Weary after a night of sleepless flying, 16-year-old Jimmy Mathis ambled off a crowded Boeing 737 at Baltimore-Washington International Airport yesterday morning, still carrying his black pilot's bag. His shoulders slumped as he slowly let the kit drop to the floor.
"The trip's over," he said after the hubbub subsided. "And I'm really exhausted."
Although he didn't pilot the 737 home from California, the Glenarm teen-ager earned his wings getting there -- alone in a 160-horsepower Cessna 172.
His return to Baltimore yesterday signified the end of a 2,500-mile journey that took him over the heart of America. His memories of the trip come in snatches -- flying over Cincinnati, over the arches of St. Louis, over mountains, over deserts, over Kansas.
After 12 days of flying, the Dulaney High School junior landed in Long Beach, Calif., on July 12 and became the youngest pilot to fly across the country solo.
Jimmy left Ocean City on June 30, with seven stops ahead -- Batavia, Ohio; St. Louis; Wichita, Kan.; Plainview, Texas; Las Cruces, N.M.; Chandler, Ariz.; and finally, Long Beach. The schedule called for three to four hours a day in the air.
"I was really nervous the first day," Jimmy said, especially when the radar transponder that identifies his plane went on the blink. "That was the worst."
Over Kansas, the baggage door on the left side of the aircraft popped open, and he had to keep the plane in a constant right-hand turn "so I wouldn't lose my clothes and all my other things." He eventually made an unscheduled landing to get it fixed.
There was also fatigue. "In the desert, no matter which way you looked, it was just desert," he said. And that's when he saw the ship.
"I looked down and there was this battleship," said Jimmy, chuckling. "I thought 'No one's going to believe this,' so I took a picture."
He paused for a moment, smiling.
"It really was there . . . in New Mexico."
He learned later that it wasn't a mirage. There are many "ships" in the New Mexico desert, including one about a mile long, all made out of rocks. They were used for test bombing missions decades ago.
Jimmy began flying when he turned 15 and his father, Jim, an advertising executive and private pilot, gave him three lessons as a present.
"We thought that would be the end of it," said his mother, Mary Lou Mathis. "But it was only the beginning."
"I was just interested in flying. I didn't try to do this to try and break a record or anything," said Jimmy.
That came later -- when Jimmy's teachers learned that he was a gifted pilot and suggested a solo trip across the country.
His parents were reluctant at first, but finally agreed. His father persuaded Toyota to sponsor the trip and pay for the plane rental.
"I knew he was going to be safe," Mrs. Mathis said yesterday. "But I was a nervous wreck. I think we're going to keep him close to home for a while."
Despite his adventure, Jimmy said there's only a 50-50 chance he'll make a career out of flying. "I really am interested in advertising," he said.
And for now, he isn't isn't worried as much about flying as he is about getting his driver's license.
"I've got one more driving lesson to go," he said.