By Kim Walter
FRONT ROYAL - James Christoph can't yet drive a car, but he can fly a plane.
The 16-year-old, of Front Royal, just finished his sophomore year at Randolph-Macon Academy. A week after the school year ended, he completed his first solo flight.
James was the only one in his grade to complete a successful solo flight, and he plans to keep working toward an even higher goal. By the end of his junior year, he'd like to have his private pilot's certification.
His older brother, John, received his private pilot's certification the day after he graduated from high school.
"I guess you could say it runs in the family," James said Thursday afternoon.
James came to R-MA in sixth grade after attending Wakefield Country Day School. He said he'd never given military school a thought before, but once he heard about the academy's flight program, he was sold.
The flight program offered to ninth through 12th grade students, began in 1985 when the school purchased its first plane - a Cessna 152. Currently, the school has two Cessna 172s, both 2001 models. The academy uses facilities at the Front Royal-Warren County Airport.
R-MA is the only high school in the contiguous United States with a flight program with school-owned airplanes. The flight instructors are school faculty members.
Celeste Brooks, director of public relations at R-MA, said about 30 to 35 students enroll in the program each year. Usually five to eight of those fly solo, with most being juniors or seniors. She added that between one and three will earn their private pilot's certification.
James said he has no doubt that he'll be able to reach his goal next year, especially since he's been logging flying hours during the past two summers. He said the extra time has given him a huge advantage.
Laura Abraham, one of James' flight instructors, said the student's passion for flying also puts him ahead of his peers.
"James is very serious about this," she said. "If someone has a good grasp of flying, you'd say they have good stick and rudder skills. James definitely has that ... it came very naturally to him."
Abraham added that James makes a point of setting aside extra time for flying to work on maneuvering and radio skills. All in all, she said his dedication is obvious.
James said he fell in love with the idea of flying during his first time on a plane.
"I was pretty little, but I remember taking off and looking out the window," he said. "It was such an exciting feeling to look out and see the world laid out below me. I knew it was what I wanted to do with my life."
James has held on to the dream. After graduating from R-MA, he said he plans to pursue a career as a commercial pilot.
Thankfully, he's never been afraid of heights.
James said that, to him, fear is just a "tiny emotion in your brain," and he never lets it get the best of him. Actually, the thought of driving a car "frightens" him more than flying a plane -- but only "five percent more."
"You have a better chance of hitting something in a car than crashing a plane," he said.
The only time James experienced discomfort in a plane was last year when his flying partner was in control. He was in the back seat, and began to feel a bit queasy as the plane landed.
"Needless to say, there was a little vomit," he said, laughing. "But other than that, I've never had a problem."
Abraham said a great part of her job instructing students is watching them mature during the process. While she said she knows some people might question the ability of a young person to fly a plane, she said they are more qualified to learn than most adults.
"They're quick learners, and they want to listen," she said. "It's kids like James that make my job worth it ... he's following his dreams, and there's no reason why he won't be able to reach them."
Looking back, James said he sees great value in the flight program, and not just because he loves to fly.
"You have to be responsible to fly a plane," he said. "I think kids could benefit from something like this. I'd say it's better than sitting around and playing video games ... flying is a life lesson in itself."
Contact staff writer Kim Walter at 540-465-5137 ext. 191, or firstname.lastname@example.org