Photos by Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Student-pilot Madison Katsonga-Thiri, 13, and Sweet Aviation instructor Lorin Kaney sit in the cockpit of a Diamond airplane at Smith Field.
Katsonga-Thiri checks the ailerons on a Diamond aircraft she trains in. The Blackhawk Middle School student began taking flight lessons with Sweet Aviation in May.
Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette Student pilot Madison Katsonga-Thiri runs through her pre-flight checklist on the 2-seat Diamond airplane she trains in, at Sweet Aviation.
Thursday, December 03, 2015 4:28 am
Teen wants wings
Steve Warden | The Journal Gazette
Because she was grounded, it was a bummer of a Saturday morning for Madison Katsonga-Thiri, 13.
No, no. Not that kind of grounded; not the getting-in-trouble-and-now-you-can’t-go-out-with-your-friends kind of grounded. We’re talking grounded grounded here; the pilot-speak kind of grounded, as in no flying today.
Because skies were low and gray, and winds were high and gusting, the only attention the cozy two-seat, single-prop Diamond aircraft parked behind a hangar on the Ludwig Road side of Smith Field would receive would be a routine inspection from Madison.
Although she wouldn’t be getting a flying lesson on this particular morning, instructor Lorin Kaney figured he’d use the down time as a teaching opportunity, even though he and his young student had been through this routine many times before.
"It’s just a preflight inspection, looking for anything out of the ordinary," Kaney says.
That’s what Madison was looking for, too. Something out of the ordinary when she, with a nudge from her father, Steven, became Kaney’s youngest student at Sweet Aviation flight school.
The initial introductory flight in May was the first time being airborne for the Blackhawk Middle School eighth-grader.
"I was really nervous," Madison says. "I remember the scenery, and how beautiful it was. I remember looking out my window.
"(Kaney) told me to look around, because I was kind of looking at the controls more. I looked around, and it was just beautiful."
In his six years of being a flight instructor, Kaney, 31, has had only a handful of young students. Madison is one of the youngest.
"There are pluses and minuses," he says of the very young ones.
"With the younger kids coming in, a lot of them are so handy with technology, that picking up stuff like GPS and some of the modern avionics in some of the airplanes that we have, it comes a little bit easier for them.
"And their hand-to-eye coordination – they’re fairly quick on the uptake. So they’re usually pretty good in the airplane."
Madison, he says, is quite good.
"She’s very energetic, outgoing; a lot of fun to fly with," Kaney says.
"She’s very, very smart on the flying part of it. She picks that up really quick."
Even though she loves sports, Madison admits she’s not extremely coordinated. But her mother, Jessica, wanted to get Madison involved in ... something.
"We wanted something for her to do that she could be really interested in to help her self-esteem," her mother says. "Once she went up in the plane for the first time, she was just in love with it."
And her interest, as they say in the pilot business, soared.
She admits to being "goofy and giddy" at times, especially when she’s with her friends. But when it’s time to step into the cockpit, or study textbooks with Kaney and other instructors, the 13-year-old steps into a more serious mode.
"It does take a lot of maturity," Madison says. "You can’t be too giddy and too nervous about it.
"You’ve got to focus on what he’s showing you at the controls, focus on what he’s telling you, and repeat it back to him so he knows you can do it. You’ve got to be very focused to learn what he’s trying to tell you.
"Now I know the importance of paying attention and listening ... and learning in a better way."
Regardless of age, becoming a pilot takes a commitment, Kaney says.
The FAA requires at least 40 hours of flight training to earn a private pilot’s license, and the national average is close to 60 hours.
And it takes money. Kaney estimated it takes about $10,000 before a pilot is ready to fly a plane solo.
"We get (students) all the way to the young teens, all the way up to businessmen who are finally at that point in life where they can afford to spend some money," Kaney says.
"We had one guy come in and said, ‘I don’t care what it costs. I just want to have fun. And if it’s not fun, I’m quitting.’ "
Since Madison won’t be 14 until Dec. 30, and since a pilot cannot fly solo until the age of 16, she has plenty of time to listen and learn.
"My motivation right now is for my 16th birthday, I want to take my family to Disneyland," she says. "I’d love to travel, and being able to fly myself and my friends, that would be a cool experience."