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Teens solo eight airplanes on back-to-back 16th birthdays

A tricky warbird and family heirloom among the flock of airplanes flown

Lifelong friends James Frank and Adam Sarsfield celebrated their sixteenth birthdays by soloing an assortment of aircraft, four airplanes each—including a warbird and touchy taildragger not known for being kind to pilots.

Frank and Sarsfield grew up in and around general aviation. Their fathers Jim Frank and Mike Sarsfield raised their sons with an innate love for aviation, and have worked hard to prepare their children for taildragging adventures of their very own.

“I’ve grown up in the backseat of a Super Cub. [Ever] since I was three years old I’ve been in the airplane with dad,” said Frank.

On March 13 and 14, Frank and Sarsfield each marked their sixteenth birthdays with another rite of passage, completing eight first solos between them in two fast-paced days.

Frank, a day older than Sarsfield, awoke bright and early on the morning of March 13, his sixteenth birthday, with one thing on his mind—and it had nothing to do with a driver’s license. His mission was to solo his dad’s Piper Super Cub and North American T–6 Texan as well as a borrowed Piper J–3 Cub and an Aeronca Champ—all before the sun set on his big day.

Once the Frank family arrived at their hangar at Peach State Aerodrome, Frank and his dad started prepping the Super Cub and T–6 for Frank’s solo. Although Frank soloed a glider at 14, he was still eager to take to the skies alone. After a thorough preflight and pep talk from his family and dozens of friends, Frank exclaimed, “Clear prop!” and headed out for the wild blue yonder.

James Frank on his initial North American T-6 Texan solo. Photo by Cayla McLeod.

The Texan, a notoriously difficult airplane with vengeful stall characteristics didn’t seem to faze Frank thanks to months of intense training with warbird flight instructor and designated pilot examiner Alan Miller.

“He picked it up really [quickly],” said Miller. I haven’t been doing much flying in T–6s lately and he was landing it better than me… almost immediately which kind of bummed me out a little bit, but that’s the reality. It’s good to have a student that can do that.”

Just as everyone expected, Frank handled the T–6 with ease. The only hiccup was that Frank neglected to inform Miller that he was about to solo the airplane. Although Frank had received his solo endorsement the night prior, Miller still wanted to be present for the flight.

“I was a little dismayed when I woke up… and heard the T–6 running already, [so] I called his dad and said, ‘What’s up, just warming up?’ and his dad said, ‘No, he’s getting ready to go,’ so I left my waffles in the toaster and ran down here just in time to watch him take off. [A] little unorthodox, but he nailed it. He’s a unique kid and we’re going to go fly some more.”

Alan Miller, Jacob Gates, and Harry Ballance cut James Frank’s shirttail after he soloed four airplanes on his sixteenth birthday. Photo by Cayla McLeod.

With the Super Cub and T–6 flights behind him, Frank was ready to tackle his next airplane—a classic J–3 Cub belonging to Peach State Airpark resident Harry Ballance. Although a fuel shutoff issue delayed the flight by an hour, the maintenance item allowed Frank to take a short break while airframe and powerplant mechanics Jacob Gates (who doubled as one of Frank’s flight instructors) and Ryan Walters fixed the issue.

As soon as the shutoff was fixed, Frank flew for a short while with Ballance before soloing the aircraft. With Ballance’s blessing, Frank departed solo in the Cub and headed to the south for a short photo flight before landing back at Peach State Aerodrome.

With the end in sight, Frank was in no hurry to hop into his fourth and final airplane of the day, Miller’s Aeronca Champ. After waiting for Gates to arrive from a separate maintenance project at a nearby airport, Frank climbed into the Champ and got closer to making his sixteenth birthday dream a reality.

After three uneventful takeoffs and landings in the Aeronca Champ, Frank climbed out of the airplane where all three of his instructors—Miller, Ballance, and Gates—were waiting with pinking shears to cut his shirt-tail. The moment was a special one filled with claps, hugs, and cheers.

Frank, candid and confident as ever after the successful venture, said that his takeaway from the big day was that “airplanes are much lighter with only one person in them. [They] perform a lot better.”

Although confident, Frank was also thankful for the opportunity to solo four airplanes on his birthday. “I want to thank everybody at Peach State…Mr. Harry Balance whose J-3 I soloed, Mr. Alan Miller whose Champ I soloed and who did my instruction in the T-6 Jacob Gates for flying with me and Mike Knabe for flying the Super Cub with me…and my dad. He’s the one who got me started. Without Dad I wouldn’t be here.”

After a celebratory sunset photo flight with Frank and a quick sleep it was time to head back to Peach State Aerodrome to celebrate Sarsfield’s birthday and watch as he tackled a four-airplane solo set of his own.

Second set of firsts

To start March 14 off right, Sarsfield’s family and friends gathered inside the warm FBO and enjoyed a birthday breakfast with him before the day’s real excitement began. After answering several “Are you nervous?” questions, Sarsfield and his entourage made their way to the hangar to preflight.

The first aircraft on Sarsfield’s solo list was his beloved Super Cub. A self-proclaimed “backcountry nerd,” Sarsfield said, “Part of my backcountry adventure is getting to solo a Super Cub, so [I’m] definitely excited [and] a little bit nervous.”

The Super Cub is the latest addition to Sarsfield’s family’s fleet of airplanes. Although relatively new, Sarsfield had the opportunity to fly the airplane home from Washington to Georgia with his dad. The time spent flying across the country in extreme winds and over varying types of terrain provided Sarsfield with an eye-opening adventure to build skill in the aircraft that he would eventually solo.

Adam Sarsfield aloft in his Super Cub solo for the very first time. Photo by Cayla McLeod.

Dozens of hours in the airplane paired with flight instruction from Gates lent themselves to three buttery-smooth, full-stop landings for Sarsfield and the Super Cub. After taxiing back to the hangar and shutting down the airplane, Sarsfield was met by friends and family chanting his name.

Without delay, Sarsfield made his way to the second airplane on his list and one of his dad’s most prized possessions—an Aeronca Chief. “[The Chief is] a family legacy,” said the elder Sarsfield, who has owned the airplane for over 35 years. “Out of the four airplanes it’s by far the touchiest one to fly.”

Although some might have been holding their breath when Sarsfield turned final for his first landing in the Chief, Sarsfield’s slick landing dispelled any lingering concerns.

“It was so cool to watch him fly [the Chief] all by himself,” said proud father Mike Sarsfield. “He did a wonderful job [with] it.”

After shutting down the Chief, Sarsfield and Gates made their way to the Candler Field Flying Club hangars to retrieve Sarsfield’s next two airplanes—an Aeronca Champ and a Cessna 172.

Gates, who also soloed at Peach State Aerodrome in a Champ as a teenager, was thrilled to be able to instruct Sarsfield. “I tell Adam and Adam’s dad every time I fly with him, I enjoy getting to fly with him. So many people invested into me and now I’m able to give it back, so it’s kind of cool to be able to give back to what was given to me.”

Following a thorough preflight, Sarsfield strapped into the Champ and headed out for Runway 13.

Although it would be hard to figure, Sarsfield’s dream of being able to take to the runway on his own on his sixteenth birthday was almost squashed by a medical hang-up.

“Adam was born profoundly deaf,” said Sarsfield’s dad. “He was bilaterally implanted with cochlear implants at the age of three and four. For his first class medical (granted three days prior), he had to get a statement of demonstrated ability. Through miracles that I don’t even know…and friends and doctors that were passionate about [Adam] having his medical for his sixteenth birthday, [we] pulled this off.”

Adam Sarsfield’s instructor, Jacob Gates, cut his student’s shirttail with pinking shears. Photo by Cayla McLeod.

After three smooth takeoffs and landings in the Champ, Sarsfield headed out for his fourth and final solo in an airplane quite different from the others—a Cessna 172. Although the Skyhawk is a common aircraft for student pilots to solo, it’s not as common as taildragger solos on Peach State Aerodrome’s 2,400-foot grass strip.

Without hesitation, Sarsfield called out, “Clear prop!” and waved to family and friends as he taxied by. He didn’t seem to mind having all eyes on him, even as more and more people kept trickling in.

As one can imagine, Sarsfield manipulated the Cessna with ease during all phases of flight and returned to his family and friends victorious. Showered in confetti and compliments, Sarsfield grinned from ear to ear as he hugged his family. Gates was close by with the pinking shears and took a moment to commend Sarsfield before cutting and signing his shirt-tail.

“Jacob taught me everything I needed to know and got me to this point where I was able to solo, so definitely huge thanks to him for making this happen…and to Mike Knabe. They were able to get me comfortable with four different planes,” said Sarsfield. “I also definitely want to thank my parents for letting me fly and my dad especially for trusting me with his Chief. Lastly, I want to thank the gang out at Peach State Aerodrome. I have learned so much from them and from everyone. Now I get to fly on my own.”

Cayla McLeod

Cayla McLeod Hunt

Social Media Marketer
Social Media Marketer Cayla McLeod Hunt is a private pilot with a love for tailwheel and backcountry aircraft. When she isn't writing stories, she enjoys flying with friends and introducing others to general aviation.
Topics: Taildragger, Warbird, People

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