By Dedra Cordle
The goal for most teenagers is to be able to drive a car in time for their 16th birthday, but Sean Absten had his sights set much higher.
As the son of a pilot, Absten grew up in and around airplanes. His first venture on board was at 3 months old (the tower at an Atlanta airport graciously allowed his father Mike to land straight-in after Sean vomited on his mother Becca) and his first time at the helm was when he was able to stand on the seats and help navigate. He has flown hundreds of times with Mike, been to numerous air shows, met famed pilots such as Chuck Yeager and the Tuskegee Airman, and was even deemed knowledgeable enough to give tours at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Much of his life has been on the sky and he could not think of a better way to celebrate a milestone – turning 16 – than to be able to fly solo.
According to the Federal Aviation Administration, 16 is the youngest age permitted to obtain a solo pilot’s license.
“Less than one percent of pilots are solo at 16 so this is not a very common thing,” said Mike.
Naturally, it was something Absten wanted to accomplish.
“It was my goal,” said the Grove City High School sophomore.
Described by Becca as being averse to homework, Absten studied hard to learn the physics of the plane, its mechanics, weather analysis, FAA regulations and air traffic control procedures. He spent hours in flight simulators, taking mental notes as Mike flew him around the city and then learning from Capital City Jet Center flight instructor Eric Howlett. By the time his 16th birthday came around, Absten knew he was ready to fly solo.
On Jan. 28 – his early birthday present was the cancellation of school due to subzero temperatures – Absten, Mike, Becca and his younger sister Lauren went to Bolton Airfield to prepare for his last test.
Around 2 p.m., Howlett took Absten up in a bright yellow Cessna 172 to go over procedures and get a feel for how his student was doing. He tried to distract him with questions about school, friends, girlfriends, or anything that could get Absten to lose focus. Absten answered his instructor’s questions, but Howlett said he felt he was only doing it to be polite.
“He wouldn’t elaborate and eventually said ‘Dude, I gotta fly an airplane right now,’” said Howlett.
It was a sign that his student was ready and not succumbing to nerves.
On the ground was a much different story. Getting brief protection from the cold in JP’s Barbecue, Becca paced around the front windows of the restaurant holding onto the tower radio, waiting for any signal that her son was ready to fly solo. Mike was outwardly calm but paused anytime the radio picked up voices, as did Carol McElroy and Porky O’Conner, the owner and manager of JP’s, respectively. Lauren was also paying attention to the radio.
Around 2:30, they learned that Howlett and Absten would be landing. All went outside to see if Absten would fly solo. Cameras were out, nervous smiles were given and then puzzlement washed over them as the plane shut down after landing.
“I don’t think he’s going to do it today,” said Mike. “It might be too cold.”
Then, just when they started to ask if it would be OK to go back inside, Howlett hopped out and Absten started the plane. (Howlett said he usually leaves the plane on for his students during their first solo flight, but Absten wanted to shut it off and start it back up.) Then, he was off.
After flying in the pattern and properly conversing with the tower, Absten tried his first touch and go landing. Absten repeated this routine three more times and his instructor continued to see improvement.
“I would rate him at a good eight,” said Howlett. “His landings could use work, but he did a good job for the first time by himself.”
Mike joked that it was an excellent job because they didn’t see any smoke.
Upon completing his first solo flight, Absten said overall he was happy with his solo flight performance but agreed with Howlett that his landings could use some work.
“They were okay,” he said. “Every other one was smooth though.”
Now that his goal of becoming a solo pilot at 16 has been achieved, up next is the preparation to get his private pilot’s license at 17. Throughout the year, he will do solos in the pattern, cross-country maneuvers and study more procedures and regulations. He may have to take a break from flying though when band season begins.
As for a car, well, he has his learner’s permit but can’t drive until he gets his grades up. Barring bad weather, he can always take a plane.