Evan Graham, Ojai Valley School junior, with one of the four planes he has soloed in, a Cessna 150-150, shortly after his 16th birthday.
Ojai youth keeps up family flying tradition
By Nancy Gross
Last Thursday Evan Graham, who lives in Ojai and will be a junior at Ojai Valley School in the fall, soared above the rest. He turned 16, accomplished his first five solo flights, and set a world record.
“I really didn’t do it to set any world records,” Graham said. “I’d just been waiting my whole life to turn 16,” which is the age when a new pilot may fly without another trained pilot beside him or her. Graham, who has been in airplanes since he was in the womb, and began learning to fly them as soon as he could reach the controls — even when that meant bulking up the seat with blankets, etc. to raise him up — had logged 154.5 of piloting hours prior to these first solo flights.
Graham’s solo experience Thursday involved two hours spent among five different crafts, two helicopters and three airplanes. Three instructors were present as witnesses, along with family, including Graham’s older brother, Paul, who soloed in one of the same helicopters after turning 16 last summer, and Graham’s father, a helicopter pilot.
Graham enjoyed the feel of the grass airstrip at the central California ranch chosen for the big day. He flew amidst a backdrop of gold rolling hills dappled with stout live oak trees. Some cumulus clouds accented the calm blue sky. His descriptions of the sensation make it clear this young man is as at home off the ground as on it.
Even so, this was his first time unaccompanied. “I was a little bit nervous. Then I took off and I wasn’t. You feel like nobody can touch you up there.”
One of the helicopters flown is his father’s helicopter, a Robinson R-22. His father has done “everything you can do with a helicopter,” including news reporting, laying drills in Alaska, and search, rescue and cleanup work in Hawaii.
The other helicopter was a Robinson R-44, which Graham’s mother, Lucila Arango, says is “the color of the Spanish flag, in honor of Evan’s grandparents.” Graham jokes that it may be just a coincidence that this craft is red and yellow.
“You’ve got to be really gentle flying a helicopter. Any big control move and you’ll crash the helicopter. They are more complex than planes, more moving parts; slight finger movements can make big adjustments.” Graham ponders, “I think it would be fun to take a few jobs flying helicopters. But it’s a little bit dangerous.” Even if he sees his flying as more of a sport and hobby than a career path, it is clearly part of a family lifestyle.
One of the airplanes was a Cessna Aerobat 150. “My uncle also taught me to fly. Well, he takes me up to get sick doing aerobatics!” This uncle, who once attended Thacher School, is a collector of World War I planes, and this is the same plane Graham’s mother soloed in when she was 16. Graham’s grandfather was a pilot as well, so Graham is third generation.
Graham also flew a Cessna 150-150 and an old barnstorming-style plane, the World War II Vintage Warbird Piper L-4 taildragger. He enjoyed the bounce and the sound of this plane, saying, “It flies differently. There is less visibility.” He is both knowledgeable and enthusiastic when he explains how airplane flight differs from helicopter flight, stating that “airplane control movement can be bigger and more abrupt, and you never stop,” unlike in a helicopter where one hovers. “You can push, pull, loop more.” Air flow acts differently on stationary wings as opposed to spinning blades.
There are rituals that mark the end of a pilot’s first solo flight, or flights. Instructors christen the pilot, pouring water over the head, and finally cut out the back of the pilot’s soaking wet shirt. The names of the crafts flown will be written on this piece of cloth that rested against both the pilot and the pilot seat.
Arango, Graham’s mother, received an article out of Rotor and Wing from a friend shortly before Graham was to fly solo. It announced a new record set by another 16-year-old, Errick Smith of Mississippi, who flew two helicopters and one plane on his birthday. It became a fun challenge to beat this. This other teen had only been flying for two years.
Arango laughs that she continued to fly before Graham’s birth until her belly finally got in the way and she couldn’t reach the controls. In this family, even the two beagle-mix dogs, Snookie and Chewey, fly in the planes, and one of them is especially happy to get off the ground.
Arango also attended OVS, moving from Mexico City as a teen, “from the largest and most congested city in the world to this.” She has not lived continuously in Ojai, but returned to this valley that made an impression on her. Carl Cooper, the current headmaster at OVS, was once her English teacher. Graham, clearly a fan of, and an expert with, motorized transport, intends to ride to school on his motorcycle this coming year.