Most teens who are 15 going on 16 are fixated on getting their driver’s licenses. Austin Rennard, of Santa Rosa, Calif., had higher aspirations, namely soloing in a Light Sport Aircraft.
When Rennard was 14, he met Ronald Alvestal, the man who would become his flight instructor, through Little League where both are umpires. Rennard, who has always been interested in aviation, soon struck up a friendship with Alvestal, a professional pilot.
“We talked about flying,” says Rennard. “Both my grandfathers flew and I thought it would be cool to do it too. Then one day when I was 15, Ron took me up. Since then I’ve been hooked!”
Alvestal works part-time at Dragonfly Aviation at Sonoma County/Santa Rosa Airport (STS). In addition to a fleet of Cessnas, Dragonfly has a Zodiac 601XL for rent — one of the few schools on the west coast that offers an LSA for rent, according to Alvestal.
Rennard had flown the Zodiac, so he was familiar with the design when he had the chance to accompany Alvestal last summer on a flight to bring a new Zodiac from its place of purchase in Jacksonville, Fla., to Santa Rosa.
The trip began with a flight in a Cessna from Santa Rosa to Oakland, where the pair boarded an airliner for Florida.
“Then the real flying began — it was a 32-hour dual cross-country,” says Alvestal.
In addition to working on his piloting skills, Rennard got to see a lot of the country as they flew along the southern states.
“He saw Texas and the Grand Canyon and New Orleans where they are still cleaning up after the hurricanes,” Alvestal says. “We flew through three Class B areas: Phoenix, Los Angeles and San Francisco. Austin did all the piloting and radio work.”
According to Rennard, he had about 20 hours total time, half of that in a Zodiac when they started the trip.
“I learned a lot,” he says, noting the first thing he learned is that all airplanes, even new ones, have their quirks. “It felt very jumpy on takeoff and when the trim gauge was set to neutral it felt like it was a little too much nose down. It took about an hour to get used to the quirks and get comfortable.”
He also learned a lot by observing other pilots, he says. “Some would do very involved and detailed preflight inspections of their airplanes,” he says. “Some would just jump in and takeoff. Some were really cool and professional on the radio. With other guys you’d be like ‘what is this guy doing?’”
The pair flew an average of three to five hours a day. Along the way there were a few minor mechanical issues and in Flagstaff, Ariz., Rennard learned first hand about what density altitude can do to airplane performance.
His goal for the flight was to improve his radio skills, a goal he says he achieved. “He did very well, including getting clearances in Class B airspace,” Alvestal agrees.
By the end of the trip Rennard had accrued about 60 hours, but still hadn’t soloed. He had to wait for his 16th birthday in December. “Ron had floated the idea of me soloing on my birthday and I was all for it,” says Rennard. “Then the day came, but I wasn’t sure it was going to happen.”
“The field was IMC until about 2 p.m.,” Alvestal explains. “Then the fog broke and he was able to solo at Santa Rosa Airport in a Zodiac.”
Rennard’s pre-solo training was funded in part by a scholarship that had been set up in memory of Alvestal’s son, also a pilot, who died in a traffic accident in his early 20s.
“Donations totaled $1,100,” says Alvestal. “Some flight time came from aircraft that needed to be ferried, such as the flight from Florida. A few flights came from friends and associates who needed their aircraft flown for one reason or another.”
Alvestal is understandably proud of his young student. “He didn’t just swallow aviation,” crows Alvestal. “He swallowed it hook, line, and sinker and he took the whole pole!”
Rennard agrees, and adds that he’d like to make aviation a career. “I’d like to fly fire attack bombers someday,” he says.
For more information: DragonflyAviation.com.