Sophomore Aaron Ralston stepped onto the wing of the small white and grey Piper Archer plane, opening the tiny door on top. Carefully stepping over the passenger seat, he sat in the pilot seat with his instructor on his right. Ralston fastened his seatbelt, checked the flight controls and turned on the safety light.
Turning the key and putting on his Zulu 3 headset, the plane roared to life and the propellor started spinning.
He was ready to take off.
This is what Ralston had dreamed of since he was seven and flew to Disney World with his family. Walking onto the Boeing 737, he was immediately drawn to the window of the cockpit, unable to look away from the dozens of buttons on the plane’s ceiling.
“As soon as he walked in and saw all the controls in the cockpit, it was like he had won the lottery,” Heather Ralston, Aaron’s mom, said. “He was fascinated with it in every way.”
Ralston immediately asked for the pilot’s wings, a pin used to distinguish a pilot. Pinning it on his shirts, he knew he wanted to earn his own wings someday.
“Growing up, he never liked superheroes,” Heather said. “He always liked planes and army figurines. We were playing one day and he said ‘You know what, I’m going to be a pilot when I grow up.’”
Ralston spent the next six years begging his mom to let him fly. When he was 13, he finally got his chance — a three day summer camp at Kansas State University.
He spent the first two days learning about how planes work and how to control them until he finally got to fly his first plane on the last day — a Cessna 172. He was only in the air for 30 minutes practicing basic control of the plane and turning, but he began counting the days until he could do it again.
“When I was in the air, I felt really excited and kind of relaxed,” Ralston said. “It’s a different feeling.”
For his 14th birthday, the age most kids would sign up for Driver’s Ed, Ralston asked to enroll in aviation school instead. Ralston’s parents began driving him to an instructor 30 minutes from his house at Lee Summit Municipal Airport once a month, where he learned proper turning and landing techniques.
When Ralston turned 15, the lessons increased to once a week. He spent three hours each week learning landings, take-offs and maneuvers.
“When Aaron first started doing this, he wasn’t comfortable,” Ralston’s instructor Chris Hope said. “Everything is different and it moves fast and it goes in all different directions at once. It’s one of those things that he’s learned to conquer.”
On Sept. 15, Ralston won’t have his instructor next to him in the copilot seat. It will be his first solo flight. He will take off, fly in a circle and land. Then he’ll do that five more times.
This is the moment Ralston had been waiting for since he was seven, and he has been preparing for it over the past 13 months.
The flight will take place at the same airport he takes lessons at. The only issue is that the airport has no control towers. Ralston will have to communicate everything he is doing with the other pilots in the area, all while listening to what they are saying. His instructor will be in contact with him the entire flight.
“It’s nice to know that his instructor will have a walkie talkie,” Heather said. “If he gets out there and panics, he can communicate to us and to him. It makes it a little bit easier.
During Ralston’s next three lessons, his instructor will go over the flight plan and tell him what he wants him to do — then he’ll look at the window and not say a word. It will be up to Ralston to figure out what to do and land the plane.
This is meant to prepare him so that he can complete the solo flight he’s looked forward to for years.
“I’m excited because I’ve been working on it for more than two years,” Ralston said. “It’s a really really big goal. But I’m also nervous because I don’t want to crash the plane or do something bad.”
After he graduates high school, Ralston wants to college for flying in order to become a fighter pilot in the Air Force.
“Growing up, I was always interested in the military,” Ralston said. “So I decided I wanted to be a pilot in the air force. I really want to go fast in planes, and those are the fastest ones. I hope these lessons help me get to that point.”
Ralston hopes that his flight and his lessons will help him reach this goal, finally earning those pilot wings that he first saw when he went to Disney World – the ones that jump-started his whole journey.