17 Year Old Among Youngest To Earn Pilot's License

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Just a few weeks ago, when Nathaniel Hand turned 17, all he could think about was getting his license-not his driver’s license, but his pilot’s license.

Another instructor at the flight academy stated, “Nathaniel’s flying is better than some of my commercial pilots.”

Just a few weeks ago, when Nathaniel Hand turned 17, all he could think about was getting his license-not his driver’s license, but his pilot’s license. Nathaniel started taking flying lessons at age 14, when he sat on an extra seat cushion so he could see out of the cockpit, but since then he has trained with his instructor and has logged about 60 hours of flying time.

The past few months, he has been honing his flying skills and studying workbooks on everything from aerodynamics to the language of air traffic controllers, and was approved to take his final test by his Gulf Coast Aviation instructor, Joelle Gargas, based at New Orleans Lakefront Airport. The final exam is called a “checkride”: a grueling two hour test where a potential pilot must flawlessly execute dozens of maneuvers, such as a 360 degree turn at a 45 degree bank without a variation of 100 feet in altitude or 5 degrees of bank, rolling out within 10 degrees of the exact heading. Nathaniel’s checkride also included emergency landings, where the instructor cuts power prematurely at an altitude of 1000 feet, requiring the pilot to execute a 180 degree turn and land on the numbers on the runway, or a maneuver called a stall, where the pilot makes the plane stop flying and recovers without losing too much altitude.

The last part of Nathaniel’s checkride included landing in an abnormally short distance and he was put to the test when the control tower instructed him to land on runway 36, which was experiencing strong crosswinds that could cause a plane to veer off the runway so the instructor required Nathaniel to request runway 27 from the tower which was safer. After successfully completing maneuvers they entered the traffic pattern at 1000 feet and the instructor told Nathaniel if he wanted to try landing on runway 36 he could, but by then the winds were stronger, at 15 knots from a 90 degree angle which is the maximum structural limit on his Cessna 172. Nathaniel had practiced crosswind landings before and smoothly executed the landing on runway 36, staying in the middle of the runway and in control, despite the high wind. Having witnessed confidence and skill in landing, the instructor said he had seen enough and gave Nathaniel a passing grade on his checkride and approved his private pilot’s license.

Last year at age 16, Nathaniel earned the right to fly solo, and was given the traditional ceremony where his instructor cuts off the tail of his shirt. This tradition dates back to the early 1900’s when instructors would sit behind the students in biplanes and had to tug on shirttails to get student’s attention and give instructions since there were no radios. Cutting the shirt tail after a successful solo flight symbolizes the student pilot no longer needs the instructor.

The Federal Aviation Administration sets age 17 as the earliest anyone can earn their private pilot’s license, ranking Nathaniel one of only 3 pilots his age in Louisiana, and one of 258 pilots among the 627,588 private pilots in the US.

Nathaniel is an 11th grade student at Isidore Newman School and a graduate of Trinity School in New Orleans, Louisiana. Since earning his license, Nathaniel has taken flying lessons in a helicopter and an acrobatic plane where he flew upside down. In a few weeks, Nathaniel will be checking out prospective colleges, attending a Biomedical Engineering class at Vanderbilt University and an Aerodynamics class at Purdue University.

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Robert Hand

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17 year old Nathaniel Hand with his checkride instructor Darryl Christen