Most 16-year-olds concentrate on getting their driver’s licenses. Zack Farmer is aiming a little higher.
The St. James School sophomore is working toward his pilot’s license. He recently soloed, the monumental step of a student taking an airplane aloft without the instructor sitting beside him. He took the hop after 10 hours of instruction, not too shabby an accomplishment when most students solo at about 20 hours.
He didn’t even mind when, after touching down, his shirt tail was cut off to mark the milestone. The cutting of the clothing is a time-honored tradition after soloing.
And, he didn’t have to look far for his instructor. Actually, he didn’t even have to leave home. Jeff Farmer, a commercial pilot and Zack’s dad, is handling the instructor duties. Jeff is a qualified commercial and instructor pilot, and is also an FAA designated pilot examiner. So he knows his stuff.
So what was it like going up alone?
“It’s eye-opening, it’s great,” Zack said, barely stifling a smile. “You get up there and you just look around. The first time I kind of looked over and my Dad wasn’t there. But I could still hear him back there in my head talking to me. Telling me what to do.
“It’s very different from being on the ground. It’s just great.”
Zack takes his lessons at Prattville Aviation, at Grouby Field in Prattville. His airplane is a Cessna 172 Skyhawk, an iconic craft in the general aviation world. Jeff videoed Zack’s solo landing. Ever the instructor, he talked Zack though the steps from the ground. He couldn’t contain his excitement and pride when the wheels squawked at touchdown.
A good landing, even by his father’s standards.
So what’s it like teaching your teenaged son to fly?
“It’s wonderful,” Jeff said without hesitation. “We spend a lot of good quality time together. The learning process of flying an airplane is challenge for Zack. And as an instructor it’s a challenge to make sure he operates safely.
“We take driving lessons on the way to the airport. He just recently turned 16. And we turn that into a flying lesson when we get to the airport. It’s a wonderful experience. Zack’s a real sharp individual. We couldn’t be more proud.”
The situation does require a shift in roles.
“The relationship between a student and their instructor is vital,” Jeff said. “The student has to have complete trust in the instructor. So in the airplane, I’m Jeff. What happens and what is said in the airplane, stays in the airplane. When we get back on the ground, I’m Dad.”
Flying is part of the fabric of the Farmer family. Jeff also soloed at 16, and got his pilot’s license at 17. That’s the rule. It usually takes about 40 hours of instruction for a student to meet the requirements to attain a license. Students can solo at 16, but you have to be 17 to get the check ride to get your pilot’s license.
Zack is the youngest of three sons; Jake, 21, is a senior at Auburn University. Nick, 20, is a junior, also at AU. Growing up the way the boys did, flying with their dad, got Zack interested in becoming a pilot.
“All three of us, me and my two older brothers, grew up flying around with our Dad,” Zack said. “Flying over the house waving at Mom down there on the ground. It just really got me interested.”
For Lisa Farmer having her youngest taking flying lessons is “exciting.” Well, maybe not all the time.
“I met Jeff when he was 17 and he already had his license,” she said with a laugh. “So flying has always been a part of us. I told Jeff I didn’t want to know when Zack was going to solo. I’ve seen them studying the books together before Zack’s lessons began. I know Jeff is an excellent pilot and instructor. I know Zack would solo when he was ready.
“But, I’m a mother. I found out after he soloed. It worked out great that way. We couldn’t be more proud of Zack.”
Zack’s avocation may become his vocation. He’s thinking about joining the Air Force after college.
“It’s a long way off, but it’s really something I’m interested in,” he said.
Other than being a student pilot, Zack is your normal Southern boy. He loves to hunt and fish, and any other outdoor activity. He admits to looking at fields when he’s flying trying to spot deer. All the while concentrating on stick and rudder and roll, pitch and yaw, of course
Math is his favorite subject in school. That helps when navigation is a big part of flying.
Jeff hopes Zack’s efforts may interest other youngsters in flying. It’s not cheap proposition. Use of an airplane runs about $110 to $125 an hour. And instructors charge about $50 to $75 an hour. Obviously Zack gets a deal with his instructor.
“We need younger people to become interested in flying,” Jeff said. “Somebody needs to come along and replace all of us old pilots. Flying is a great activity, and it opens the door to great career opportunities.”
Ditto, says Zack.
“Y’all need to come out here and try it,” he said. “It’s life-changing.”
Oh, and that driver’s license thing? Zack aced that as well, scoring 100 on the written exam his first try.