On April 18, 2018, three days after turning 16, Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA) sophomore Connor Gamma climbed into the cockpit of R-MA’s Cessna 172 knowing it would be the day for his first solo flight. He had been flying for years already, accumulating over 50 hours of flight, and he was more than ready to bid farewell to his flight instructor, Randolph-Macon Academy’s Ryan Koch, and go it alone.
Standing on the sidelines watching Connor and cheering him on were his mother, Mary Gamma; R-MA Commandant Col Frank Link, USAF, Retired, and his wife Kim; R-MA Director of Residential Life Todd Davis; and a number of local glider club members. The audience is not typical of what Koch usually sets up for a first solo flight, but Connor’s level of expertise was not normal either.
His love of flight began at the young age of seven. “I went over to my uncle’s house and he was an RC [remote controlled] plane enthusiast,” he recalled. His uncle loved to build them, and he took Connor to an RC airfield nearby his home in Connecticut. Connor thought it was “kind of cool.” For his next birthday, he was the proud recipient of his own RC plane and a few rockets. The rockets were fun, and the plane didn’t last long due to the high winds in the area, but in the 30 minutes (or so) of flight time, Connor found his passion.
“I’d always be that type of kid that’d climb the trees, and loved to be up high, and loved to do adventurous things,” he said. “So when I got a second plane, I took a little more care of it; I’d rebuild it after it’d break down.”
From there, he continued to delve deeper and deeper into the world of flight, exploring drones, RC planes, and rockets. “One day I just thought, how hard would it be for me to fly one of these prop planes?” he said. With a bit of quick research, he learned he could take lessons as soon as he could reach the yoke, and he began begging his mom to allow him to join Civil Air Patrol or take lessons.
“I went on a couple of introductory flights at the beginning of my ninth grade year, and then middle of my ninth grade year I transferred here [to R-MA],” he said. “It was mainly because of the flight program I came here. Within two weeks of coming here, I was up in the air, and it was awesome.”
His actual solo was also “awesome,” but not in an adventurous sense. Connor had perfect weather, little air traffic, and no drama. “It wasn’t going through my mind that there was no one in the right seat, that I was the only one in the plane,” Connor said. “It was uneventful, but that’s what you want!”
When asked why he loves flying so much, Connor replied, “There’s some aspect about flying…for me, being an adventurous guy, [it’s about] being free, being able to go places you would not be able to travel to by car.” He has discovered a love for backcountry flying, especially STOL (short takeoff and landing) flying, landing in grass and dirt strips. “It’s different, because it lets you access these remote areas that are so cool to see, like mountaintops and out of the way in the desert. It’s a different world you unlock,” he explained.
Connor plans to continue flying; he hopes to obtain his private pilot certification when he turns 17, get his instrument rating two months later, and his commercial rating by age 18. “I want to be the first person at R-MA to get all three,” he said. He doesn’t just fly either; he plays the flute and the piccolo in the band, participates on the drone team, wrestles, and is the varsity team golf captain. He hopes to attend the U.S. Air Force Academy.