Young pilot goes solo to celebrate 16th birthday
by Amy Kane
Hampton Union, Nov. 23, 2012
NORTH HAMPTON — Under fair November skies, with a temperature of 46 degrees and north winds breezing at 6 knots, Alex Bettcher celebrated his 16th birthday by having a large piece of his T-shirt cut off with a giant pair of scissors. Not once, but three times, with three different shirts.
This rite of passage, the ceremonial shirt cutting, is a time-honored tradition in aviation. It marks the first solo flight of a student pilot of any age. But just as a student driver cannot get a driver’s license before age 16, a student pilot is not allowed to take off and land a plane solo until that same birthday milestone.
A flight qualifies as “solo” when, alone in the plane, the aviator takes off, flies around the airport pattern and lands to a full stop three times in a row. Alex Bettcher was so ready for this that he soloed in not just one but three aircraft on Wednesday, Nov. 14, his 16th birthday.
“Flying is easy,” he said after he stepped out of the first plane, a vintage 1946 Piper J-3 Cub. “What’s hard is my age, and waiting for this day.”
Alex has logged 80 hours of flight time; he will probably log another 80 before he turns 17 and can get his private pilot’s license. He plans to become a certified light-sport aircraft flight instructor next, building more flying time and being paid to teach others. To help fund his hobby and future career, Alex has been working for airfield owners Mike and Cheryl Hart, pumping gas, washing planes, raking leaves and more — sometimes until 8 or 9 at night.
Cheryl Hart calls Alex “our boy wonder.”
“Everybody loves him. It doesn’t matter what you’re doing, he’s there to help you. And he’s an amazing pilot,” she said.
Alex first realized he loved to fly when a family friend took him for a ride out of Lawrence Airport in Massachusetts when he was 11 years old.
“It was breathtaking. I almost didn’t have words for it,” he said.
One of his sixth-grade teachers at North Hampton School, Dana Miller, noticed his interest and pointed him in the direction of Hampton Airfield. Alex rode his bike there — and he still does. The sophomore at Winnacunnet High School skipped a drivers’ education course this semester to focus on aviation.
Dana Miller’s husband, Garrett Miller, grew up in North Hampton and learned to fly at Hampton Airfield. He is now a flight instructor there, as well as a firefighter and paramedic in Portsmouth. He became Alex’s primary flight instructor. Last Wednesday, he was feeling confident as he watched his student take off alone.
“It’s easy to stand on the sidelines with Alex up there. He’s a great pilot,” Miller said.
Joining Miller with their eyes on the sky were about 30 friends and family members, including Alex’s parents Deb and Kurt Bettcher, of North Hampton, his big sister Nicole Bettcher with her kids Hailey and Chase, grandparents Phyllis and Gino Funari, of Hampton, his aunt Pam Davis, and his grandmother Joan Bettcher, of North Hampton.
“I had tears in my eyes,” said Joan Bettcher. “Here is the little boy I took care of for years, grown up to be a man.”
Paula Maynard and Gene Gray, owners of the banner-towing business Skyline Aerial Ads, which is based at the airfield, were also on hand to witness Alex’s solo flights.
Paula Maynard praised his focus and dedication.
“Alex did whatever had to be done to get to this point. He had the drive. We wanted to be here to support him,” she said.
After he parked the J-3 Cub and cheerfully endured a chorus of “Happy Birthday,” Alex logged solo time in a Cessna 172, then a Piper J-5A Cub Cruiser nicknamed the Pumpkin Piper for its intense orange paint.
Alex has had his hands on the stick or yoke of 28 different airplanes since he started lessons.
Though Garrett Miller is his primary instructor, Alex considers all the pilots at Hampton Airfield to be his teachers. He said one of his most memorable flights was a trip to New Jersey down the Hudson River VFR, or “visual flight rules” corridor in a Cessna 180 with Dick Cumming, Dennis Gilfoil and George Forrest.
“We were seeing the buildings of New York City at eye level,” Alex said.
“I’ve met so many amazing people here,” he said. “The atmosphere is great. Pilots are really friendly.”
Legend has it that in the early days of aviation, before radio communication, when — as in a Piper Cub — pilot and instructor sat one in front of the other, instructors would tug on a student’s shirttails then yell in his or her ear to give instructions. Cutting a shirt signifies that the student can now fly without the instructor.
The pieces of Alex’s T-shirts are on display, along with those of many other first-time solo pilots, in the flight office at Hampton Airfield. Name, date, and aircraft are written on each piece.
On the shirt marking his second solo, in the Cessna 172, Alex’s instructor wrote, “SLOW DOWN!!”
Though he may slow the speed of his aircraft, it looks like Alex is practically rocketing toward a future in aviation.
(See also: Hampton Airfield dreams)