Lake Placid sophomore takes first solo flight on 16th birthday
LAKE CLEAR — As Drew Ferebee banked the four-seat Piper Warrior west from the Adirondack Regional Airport toward Lake Placid, I did the math: The kid was 31 years younger than the airplane he was piloting.
The Lake Placid High School sophomore, who started learning to fly in early August, did his first solo flight on the morning of Oct. 4, his 16th birthday.
On Sunday morning, Oct. 25, as his parents waited in the airport lounge, Drew had folded his tall, lanky frame into the tiny 1973 Piper — its maroon leather interior more like a vintage MG than a commercial airplane — and gone over the pre-flight checklist with his instructor, Mike Wolford.
Instructor and student both wore N95 masks and headsets; the check-list included wiping down the seats and instrument panel with sanitizer. Though aerial sightseeing is banned, flight instruction has been deemed an essential service. Welcome to learning to fly during a pandemic.
Growing up in Ray Brook, Drew liked planes the way most boys do, but he played local sports, including soccer and skiing, and didn’t really think about learning to fly until his father Ryan asked him if he’d be interested in giving flying lessons a shot during the summer.
“We were looking for an opportunity to give him some confidence, to make him unique,” said Ryan. “A co-worker recommended Mike.”
Wolford, a retired corporate pilot with military experience who moved to the Adirondacks four years ago, is currently the only flight instructor operating out of Adirondack Regional Airport. He began a flight school, called WolfBrook Aviation, three months ago based out of the Lake Clear airport.
“There’s no age requirement for a private pilot’s license,” said Wolford, who says he started teaching his own son to fly when he was 9. “The Federal Aviation Administration understands that this is how pilots are made. He deserves incredible credit,” he said of Drew’s flight the first day he was legally able to fly solo. “It’s that rare, that special.”
“He loved it right from the get-go,” said Ryan. “He’s pretty good at it.”
Drew got his learner permit — for a car, that is — after he flew his first solo flight.
“I’m more comfortable with him flying a plane than driving a car,” said Drew’s mother Stacy, though her son has been driving machines since he was a kid.
“Growing up, we’ve had four-wheelers, snowmobiles, lawnmowers, Sea-Doos, boats, tractors,” said Ryan. “He can drive anything. He can back a trailer.”
Drew is more reticent than his flight instructor and his parents, but he lit up when he got in the plane, and you could see him smiling underneath his headset and mask.
“I enjoy this. This is awesome,” he said after he’d landed the plane, taxied down Runway 5 to the hanger and killed the engine. “It’s a lot more to do, to earn.”
On his birthday, Drew’s parents, grandparents, girlfriend and her mother came to the airport to watch him solo.
“I did not take my eyes off the plane the entire time,” said Stacy. “He did his solo, he landed. And then he took off again.”
Up over the jigsaw of lakes, trees and rivers a few thousand feet below, Drew adjusted his speed and surveyed the horizon while Wolford watched their progress on the ForeFlight app — his iPhone fixed to the side of the instrument panel like they were driving a Prius — and sipped his coffee.
Drew flew over John Brown’s Farm, Lake Placid’s bobsled run, the High Peaks shrouded in a gauze of clouds. Wolford called in to Lake Placid Airport to chat with friends and fiddled with the frequencies, French cutting in and out from Canada. After touching down softly (“like a butterfly with sore feet,” said Wolford), Drew picked up speed and took off again, heading over a quadrant of trees northwest of the runway.
Four thousand feet up, Wolford reached over and cut the engine.
“You’ve played this game before,” he said to Drew as he called in the simulated emergency landing. Drew smiled under his mask, shook his head, then slalomed his plane around and down for another smooth landing.
“Who taught you to fly?” asked Wolford rhetorically.
“I’ve only done, what, 25 of them,” said Drew as he brought the plane over near the hanger and parked. His father walked out to meet the plane with wooden wheel chocks and to ask his son what he wanted for lunch. Wolford climbed out to record some paperwork. Drew sat in the cockpit, noticeably happy.
“At first I was like, eh, it’s all right,” he said quietly. “The hardest thing is the judgment of landing. It’s so sensitive sometimes if the wind’s off. You gotta stare right on that center.”
As he described flying, his enthusiasm gradually overwhelmed any further attempts at understatement. His next step is getting his private pilot’s license. After that, he thinks he wants to become a corporate pilot.
“I love it,” Drew said. “It’s the best thing I’ve ever done.”