Teen earns pilot’s license before driver’s license

Daniel Shulte loves to feel the wind beneath his wings. But his wings aren’t figurative – they’re attached to a small 2-seater light sport aircraft, like a Cessna 162, for example. That’s the model he got to fly at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s Air Academy Advanced Camp in Oshkosh, Wisc., last August.

Shulte is the youngest licensed private pilot in the EAA’s Young Eagles program based at Sonoma Skypark, having earned his wings last May, about a month before he got his driver’s license and five months before his 18th birthday.

As a member of Sonoma EAA Chapter 1268 as well as Post 1268 of the Aviation Explorers organization, a group affiliated with the Boy Scouts of America’s Learning for Life program, he was awarded a scholarship to spend nine days at Oshkosh, immersed in his passion: the world of flight.

“I was fascinated with flying even as a little kid,” Shulte explained. “I had some RC (radio-controlled) planes and model planes, and more recently, I got a computer game called ‘MS Flight Simulator X’ that can be used for both recreational and some real-world training.”

In sixth grade, his interest got a huge boost when he got to go up in a plane for the first time, at a flight school in Santa Rosa. After that, he began going regularly for free flights offered by Young Eagles programs at several airports – in Nevada, Cloverdale, and finally at Sonoma Skypark in his sophomore year.

All of Shulte’s formal flight instruction and qualifying examinations took place at North Coast Air flight school in Santa Rosa. After passing the Federal Aviation Administration’s multiple-choice test covering air space regulations, certain flight maneuvers, weather reports, and the like, he had to undergo the “checkride,” a combination oral and flight test given by an FAA examiner. Shulte was issued his private pilot’s license on May 10 this year.

“I had to take the pilot’s test right before my junior-year finals,” Shulte remembered. “That was brutal. I think I might’ve done best on my pilot’s license exam.”

At the Air Academy in Oshkosh, he took ground-school courses covering a wide variety of flight training subjects, and he also got some hands-on experience in aircraft construction, restoration and maintenance in the Academy’s wood and metal shops. Then there was the helicopter ride and the in-flight instruction when he went up for about 40 minutes with the pilot of the Cessna 162.

But perhaps one of the most exciting parts of his camp experience was attending the “World’s Greatest Aviation Celebration.” That’s how the EAA describes its annual extravaganza, AirVenture Oshkosh, a weeklong event featuring just about anything an aviation enthusiast could hope for: daily air shows, aerobatics and pyrotechnics, aviation forums, workshops, and demonstrations, just to name a few of the offerings.

The EAA estimates that approximately 500,000 aviation fans from more than 60 countries attend each year, with about 10,000 aircraft flying in for the event, making Wittman Regional Airport in Oshkosh the busiest airport in the world.

“You’ll never see so many airplanes!” enthused Shulte. “Everything from World War I models to modern electric-powered planes. They even had a flying car this year.”

The climax of AirVenture Oshkosh is a spectacular night air show, which all Air Academy students get to attend. There are countless planes flying amidst huge fireworks displays, with some of the world’s most famous pilots performing daring aerobatics.

One of the most creative acts this year was The JetMan, who has a jetpack in a giant wing attached to his back. He’s taken up in a helicopter, then jumps out. When he’s out of fuel, he pulls a parachute.

“Personally, I’d rather stay in the cockpit of an airplane,” said Shulte, with a laugh, “but I am hoping to do some tandem skydiving up in Cloverdale during the Christmas holidays.”

He hopes one day to be a commercial airline pilot, which will require a lot of further training, of course. But for now, the plan is to go to college next year at the University of Nevada in Reno.

In the meantime, Shulte is staying in shape by renting a plane out of Santa Rosa Airport – usually a two-seater light sport model – to give lucky family members and friends a taste of the skies. He’s also working with his mentor, Robin Tatman, the Aviation Explorers Post Advisor at Skypark, to nurture more young aviation buffs.

“Robin has been a great help to me,” Shulte said. “But really, everyone at Sonoma Skypark has taken an interest.”

Sonoma Skypark is a public-use airport owned by more than 50 community members. Flight-related movies are shown on the last Friday of each month.

On the second Sunday of each month, qualified, licensed pilots offer kids from eight to 17 free 15-minute airplane rides with a parent or guardian’s signature. For more information, visit sonomaskypark.com or call the Skypark office at 996-2100.