Come their 16th birthday many teenagers celebrate that milestone with cake and getting their learner’s permit.
Not Austin Bowa, who turned 16 on Valentine’s Day. He chose to celebrate his birthday by taking his first solo flight in a tiny two-seater helicopter at the Auburn Airport. After all, flying helicopters is what he has wanted to do since he was 8 years old.
A sophomore at Ponderosa High School, Bowa has been training to fly helicopters for the past year.
There to cheer him on were his parents, Shelly and Jeff Bowa of El Dorado Hills, his grandparents, other family members, his flight instructor and a bevy of media.
Austin said he first became interested in becoming a pilot when he did a tour in Hawaii. His mother said he was so enthusiastic about learning to fly and his grades were so good in the eighth grade that when he asked his parents if he could take helicopter lessons they agreed. “It was his true love,” Shelly said.
The day’s events included a flight in the morning and a second one at noon, each lasting about 30 minutes and confined mainly to circling over the airport and performing turns. Austin won’t actually be eligible to get his pilot’s license until he’s 17. Once he gets his license he will be able to fly with passengers.
Austin has proven to be an apt student, according to his instructor John Crawford of Sierra Air Helicopters. “He’s smart as a whip and someone who studies well but is also a good pilot,” he said. “Sometimes a person is a good study but not an equally good pilot. Austin is both.”
Crawford said the studying part involves learning about the helicopter’s every nut and bolt, knowing all the regulations, understanding weather and more. “The studying part is sometimes harder than the flying,” he said. “Austin passed his written test with a score of ‘only’ 98 percent.”
Austin said he’s never had any close calls while flying. The hardest maneuver he has had to master is called an autorotation — landing without the engine. That involves using altitude and air speed to keep the blades spinning long enough to land. Never interested in flying a plane, Austin knew from the beginning he wanted to fly helicopters. “Helicopters are more maneuverable than fixed wing aircraft,” he said.
Austin still doesn’t have a learner’s permit to drive. But that doesn’t bother him since he has spent more time in a helicopter than learning to drive a car. He said he would get that permit another day.
As Austin got ready for his big flight at noon, everything was perfect … except that someone forgot the keys to the helicopter. Once his instructor ran back to the office and got them, the youngster was up and away for an unforgettable 16th birthday.