Young Pilot Breaks Record with Border Crossing
Jonathan Strickland is the youngest African-American ever to fly a helicopter internationally. The 14-year-old Southern California native is also the youngest African-American to solo a helicopter, and the youngest person ever to solo pilot a plane and a chopper on the same day. Strickland set those records this past weekend when he flew across the U.S./Canadian border. NPR's Farai Chideya talked with Jonathan and his instructor, Robin Petgrave.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
So, Jonathan, how did you feel after you did all of that?
Mr. JONATHAN STRICKLAND (Pilot): It felt kind of weird. It hasn't, like - it felt like it wasn't real. It felt like it was fake, or something. It felt like a movie or something.
CHIDEYA: It is like a movie. I mean, I personally love the way helicopters fly. Can you tell me how you think helicopters and airplanes are different?
Mr. STRICKLAND: One on the helicopters, they're more cool, and you can do more cool stuff in it. You can hover and if you see something cool, you can stop and look at it, opposed to an airplane you have to circle, make sure nobody's coming, but in a helicopter you're low enough where nobody should be.
CHIDEYA: Robin, you head up Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum. Tell us a little bit more about the program and how you deal with the students there.
Mr. ROBIN PETGRAVE (Director, Tomorrow's Aeronautical Museum:) It's a program that we have over in Compton, and kids from all over Los Angeles can come and enroll in the program, and then they do community service to earn their museum dollars. Jonathan actually worked for this trip. He actually had to work and then save up enough museum dollars to be able to do this.
It was interestingly enough, about two years ago, we had two kids that flew up to Canada, an 11-year-old that piloted the airplane up there; and once they got there a 14-year-old got a license to fly by himself in an airplane. Well, Jonathan had heard about the program from some of the news media. His parents and him and his grandpa just decided that this would be just the right fit for him, and he enrolled in the program and then started working his butt off. Two years later, here he is setting the world's imagination on fire.
CHIDEYA: Do you ever worry about training people? I mean, I'm guessing from what you said that Jonathan was 12 when he started. Do you ever worry about training people that young and safety ramifications?
Mr. PETGRAVE: Actually, no. We've got kids there - our program starts from eight years old and up. We've got eight-year-old kids that can fly airplanes. We've got an 11-year-old girl that can fly a helicopter very well.
At the younger age, they just catch on to it real quick. It's not really an issue because there's always a safety pilot who's a flight instructor onboard, and they make sure that the flight is very safe. It's just when you start talking about soloing at the age of 14, that's when the heart starts pumping a little bit faster, and you start getting nervous and the butterflies and all that. Because, you know, I was there watching this kid and he's the sole manipulator of the controls, he's got - his destiny's in his hands right then and there.
And then when he gets in the helicopter, where you never ever even thought about someone who's 14 flying a helicopter by himself. It's just phenomenal. I was looking at it and I still don't believe it.
CHIDEYA: So, Jonathan, you flew the helicopter from Canada back to Compton, is that correct?
Mr. STRICKLAND: Yeah, I flew from Compton to Canada. And after I finished all that stuff we flew back from Canada to Compton.
CHIDEYA: How did it feel when you landed, and who was waiting for you?
Mr. STRICKLAND: It felt kind of weird because all the news cameras and family members and friends being there watching you, so it kind of felt weird seeing everybody out there watching me.
CHIDEYA: Your dad, who came with you to the studio, told us that you have a shout-out to make.
Mr. STRICKLAND: Oh, my grandma. Like, when I was nine months old she would take me flying, and I'd get to meet the captains and stuff. So that motivated me more to want to become a pilot.
CHIDEYA: This is what you want to do with your life?
Mr. STRICKLAND: I want to get accepted into Air Force Academy, then train to be a test pilot and eventually transfer to the airlines.
CHIDEYA: The Tuskegee airmen were a corps of African-American pilots during World War II. Jonathan, you met some of them, didn't you, when you landed?
Mr. STRICKLAND: Yeah, I met quite a few of them.
CHIDEYA: And how did they feel about your accomplishments?
Mr. STRICKLAND: They were happy. One of them said I was their hero, and that felt kind of weird.
CHIDEYA: That's really great. So, Jonathan, finally, do you have any words of advice for other kids who'd like to start flying?
Mr. STRICKLAND: Anybody can do it. It just takes a little work.
CHIDEYA: Fantastic. Jonathan, Robin, thank you so much.
Mr. PETGRAVE: Thank you very much for having us on your show.
Mr. STRICKLAND: Thanks.
CHIDEYA: That was Jonathan Strickland. At 14, he's the youngest African-American to solo a helicopter, and the youngest person period to solo a helicopter and a plane on the same day. I also talked to Robin Petgrave who heads Tomorrow Aeronautical Museum in Compton, California, where Jonathan first got involved in flying.
GORDON: That was NPR's Farai Chideya.