CARLSBAD, N.M. (AP) – Sixteen-year-old Payson Norton said he was not nervous when he flew his Piper Comanche PA24 aircraft solo for the first time.
“It was a really cool feeling, the feeling of freedom,” Norton said. “The only thing that was going through my mind was he (instructor Jim Ballard) wasn’t in the left seat and I needed to get it up and get it down without breaking it.”
It wasn’t just Norton’s age (the minimum for a student pilot to fly solo) that astonished Ballard.
The Piper was equipped with 260 horsepower, which Ballard said is unusual for a first-time student pilot, as the planes are more complicated to operate.
“The aircraft that he soloed in is what’s considered to be a complex airplane and high performance, which is very unusual for any student pilot to solo in,” said Ballard, who has been an instructor for the last 30 years.
Ballard, a Federal Aviation Administration-certified instructor of JB Flight Services in Carlsbad, said students typically start out flying an aircraft between 125 to 180 horsepower.
Ballard said the aircraft is also equipped with retractable landing gear, which increases the speed of the plane, and a constant speed propeller.
Norton, who has been training with Ballard for the last two years, said he was not intimidated by the amount of horsepower in the aircraft owned by his parents.
“Jim always taught me that no matter what airplane you’re in, they’re all the same, no matter if they’re bigger, smaller, more horsepower, less horsepower. You just fly your airplane,” Norton said.
Ballard said Norton is the third student he’s trained who has flown solo at age of 16. The teenager lifted off from and landed back at Carlsbad’s Cavern City Air Terminal.
Two other students who flew solo at that age became pilots for national airlines, Ballard said.
“It’s always an accomplishment to solo any pilot because you’ve basically trained them up from nothing, not knowing anything about aviation or an airplane and turn them loose to where they can fly by themselves,” Ballard said. “When you get in an airplane, all of this stuff is brand new. So to take all of that and learn it and then be able to take off and do it on your own is a huge responsibility.”
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, students are required to obtain their student pilot and medical certificates before they can fly solo. Norton received both certificates earlier this year.
Student pilots are also required to take a written test and become familiar with FAA rules and the flight characteristics and operational limits of the aircraft in order to fly solo.
Ballard said in addition to controlling a plane, pilots have to study weather conditions, aerodynamics and airport locations when operating a plane. He said weather conditions are most challenging because they may change.
Norton said studying the fundamentals of flying is more challenging than flying itself.
“It takes a little bit to grasp it,” he said. “It’s a challenge sometimes.”
Norton said the next step is to become endorsed to fly cross-country. He plans to obtain his private pilot license, which he will be eligible for once he is 17, and pursue a career in aviation.
“As long as I get to fly,” he said. “It’s a lot of fun but be ready to work.”
And soon he will not be the only family member flying an aircraft. His brother, Lane Norton, 27, is currently being trained by Ballard. Payson Norton said his brother is also planning to use to same aircraft to fly solo.
Their 9-year-old sister, Allie, also hopes to fly in the future.