2013-01-16 / Front Page
Teen pilot enjoys freedom he finds alone in the air
MARLBORO — When Josh Eichel woke up on Nov. 23, 2012, he had yet to finish the six hours of driving school required to earn a learner’s permit. By the time he settled into bed that night, Eichel, 16, had completed the driving course, along with his first series of solo airplane flights at the Monmouth Executive Airport in Wall Township.
The Marlboro resident’s dream took off when he was in eighth grade, after Eichel accompanied his rabbi and mentor, Don Weber, on a trip through the clouds.
In less than a year, Eichel enrolled in flight school and began flying a two-seat plane under the direction of instructor John Hannon.
Now, Eichel said, he knows the sense of liberation that comes with piloting an aircraft on one’s own.
“It was freedom,” Eichel said. “It’s all on you. You can’t just look to the right seat for the instructor. If you get in trouble, it’s up to you to get out.”
But the Marlboro High School junior did not encounter any problems in the air. Eichel successfully carried out four takeoffs and landings in roughly an hour as his parents, Rich Eichel and Gabby Eichel, along with Hannon and Weber, watched from the ground.
High in the crisp, clear sky, Eichel piloted the plane with skills he learned through free online classes and Hannon’s tutelage. More than a year of hard work — what Eichel called “the waiting game” — had paid off.
“I didn’t really have time to think I was flying alone,” the young man added. “I had confidence. I’ve been looking forward to this day for over a year now. It was just me and the airplane.”
Hannon said Eichel’s determination and supportive family aided in his knack for aviation at such a young age.
“Josh is always well prepared for each flight, and from day one he had what we call good ‘stick and rudder’ skills,” Hannon noted. “He is very bright and almost always needs only a single explanation of a task or concept.”
Though Eichel could not fly far from the airport during the flight, he managed to catch a glimpse of the Atlantic Ocean. He said the beauty of that sight reminded him of the peace he found on his first flight with Weber.
When he finally arrived at the airport for his solo flight, armed with faith in his abilities, Eichel said he still harbored some anxiety.
“I was a little bit nervous,” he said. “Coming up to the runway, I was very shaky, but I did what I normally do. My attention focused right to flying.”
Eichel’s smooth handling of the airplane, a Cessna 152 which is so light it can be pushed along the runway, dispelled any feeling of unease, he said.
When he triumphantly stepped off the plane that day, Eichel said, he could not wait for his next opportunity to soar across the sky. He compared the reaction to that of a child who is hesitant to jump into a swimming pool, but is unwilling to exit once in the water.
Eichel came back for seconds on Dec. 15 in Trenton, Mercer County, where he performed three solo takeoffs and landings. After that, Hannon gave Eichel the green light to fly solo within 25 miles of Monmouth Executive Airport, without an instructor on the ground.
Eichel said he is permitted to land at airports in Trenton and Toms River.
First-time unsupervised flights are not often made by 16-year-olds, but those who tackle the undertaking at a young age often find success in the field. Hannon said.
“What I often note is that whenever I read about a pilot who has made some great achievement in aviation, many of them soloed on or close to their 16th birthday,” Hannon said.
Eichel said he is unsure whether his love for flight will remain a hobby or blossom into a part-time job, but he does not wish to fly for a commercial airline.
For now, the teen said he finds humor in the parallels between learning to drive and fly. While his peers plot to find car rides from their friends, Eichel’s pals ask for flights to faraway lands, he said.
And Eichel’s mother, Gabby, who will always be nervous when he flies, said she worries more when Eichel is behind the wheel of an automobile.
“She thinks flying is less dangerous than driving,” Eichel added. “There’s no road to veer off, nobody to crash into and nobody nearby is texting.”