The Initial Spark

By James “Frankie’s Dad” Fremont, EAA 1294619

Like so many toddlers, my son, Frankie Fremont, EAA 1294621, was
enamored with airplanes. He had a good-sized model of Bud Anderson’s P-51, Old Crow, that was played with and
repaired so many times that there was a distinguishable amount of Scotch tape
holding the old airframe together. He also had a fleet of die-cast airliners
that often covered the living room coffee table, as he flew them one by one
from his makeshift airport to various other locations throughout the house.

As he got older, other favorite pastimes began to emerge, such as
going to the established airplane-watching areas near our hometown airport in
North Las Vegas (KVGT). Frankie would actually make his way out to the fuel
pumps, where he would politely ask pilots if he could sit in their airplanes
while they refueled. This took place often enough that we actually started
keeping a logbook of these “cockpit orientations” (but sadly this book was lost
during a move and hasn’t been seen since).

The discovery of McCarran International Airport, however, was the start of bigger things. These airliners had become better than Disneyland to Frankie. When he would spend time with his grandparents during summer break, his most frequent request was to go watch airplanes at McCarran. His grandmother would explain that they had to take food on such trips, because they could plan on the fact that Frankie would insist on staying for such a long time. His mother and I were planning a brief trip to Los Angeles over the holiday break, and we asked Frankie if he wanted to go to Disneyland or possibly one of the other amusement parks in Southern California. Surprisingly, the response was that he really would rather just go watch airplanes at LAX, since after all, the biggest airliner was the A380, and those didn’t fly into Las Vegas so he had never seen one. Not wanting to disappoint (and realizing the potential significant monetary savings), his mother and I quickly agreed that LAX it was!

Now, I don’t mean to paint the picture that Frankie had no other
interests besides aviation. There have been years in his life that were much
more centered on baseball than anything else. In fact, at one point, I thought
I had experienced the ultimate high as a father when I received a voicemail
stating, “This is USA Baseball calling to talk to you about your son, Frankie.”
However, there was also the doctor’s appointment where we learned that he had
actually broken his elbow throwing, and consequently wouldn’t be playing for
quite a while. Little did we know, this would turn out to be a classic case of
one door closing and another door opening.

As parents, we were interested in finding out what sort of
activities Frankie could get involved with while he was out of baseball, just
to avoid having idle time leading to any sorts of trouble. As it turned out,
since Frankie was 14 at the time of his injury, we learned that he’d be
eligible to truly begin training in gliders, once he again had full range of
motion in that elbow. The disappointing part was that the only glider club near
Las Vegas was booked up when it came to students, and the only thing they could
do was place Frankie on their waiting list. As a result, the best option became
a glider port in Southern California, which involved a drive of nearly four
hours each way. As we observed Frankie get off to a good start with some
natural stick-and-rudder skills, we were also impressed with his ability to
roll with the situation of all those long drives, and still keep his school
work up to date despite all of the traveling. At this point, it seemed decided.
This young man was so all-in on getting his private pilot certificate in a
glider that, as parents, we needed to be supportive and do whatever we could to
facilitate that dream. Shortly thereafter, on November 24, 2018, Frankie soloed
for the first time, and things were getting ready to really “take off.”

That Christmas, we gifted him a prepaid orientation flight with a
local FBO that offered helicopter tours and flight training in both rotary and
fixed wing. Frankie wanted to experience the controls of a helicopter, since it
looked so different from the gliders. When the ride was over, the pilot
expressed that he was pleasantly surprised with Frankie’s ability to control
the helicopter — so once again, a certain amount of airmanship seemed to be
coming naturally. As a result, my wife started commenting that although I may
have tried to make a baseball player, apparently God already made a pilot. Not
long after that, the whole family started joking that if he has that much
aptitude with a rotary aircraft, maybe on his 16th birthday Frankie should try
to solo a helicopter, solo a Cessna, and get his private pilot certificate in
the glider — all at the same time.

Although those jokes were easily dismissed, the thought we
couldn’t seem to shake was a recommendation from an acquaintance that we should
take Frankie to Oshkosh. We had been adamantly instructed that if Frankie had
any interest in a collegiate aviation program, Oshkosh was an opportunity to
talk to many such schools all in one place. In addition, there was simply the
fact that all things aviation come together for a weeklong celebration that
someone interested in that field simply shouldn’t miss. We were sold, and
reservations were made for what we had hoped would be a great family vacation.

All the talk about aviation as a college major had also sparked a curiosity in those types of programs. Before we knew it, Frankie was spending time comparing colleges and had turned up a dual-enrollment program offered by Embry-Riddle. When we checked with his high school, we learned that a limited amount of online coursework with Embry-Riddle would, in fact, be allowed to count toward his high school credits, as well as toward college. Once again, we saw a surprising level of motivation from Frankie, and before we left for Oshkosh, he was cramming to finish his second such course, which was an aeronautical sciences overview.

After airline difficulties and weather forced us to rebook our flights and hunt for a different way to arrive, our trip became a shining example of the rewards of perseverance. We flew into Chicago with just enough time to catch a Cubs game before heading north to Oshkosh, and Frankie’s favorite player made a couple sparkling plays to bring the Cubs to victory. We later learned that severe weather had threatened the start of the AirVenture activities, but that an amazing crew had banded together to overcome the odds and still start things off there on time.

First thing Monday morning, we could literally feel the magic as
we exited the highway and pulled into the Wittman Regional Airport area. There
was an immediate awareness that we needed to treasure the next three days and
the fact that my wife and I were able to share this with our son.

Given the sheer size of what Oshkosh has to offer, it just can’t
help but strike a personal chord with most people. For us, the first strong
connection came when we discovered that Bud Anderson was a featured guest. We
eventually made it over to the warbirds area, and seeing a full-size P-51 with
the Old Crow lettering on the cowling
brought back a flood of memories of watching our toddler play with his P-51
model in our living room. In striking contrast, we then saw our 15-year-old
discussing modern supersonic flight research with one of the engineers in the
NASA exhibit, since he had written a paper on that topic as one of his aeronautical
sciences assignments for Embry-Riddle. Add to that the incredibly warm welcome
we received from the Embry-Riddle team at their exhibit, and our air show
experience was clearly turning out to exceed expectations.

For the most part, our son was happy to gradually make his way
through the various aspects of AirVenture and just continually take in the
sights as they came up. However, there was one event that he insisted we see, and
that was a briefing from Capt. Tammie Jo Shults, regarding her dramatic landing
of a crippled Southwest Airlines flight. To this day, we’re not sure how this
subject came to capture Frankie’s attention, but as we listened to Capt. Shults
speak, the whole family was captivated by her story and her beaming faith.
Needless to say, if Frankie was looking for a role model, we completely
supported his choice in this case, both professionally and in terms of how
she’s lived her life, and that absolutely includes how she’s shared her faith.

Our last day at AirVenture was Wednesday, so we naturally planned
to see the fireworks show before we left. Living in Las Vegas, we’ve seen a
number of large-scale fireworks shows, both live and on television, but we’d
argue adamantly that nothing tops the fireworks at Oshkosh — not even close.
Since witnessing that show, I’ve accepted the fact that the best fireworks do
take place in July, but they are most definitely at the end of the month rather
than on the Fourth! So, that was a great send-off, but as we walked to our car,
there was certainly a sadness throughout our small group, due to the fact that
something we had looked forward to and thoroughly enjoyed had come to an end.
(In fact, I think we walked all the way to our car rather than taking the
shuttle, since subconsciously, we thought that might somehow delay the end of
our AirVenture experience.) As we walked though, the sadness started to give
way to more of an inspired tone, and although it may not have been specifically
spoken, that was likely the moment where we all knew — those light-hearted
comments about trying to tie three firsts together on Frankie’s 16th birthday
was no longer just joking.

By August, we were actively checking out FBOs, looking for the
right place to quietly begin preparing to do something uncommon, in the true
spirit of aviation. We had to be somewhat reserved in what we actually
discussed, since the most typical reactions if we spelled it all out ranged
from “That’s a little too much pressure to put on a young person,” to “Well,
don’t be disappointed if that doesn’t work out, since those are all very
different aircraft,” to laughter and eye-rolling from people who thought we
were ridiculous. Eventually, we did locate an FBO run by a man who was
completely passionate about training young people in the field of aviation, and
wouldn’t you know it was the same place where Frankie had taken that very first
helicopter orientation ride. As a result, we had found a home, and the training
in the two powered aircraft soon began.

Scheduling was tough, however, trying to balance trips to
Southern California for the glider work, with various different instructors
here in town for the powered work — all while still keeping up with the first
semester of Frankie’s sophomore year in high school. Many times it seemed like
we may have to throw in the towel on this lofty goal — due to problems such as
weather-related cancellations, scheduling conflicts with instructors, a misfire
on the first attempt at the glider private pilot written exam, etc. — but
Frankie wouldn’t hear of the word “quit.” There were many nights where the
adults where likely snoring for hours while the 15-year-old was burning the
midnight oil trying to keep up with school.

By October, the glider flight school had started asking questions
about why there were hours in the logbook for rotary time. We hadn’t discussed
the whole plan anywhere we didn’t have to, so Frankie had just been answering
that it was simply for fun. Consequently, by November, there were
recommendations that Frankie leave the helicopters alone, since the footwork
was so different that they felt it was hindering his glider work. Since this
made it clear that the glider port was not going to readily support the goals,
Frankie had a decision to make. After sifting through a great deal of inner
conflict, his request was to attempt to stay with the people he had grown so
fond of and who had so warmly facilitated his initial entry into the aviation
world. However, I was asked to find a backup location for finishing the glider certificate,
in case his current group turned him away when we explained the goals.

As parents, we made a list of points we wanted to cover during a
conference call that was scheduled with the glider port, but as is usually the
case with “best laid plans,” none of that was really swaying anything in our
direction. Eventually, I was simply asked why Frankie even wanted to attempt
this goal. Being totally off-script at that point, I just blurted out that our
research seemed to indicate that no one had put this combination of
achievements together before, and I thought that he just had a little bit of
pioneer spirit in him. To this day, I kind of laugh at myself for this next
one, but I continued with, “After all, wasn’t this entire industry built on the
backs of people who were willing to try things that no one had done before?” At
that point, I finally had the presence of mind to shut up, and after what
seemed like an endless pause, the response was “I can respect that,” and we all
moved to the subject of “How do we get all of the checkride prep done in time?”

The next challenge was right there waiting for us though, since I
quickly learned how much effort was going to be required to prepare for the
oral portion of the checkride. The number of pages in the FAA’s Practical Test Standards alone was
daunting, and it was time to use the one card I had up my sleeve: Capt. Shults.
I had been holding a signed copy of her book, Nerves of Steel, which had a personalized message for Frankie.
Considering the subtitle is How I
Followed My Dreams, Earned My Wings, and Faced My Greatest Challenges,
figured there was nothing better to provide Frankie with for extra motivation.
Once again, the Oshkosh experience was providing unexpected benefits that were
hard to even measure. Frankie went on to devote 100 percent of his Christmas
break from school to his aviation training, even convincing one of the
helicopter CFIs to fly with him on Christmas Day.

The amazing part of all this became how Frankie was now planning
and orchestrating how the schedule could all be worked out, disproving any
ideas that he was being pushed to accomplish this by his parents. Every day was
bringing another challenge, and Frankie was the one now providing solutions.
His endurance was far outlasting the adults’, and he was now the one providing
encouragement. As parents, we started realizing that if he actually pulled this
all off, his life may actually be changed for the better, with the pure belief
that anything’s possible if you dedicate yourself to it completely.

So, the day had finally arrived — January 23, 2020, Frankie’s 16th
birthday. The plan was to shower, pack, head to the airport for the powered
solos, and then get in the truck to head straight for the glider port in
Southern California. However, as we had all learned to expect, things didn’t go
smoothly. As Frankie’s mother was attempting to turn off the shower, the valve
broke and the water couldn’t actually be turned off. We looked at each other in
horror, with the fear that we’d come all this way and it might all unravel at
the last moment. Fortunately, Frankie was unfazed, and he continued to ready
himself in whatever ways possible, while I scrambled to make repairs. As we had
been blessed with solutions so many times before, so it was once again. I
discovered that we had the right part here at home already, the repairs went
smoothly, and we were only 10 minutes late to the airport. Here again, that
persistence that started with Frankie’s approach to our struggles in simply
getting to Oshkosh was showing through, and I began to feel a sense of
confidence that this was supposed to happen and that he’d be just fine getting
all three accomplishments completed.

And so it was. Within a 24-hour span, two extremely proud parents
watched a now-16-year-old take a helicopter through four patterns, a Cessna through
three patterns, and a glider through his first checkride — all successfully.
Consequently, I have no hesitation in saying that my best “father moment” is no
longer the call from USA Baseball, but rather witnessing the handshake Frankie
had with the FAA designated pilot examiner — no question.

Naturally, we’re grateful for the amazing help we received from
the teams at 702 Helicopters and Southern California Soaring Academy, but also
to all those at EAA who make AirVenture a possibility each year. The inspiring
work done there to encourage young aviators may not always be given the credit
it deserves, but I can promise you that it had a profound effect on our family.
We may not get back to Oshkosh all that often, but it will always be in our
hearts, and it will always be a consideration every year.

If you haven’t been there, make it happen. Nothing can describe
it like being there!

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