There is Hope-At 17 the Skies the Limit

At 17, Sky?s the Limit
Thursday, November 03, 2005
By Jennifer Van Gundy Special to the Dispatch

Gilroy, CA. – Most 17-year-olds would look cool picking up their girlfriend in a Ford Mustang convertible. But Trevor Wilcher picks up his girlfriend in his Mustang, then heads to the local airstrip where he flies her to dinner in his 1973 Beechcraft Sundowner. Wilcher has been flying with his father since he was 1-year-old and in his family, ?everybody?s a pilot: my mom, my dad, my grandpa.? With this sort of heritage, it seems the most natural thing in the world that he would speedily guarantee his legal right to the skies.

Sure enough, two days after his 17th birthday, Wilcher secured a full private pilot?s license.

What Wilcher has accomplished is no small feat. Apart from his age, the licensing process for a pilot is arduous. Wilcher?s instructor, Charles Jackson, noted, ?in all honesty, if someone doesn?t really have some passion for it they are probably not going to make it.?

Wilcher was, and still is, passionate and this eventually led him to Jackson, an instructor and a retired Transworld pilot who has been helping aspiring pilots find their wings for 40 years. Jackson began teaching as a means of building up his hours in order to get hired by a commercial airline. He found that teaching made for a rewarding part-time job.

?I mean,? he said, gesturing toward Wilcher?s plane high above Gilroy, ?you get to see kids like this.?

In order to obtain the freedom to fly at will, Wilcher had to complete private pilot ground school and log a minimum of 40 hours of flight time with an instructor, including night time and cross country time.

?Trevor had way more (hours),? Jackson said. ?He?s been flying with his dad since ? forever.?

Obtaining a pilot?s license is not as simple as knowing how to fly an airplane, according to Jackson. He estimated that about 80 percent of the test is academic: designed to address the applicant?s understanding of aviation regulations, terminology and how the airplane functions. Although he was prepared for the practical portion of the exam, Wilcher found the heavy academics of the oral exam to be surprisingly challenging.

?Some guy sits down with you with a bunch of regulations, a chart and a book about airplanes and starts asking you, ?What does this do? What does this mean??? Wilcher said.

Now, as a licensed private pilot, Wilcher can legally carry passengers and fly cross country or even outside of the U.S. In general, most countries that are on good terms with the U.S. will accept a U.S. pilot?s license, Jackson said. Wilcher plans to continue to work on getting ratings, passing the tests that enable him to fly bigger, more complex planes so he can get a job in the airline industry. Also, he is happy to pilot a plane full of skydivers but has no plans for skydiving himself.

?There?s no need to jump out of a perfectly good airplane,? he laughed.

For all his passion and knowledge, the young pilot might have never achieved this dream had it not been for his flight-happy family and the fact that his dad was self-employed, allowing them to fly and restore old planes together.

Wilcher?s two planes include a 1946 J-3 Piper Cub and a 1973 Beechcraft Sundowner. The Sundowner is the more useful of the two and more fun to fly, he said, because it can reach speeds of up to 125 mph. The J-3 Piper Cub is a taildragger – it has a wheel in the back rather than the front – and a good indicator that Wilcher?s piloting skills are above average. ?Most pilots will tell you it?s a more difficult plane to take off and to land,? said Dave Kowalski, publisher of Pipers Magazine in Iola, Wis. ?He?s obviously developed some skill and he?ll be able to fly a lot of simpler planes.?

The Piper Cub is Wilcher?s tribute to his love of classic planes. Wilcher and his father rescued and restored the plane after finding it abandoned, upside-down in a field three years ago. It took them a year and $20,000. Now the plane is a showstopper. It won the prize for the Best Closed Monoplane in the Classic Age (1935-1945) Division at the Watsonville Fly-In and Air Show in May. But it?s the P51 Mustang, that costs about $1.5 million today, that Wilcher dreams about. ?They are fast,? he said, ?they?ve got a lot of power. I just love them.?

In an age where a catching a flight is as easy as logging onto the Internet, the desire to become a private pilot may seem strange, even purposeless, to some.

But this is an altogether recent perception of flight. For most of human history, people were fascinated by flying because for so long it was impossible, Jackson explained. ?It was still rare into the 1920s, ?30s, and ?40s – someone who could fly was a very unusual person,? he said.

Today, Jackson estimates that most people have been in an airplane by the time the go to college.

?It?s not longer a novelty,? he noted. Even so, he is convinced that ?being a passenger is no substitute for being a pilot.?

For Jackson, his love of flying stems from the feeling of ?challenge, responsibility and accomplishment? it brings. ?For me it didn?t come easy, ? he said, ?and now I take a lot of pride in it.?

For Wilcher, the feeling flying gives him escapes words. ?I don?t know what you would use to describe it,? he said. ?It?s kind of a weird feeling. You feel detached from everything. When I?m up there I forget about everything ? everything.?

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