have to think about all of the information for the flight—the runways, cloud ceiling, and visibility. It’s basically the same in golf. You need to examine the course layout and if it’s going to be windy, hot, or cold, and adjust your game accordingly.” Carlson said quick mathematic skills help with golf club choice on the course, and in the cockpit during flight. “Being able to interpolate data and come to a close conclusion, the math doesn’t have to be exact, but it helps.”
Carlson has about 15 hours in the Eagle’s Nest RV-12 and is juggling schoolwork, golf, and aviation as her high school graduation approaches.
As far as Carlson’s infatuation with flying is concerned, she said it “feels like the entire world is at my disposal.”
She hopes to get in some stick time this summer between stops on the junior women’s golf tour, which runs from May through August. Carlson will participate in several key tournaments including the Women’s Western Golf Association amateur championship in Ohio and the Rolex Tournament of Champions in Georgia.
About aviation, Carlson has a few words for fellow students. “My advice would be just to have fun,” she said. “Go out there and do it. Don’t be afraid of flying, just be smart about it, and just enjoy it because it’s an amazing feeling.”