I look at the instrument panel and everything is foreign to me. I am used to flying with digital gauges, and the analog panel of the Cessna 172 is unfamiliar and disarming. I feel my chest constrict and my breathing quicken. I start the airplane up and hear the familiar whirl of the propeller. The anxiety passes.
I take a deep breath and feel the calm I always feel in the cockpit of an airplane. I go through the checklist of the aircraft, smile, and begin to taxi down the runway.
Within minutes, I am soaring 1,500 feet above the turquoise water of the Caribbean. I am ecstatic to be touring the U.S. and British Virgin Islands as a pilot.
Discovering A Passion
That’s what I remember of my first time flying a Cessna 172. It was the most amazing experience I have ever had. I felt alive in a way that is impossible to feel with my feet firmly planted on the ground. While flying over the Virgin Islands there were moments of rain, sunshine, and I even saw what looked like a small dust storm. I later learned it was dust from the Sahara Desert. The entire experience was exhilarating.
My interest in flying started at a young age. I was a member of a 4-H club called Flying Tigers for many years, and during that time I learned how to build battery-powered airplanes. During that time I had the opportunity to ride in a Cessna airplane. That’s when I knew that I wanted to become a pilot.
Ever since that first ride, I have not been able to rid my mind of the smell of a cockpit, the whir of an engine, or the feeling of awe when looking down at the world shrinking beneath me as I climb into the sky.
Shortly after my first flight I began working toward realizing my dream. To achieve my goal of becoming a pilot, I’ve been training in a Piper Sport Cruiser airplane and have logged over 60 hours of flight time. One of the most significant accomplishments during my training was passing the Federal Aviation Administration’s Airman Knowledge test. Passing the test was a major milestone toward getting my private pilot’s license and is a major source of pride for me.
Flight has been a crucial part of my academic and personal success. I was diagnosed with dyslexia at a young age and have been part of the Montgomery County Public School’s Gifted & Talented/Learning Disabled program since the third grade. I have learned to deal with challenges as they arise in my personal and school life. In addition, I have also learned how to advocate for myself and reach out for additional resources when necessary.
Through self-confidence, perseverance, and a strong sense of personal responsibility, I have not allowed my challenges to hold me back. My relationship with academics has not always been easy, but I have been able to find joy and fulfillment in flying an airplane, and that joy has permeated all aspects of my life. My strong sense of self and excitement for life were born in the air, but have enriched my life on the ground.
There is no feeling in the world like flying an airplane. The famous naval aviator Jack R. Hunt said, “For most people, the sky is the limit. For those who love aviation, the sky is home.” I have found my home 1,500 feet above the ground, and I hope to continue embracing and strengthening my passion for flight throughout my life.
Seventeen-year-old Nicholas “Nico” Eastman, a Smart Kids 2013 Youth Achievement Award runner-up, lives in Montgomery Village, MD where he is working on obtaining his pilot’s license.