Photo of a person standing on wing of a small plane

Caleb gets ready to head into the skies. 

Flying High

Caleb Smith, 18, learned how to fly planes before he could drive a car.

Like many teens, Caleb Smith spent years dreaming of the day he’d get his license. But unlike most teens, Caleb wasn’t fantasizing about a license to drive a car. He was looking forward to getting a license to fly a plane. When Caleb was a sophomore, his dream came true. He became the youngest glider pilot in the United States. (A glider is a type of plane that doesn’t have an engine.)

Today Caleb is still in high school, but he has licenses for two types of planes. He flies gliders and also small planes that have engines. Flying takes a lot of time and commitment. When he’s up in the air, Caleb isn’t only responsible for his own safety. He’s also got the safety of his passengers in his hands. But there’s no place he’d rather be than soaring through the clouds. Here’s more of Caleb’s story.

Caleb prepares for takeoff in a real plane.

First Flight 

Caleb was 8 the first time he flew in an airplane. He sat in the window seat right behind the wing. He was fascinated by how the wing moved during flight. After that trip, he tried to get the same seat whenever he and his family flew somewhere. 

As often as he could, Caleb stayed behind after flights to talk to the pilots. He asked them technical questions about how the planes worked. Pilots sometimes invited him into the cockpit to take photos and look at the controls. Caleb admired how kind and confident the pilots were. 

On his 10th birthday, Caleb flew on his first discovery flight. That’s a short introductory flight for people who are interested in flying. The pilot explains how the controls work and talks about everything that happens during the flight. “That was the first time I was in a very small aircraft, and it’s a different experience since the pilot is right next to you,” Caleb says. He was hooked. 

Caleb started taking flying lessons once a month. The lessons were expensive, so it was difficult for him to get in as much practice as he wanted. Eventually his parents gave him a flight simulator. The simulator sits on his desk and looks sort of like a video game. It lets Caleb practice flying a plane right from his bedroom. 

Caleb practices working the controls in his flight simulator.

Fighting Stereotypes

Caleb became determined to get his pilot’s license. He mostly wanted to be a pilot because he loves flying. But he had another motivation as well: to expand people’s ideas about who can fly an airplane. Right now, the majority of pilots in the U.S. are white and male. Caleb wants to change that. “I want aviation to get to a point where everyone can pursue it, regardless of their race or gender,” he says. 

Caleb is inspired by a group of pilots called the Tuskegee Airmen. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military pilots in the United States. (Caleb’s school, Charles Herbert Flowers High School, is actually named after one of the Airmen.) Caleb considers these famous pilots role models. “They proved that race can’t stop you from chasing your dreams,” he says.

Over the years he was working toward his license, Caleb always managed to fit his passion for flying into his busy school schedule. He would often wake up early to finish homework before school. After school he’d spend a few hours flying before coming home and immediately hitting the books. “It was definitely a crunch trying to get all my work done,” he says. 

Thanks to his dedication, he won a scholarship that helped fund his flight training. After completing 12 solo flights and passing a written exam, he earned his private glider pilot license in 2021, at the age of 16.  

A Surprise Honor 

At the end of Caleb’s sophomore year, the U.S. Air Force gave a presentation at a school assembly. Suddenly, Caleb heard Major General Joel Jackson asking him to come up onstage. The entire assembly was in his honor!

Jackson gave Caleb a certificate acknowledging his accomplishments in aviation. Then they went outside, where a helicopter was waiting in the school parking lot. The helicopter took them on a tour of nearby Washington, D.C. “I’d never been that close to the White House,” Caleb says. “It was amazing.”  

Up in the Skies

Being a pilot is a lot of work. In addition to flying as often as he can, Caleb also spends time doing maintenance on his glider. “It’s almost like taking care of a kid,” he says. But the effort is worth it. When Caleb flies, he feels at peace. “It’s become second nature to me,” he says. “I feel very comfortable, and I can just look around and admire all the different mountains and clouds I’m soaring through.” 

Caleb also loves taking friends up for flights. “It’s fun to go from sitting next to your friend during lunch period and then, the next thing you know, you’re a couple thousand feet in the air,” he says. He explains the functions of the different controls to his passengers. Now, Caleb says, some of his friends are less scared of flying since they understand how the plane works.  

A Flying Career

Caleb dreams of becoming a pilot at a major airline in the future. He’s considering entering the U.S. Air Force Academy to learn to fly jets for the military before getting a job with an airline. He’s also thinking about going to college to study aviation. He knows whatever path he takes will be a lot of hard work. But, he says, “if you’re passionate about something, you can do it.” 

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