James Miranda of Indian Head Park, IL, came to Randolph-Macon Academy (R-MA) as a Falcon Scholar, one of only about 60 students in the U.S. selected to a program designed to prepare promising high school graduates for an appointment to the U.S. Air Force Academy (USAFA). When presented with the invitation, James had the choice to attend one of six schools, and chose R-MA in part because he wanted to fly, and it offered him that chance.
A year later, it seems rather obvious that James made the correct choice. On May 26th, he completed the R-MA program with the U.S. Air Force Academy appointment in hand, but there was much more excitement in the weeks leading up to the commencement ceremony. James accomplished not only his first solo flight on May 10th, he also earned his private pilot certification on May 21st, less than two weeks later. Such a quick turnaround is unusual at R-MA, where students are balancing a challenging college-prep curriculum with a wide variety of extracurricular activities, community service, and Air Force Junior ROTC.
To make his dream happen, James had to first achieve solo status, as a private pilot certification requires a minimum of 40 hours of dual flight time (time in the air with an instructor) and 10 hours of solo flight time. As a Falcon Scholar, James’ first priority at the start of the year had to be his grades, improving his SAT scores, and getting into top physical condition. He also had to go through the rigorous application process to the Air Force Academy. That did not leave much time for flying at the start of the year.
In spite of that challenge, James had accumulated the competency level he needed in order to solo on May 10th, and that first step was exhilarating. “It’s an incredible feeling, being in the air by yourself, knowing you’re what’s keeping it flying,” he said. “Being up there, you feel pretty much untouchable. You’re defying gravity. When I am back on the ground, I look up and think, ‘I was doing that, and that’s pretty incredible.’”
From there, the race was on for James to complete his private pilot certification before graduation day on May 26th.
“After I soloed I still needed another 9.7 hours of solo time before I met the minimum requirement for my license,” said James. “Because of extremely poor weather, I wound up needing to do 6.7 hours of solo time in one day. I spent nearly eight hours in the airplane that day so I could finish in time for my checkride–significantly more than I've ever done in one sitting before!”
In addition to all of the flight hours he was accumulating, James spent quite a bit of time studying, because a private pilot certification requires the would-be pilot to not only pass a two-and-a-half hour written exam, but an oral one as well.
“The oral exam lasted three hours, and included answering not only the missed questions [from the written test] but a bunch of other specific knowledge questions correctly, demonstrating the knowledge to plan a flight route, interpret weather information, and address all safety, navigation, and aircraft performance issues,” explained R-MA Flight Instructor Marc Kramer, who was James’ instructor. Next, he said, “James had to demonstrate his capability to fly the Cessna 172 precisely as he had planned the flight, using charts, visual and electronic navigation techniques.”
In addition, Kramer added, “Under the watchful eyes of the examiner seated next to him, James was required to simulate and demonstrate emergency procedures including the engine being on fire and then quitting altogether, all while he located an emergency landing site to land the Cessna safely.”
The oral exam and check ride took five hours, but that time and the pressure James experienced–along with all of the hours of studying leading up to it–were well worth the stress and exhaustion as the flight examiner congratulated an exhilarated James and awarded him the private pilot certification.