When most of his fellow 12th-graders were sitting in an Admiral Farragut Academy classroom Thursday morning, 17-year-old Sangdo Lee was flying above them at about 2,500 feet.
At 10:30, he and fellow senior Jonathan Ducommon completed a preflight inspection of their rented Cessna Skyhawk at Albert Whitted Airport in St. Petersburg. After a thorough walk-around of the plane, Lee headed toward the cockpit, his flight instructor and a St. Petersburg Times reporter in tow.
Lee has been taking aviation classes at Admiral Farragut for a few years and flying for a few months. He's on track to become a licensed pilot before he's licensed to drive a car.
Last Thursday was the first time he had flown with a passenger. This was much-needed practice because one day he hopes to return to his native South Korea and fly for Korean Air.
"I've actually flown a plane more than I've driven a car," the young pilot casually remarked as he strapped himself into the pilot's seat — hardly a reassuring statement to his passenger with a white-knuckle grip on the seat cushion in the rear of the plane.
Yet the student's knowledge of aviation procedure was already well developed. He methodically completed his preflight checklist with the help of instructor Robert Ewing, a licensed pilot and aviation teacher at Admiral Farragut. After scanning the electronic flight controls of the Cessna's entirely digital "glass" cockpit, Lee primed the engine for startup. He then slowly taxied to Runway 6 as Ewing communicated with the control tower to clear the plane for takeoff.
Both Lee and Ducommon are enrolled in Admiral Farragut's new Aviation Academy program. Farragut is a coed private military boarding and day school in St. Petersburg serving pre-K to grade 12.
"It started out as a small elective class for a few students interested in trying something new," Ewing, the director of the aviation program, explained. Flight training has always been offered at the school, but the huge popularity of the program inspired it to grow into several full-credit courses.
The new expanded classes, taught by Ewing and Joseph Hercher, a retired Eastern Airlines captain, offer three hours of instruction a day. Students can receive in-class ground training or, if they have taken the required prerequisites, practice real flying at Albert Whitted Airport. The classroom at Admiral Farragut also features a flight simulator. So far, the program has enrolled about 33 students.
"People always ask me how I could put my life in the hands of a young kid," Ewing said, "but the truth is, the kids' lives are really in my hands. I can take control of the plane at any time."
The training planes have a matching set of controls where the instructor sits.
During Lee's training flight, he practiced "touch-and-go" landings, a complicated maneuver where the pilot takes off and climbs, turns to enter the airport's traffic pattern, circles back to the front of the runway, briefly touches the landing strip and immediately takes off again. As Lee practiced the exercise, he received constant pointers from his instructor.
"Small on that right rudder, just like we practiced," Ewing said after Lee took off and began to bank right. Using Tropicana Field as a ground reference point marking where final approach should begin, Lee successfully completed three touch-and-go maneuvers.
He wasn't done yet. After taking off for a third time, Lee climbed to about 2,500 feet and flew west over St. Petersburg, at one time flying over Admiral Farragut Academy.
Not only are students able to have fun learning to fly, but they're preparing for potential careers. Ewing, who graduated from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 1994, said he has seen countless students advance to flying professions.
As Lee continued to fly west and toward the Gulf of Mexico, he practiced steep 45-degree turns, slow flight, climbs and descents. He then brought the plane back to Albert Whitted for a final landing.
"I think this is just the beginning," Lee said after logging an hour of flight time toward the required 40 hours for a pilot's license. "I want to be flying the Boeing 747 one day."